This is one of the years when Epiphany falls on a Sunday. It’s also a year when I’ve decided to reorganize the lectionary so we can travel through Luke’s gospel in order, without hopping around from week to week as sometimes happens in the lectionary. So this week I’m taking the Epiphany reading from Matthew and the reading assigned for last week from Luke.

Where are we?

Matthew 2:1-12 tells the story of visitors coming from the east to pay homage to the newborn Jesus. This story follows directly after Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth, but it likely occurred about two years later (Matthew 2:16). The family is evidently living in a house in Bethlehem. Immediately after this story, Jesus’ parents take him and flee to Egypt for the rest of Herod’s reign. When they return, they move to Nazareth.

In Luke 2:41-52, we have just heard about Jesus’ presentation at the temple, which would have occurred about 40 days after his birth. In Luke’s account, the family already lives in Nazareth. This is the only biblical story of Jesus’ childhood.

What’s going on here?

Matthew’s primary way of understanding Jesus’ story is as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies. He frequently digresses from the story itself to point out what prophecy has just been fulfilled, as he does when the priests and teachers cite Micah’s prophecy about Bethlehem. Several apocalyptic texts from the era use this technique.

Sometimes we get caught up in trying to date Jesus’ birth by searching ancient astronomical records for a curious comet, or supernova that was “the star of Bethlehem.” It’s hard to find one. Luke, a much more careful historian than Matthew, doesn’t mention one. And it misses the point of Matthew’s allusion to Isaiah 60 and similar passages, where God’s greatness is revealed in the worship by foreign dignitaries.

That point is driven home by the contrast between these foreigners, who have come from a long way away to worship Jesus, and King Herod, who can’t be bothered to go looking and then flies into a murderous rage when the magi escape from betraying the child. (Note that there seem to be no contemporary references to Herod’s order to kill all young boys, but it’s the sort of thing that wouldn’t have surprised anyone.)

The word is magoi. It refers to a Persian tribe and by extension to enchanters or interpreters of dreams. Reading carefully, we see that they weren’t kings and there weren’t necessarily three of them (we’re singing the song anyway). You can arrive at many of the traditional details through the cross-references Matthew builds into the story, but they aren’t here directly.

There are plenty of non-canonical stories about Jesus’ childhood, and Luke’s is about the tamest one out there. Jesus is a remarkable child – wowing the rabbis before he’s even had his bar mitzvah – but he’s not striking anyone dead in the schoolyard and raising them back to life. Surely we’re supposed to get some sense of “would you look at this kid,” but that can’t be Luke’s whole point.

Jesus is 12, which is a big number for Luke. It’s the very cusp of adulthood (see also Jairus’ daughter). It’s the number of tribes of Israel and so also the number of Jesus’ closest disciples.

And he’s missing for three days. There’s another time in Luke when Jesus is missing for three days. You’re supposed to think about that, even in these days just following Christmas. Or maybe you’re supposed to remember this story on Easter morning.

I’m tempted to downplay the fact that Jesus gets lost here by thinking about the crush of people traveling and the way a whole village’s worth of children would likely have stuck together. Mary and Joseph are anxious, yes, but they weren’t being particularly neglectful parents, right? Thinking about the three-day connection, I’m wondering if maybe the part where we lose Jesus is the whole point. But just because we lost him doesn’t mean he’s lost. God is up to more than we suspect.

So what?

Epiphany usually strikes me as a celebration of Christ’s mystery. By that I don’t mean so much that he is unknown – although notice that the King of Judea won’t look for him and his own parents can’t find him – but more that he is known in ways we can’t limit to our own understanding. The gospel is a story of surprises and the expansion of God’s reality in the world. We’ve unwrapped all the Christmas gifts, but we’re still finding out what exactly they are.

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