wisemeneditedMost Baptist churches are done with the wise men after they make their appearance at the end of the Christmas pageant. We do not often sing “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” This may be, in part, because many of us grew up with the heretical version:

We three Kings of Orient are.
Trying to smoke a rubber cigar.
It was loaded and exploded! Boom!

We two Kings of Orient are.
Trying to smoke a rubber cigar.
It was loaded and exploded! Boom!
I one King of Orient are.

Trying to smoke a rubber cigar.
It was loaded and exploded! Boom!

(pause) Silent Night.

The rock ‘n’ roll version never caught on:

We four Beatles of Liverpool are,
Paul in a taxi, John in a car,George on a scooter, beeping his hooter, Following Ringo Star.

When we skip Epiphany, we miss the party the rest of the world is having. Epiphany has been a Christian feast day since at least 361 C.E., observed on January 6 or the preceding Sunday. (This year it is January 3.) Epiphany, from the Greek for “striking appearance,” celebrates the adoration of the magi.

Epiphany is about presents.

In Argentina, children leave grass and water for the camels and get presents in return. (It is unclear whether the camels pick out the presents.)

In the Netherlands, children dress as the wise men and go house to house singing and receiving candy and money.

Children in Slovenia work the neighborhood for almonds, dried figs and nuts — which makes children in Slovenia wish they were in the Netherlands.

Epiphany is about food.

In Finland, they make star-shaped gingerbread cookies that they break while making a wish. If the star breaks into three pieces, the wish will come true. (That’s how the cookie crumbles in Finland.)

In England, whoever finds the bean in the cake is king. Whoever finds the clove is the villain, the twig is the fool, and the rag is the tart. (Whoever cooks a cake with a twig and a rag in it is committed to this custom.)

Epiphany is about fun.

In India, three boys in robes and crowns ride horses to church along a route decorated with streamers and balloons — just like the wise men, sort of.

In Ireland, Epiphany is called Women’s Christmas. Children bring their mothers gifts while the women get to rest after the hard work of Christmas. (Irish women should consider celebrating Epiphany on December 25.)

Romanian folk wisdom holds that if a girl slips on ice on Epiphany, she will marry before the year is out. (Perhaps her orthopedist will propose.)

In Portugal, men dress as women for the traditional Epiphany dance for reasons that are not immediately obvious.

When we skip Epiphany, we miss a story that is worth celebrating. We do not know much about the wise men, but we have gotten good at making stuff up.

One early tradition is that there were 12 magical magi, but that made the nativity scene crowded, so since there were three gifts — shaky evidence though it is — we went with three. We gave them names: Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar. Since they stop to ask for directions, there may have been women in the group.

With their star charts and whatever passed for telescopes 1,500 years before telescopes, the magi come to the peculiar conclusion that a new king has been born in Israel.

One legend is that the journey took 30 days. A trip like that was uncommon — such a long distance, temperamental camels, unfriendly towns, robbers behind the next sand dune.

They finally arrive in the capital city, and ask, “Where can we find the newborn king? We saw a star that signaled his birth for educated people who understand such things.”

Herod gets nervous, and when he gets nervous the whole town gets nervous. Herod is worried enough about his job to ask the reference librarians for help.

The scribes are smart enough to remember that the prophet Micah gave directions to Bethlehem, but not wise enough to look for the child themselves.

The magi leave, the star appears again, and they throw the most famous baby shower ever. The magi are out of place in this humble village. The wise men showing up in Bethlehem is like the Dalai Lama visiting a Waffle House in South Georgia.

Matthew does not give us details. The magi’s visit lasts all of one verse. We are not told if they stayed for dinner, what they thought, what they felt, or if Mary traded the myrrh for more swaddling clothes.

The wise men’s unreasonable trip could not have a reasonable beginning. Some unexplainable longing led them to follow a light without knowing where it would lead them. Epiphany reminds us that we have a desert to travel, a star to discover, and a hope to find. BT

By Brett Younger

Brett Younger is associate professor of preaching at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology.