Our Christmas Crib is now complete: a star has risen in the east, and the magi have followed this sign, until it came to rest over the place where the child Jesus lay. The magi have come and worshipped the one who has been revealed to them as the new-born 'King of the Jews'. It all makes a very picturesque tableau.
The Church's liturgy and homilies on the feast of the Epiphany remind us year after year that we celebrate today the manifestation of Christ to the gentiles, to all the nations, through the magi. We are rightly reminded that Christ, although 'the King of the Jews', came for all people, not just the Jews. All are called to follow the magi in worshipping the one true God, made flesh in Jesus Christ.
Our Epiphany tableau, however, is not really the happy ending to the Christmas story which the purveyors of Christmas cards and crib sets would have us believe---even if we were to forget about the mass infanticide committed by King Herod immediately after today's gospel passage.
The Christmas cycle, the story of how God himself became a human being and at the Epiphany showed himself to all the nations of the world in the persons of the magi, is an essential part of our Christian faith. But it is not the central work of Christ, and the gospel writers make that quite clear to us.
St Matthew, in his account of the Epiphany, takes care to point us forward to events that will take place later. Many years after the star, there will be another sign that will rest over the place where Jesus is and proclaim him to be the 'King of the Jews'. This sign too will be a proclamation of Christ to all the nations, for it will be written in Hebrew, Latin and Greek. As Matthew himself tells us:
When they had crucified him over his head they put the charge against him, which read, 'This is Jesus the King of the Jews.'
The same Jesus who humbled himself to take on our human flesh in the womb of Mary and who was shown to the world in the manger under the sign of the star, further humbles himself by allowing himself to be put to death, shown to the world on the cross under the sign written by Pontius Pilate. This time, though, nobody worships him. This must wait until after he has died and been buried---perhaps with the myrrh of the magi---and has risen again on the third day.
So the Epiphany, as Matthew presents it to us, is not just about the fact that Jesus came for all peoples, but that Jesus came to die for all peoples: to die for their sins.
The Christmas season, especially as we know it today, carries with it ample opportunity for people to sin against God and each other. The consumer Christmas has all but squeezed Christ out of the picture, and it is naïve for us to suppose that as Christians we are completely immune from the sin of this materialist idolatry. In our families and communities too we know too of the sin that can arise from the tensions associated with this time.
So as this festive period draws to a close it is no bad thing to call to mind the fact that Jesus came to die for our sins, our Christmas sins included.
As we take down our Christmas decorations, and in particular as we take down the star over the crib, or the various stars we may have put up around the place, we would do well to call to mind not only the sign that hung over Jesus' head proclaiming him 'King of the Jews' for all the nation at his birth, but the one that hung over his head proclaiming him thus at his death on the cross. Let us be penitent for all our sins, and praise our Lord Jesus Christ who came to die for them, and for the sins of all the nations.