Eastern Europe's Orthodox churches Sunday celebrated the Feast of Epiphany to remember Jesus' baptism, but for Western churches it was about the appearance of the Son of God among us as one of us – and a reminder that God's kingdom embraces the non-churched "pagan," as a Christian editor said.
Thousands of young men leapt into icy rivers and lakes across eastern Europe, including Bulgaria and Romania, to retrieve wooden crucifixes cast by priests – it is believed that the person who retrieves it will be freed from evil spirits, according to The Associated Press.
"We the people are so like the sea," Romanian Orthodox Archbishop Teodosie Tomitanul was quoted as saying at the Romanian Black Sea port of Constanta. "We hope that, as the sea has been calm until now this year, our souls will be just as calm."
However, in the West, Epiphany – Greek word for "appearance" or "manifestation" – marks the end of "the twelve days of Christmas" that began Dec. 25 as well as has become identified with the arrival of the magi, or pagan astrologers, who worshipped baby Jesus, as recorded in Chapter 2 of the Gospel of Matthew.
It's a day Christians can recall a great irony, says David Mathis, executive editor for preacher John Piper and the Desiring God ministry.
It is not only striking that the religiously uncouth magi sought to worship the newborn Jewish king, but that the religious leaders of the day did not, writes Mathis, elder at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minn., on the Desiring God ministry's blog. "The pagan astrologers bow their knee (verses 10–11), but the Jerusalem religious bow their back (verses 3–8). This is the great irony in the Epiphany."
While we know that Herod was wicked – as he did not really intend to honor the child but to kill him – "the subtle sin of the religious leaders is perhaps just as sinister, if not more," Mathis says.
Herod asked all the Sadducees and Pharisees where the Christ was to be born. "Here are the trained theologians of the day. They know the biblical jargon. They've read and re-read and re-re-read the Hebrew Scriptures – and memorized them … It's a piece-of-cake answer for these guys: Bethlehem. Check Micah [in the Old Testament]." But none of them went to Bethlehem. "Dirty shepherds leave their flocks and go to the manger. Pagan astrologers traverse far, hundreds of miles and months on the road …. Their [religious leaders'] heads are filled with verses, doctrines, and religious facts, but their hearts reject the very Messiah to which their training should have pointed them."
The Feast of the Epiphany should be a reminder to "the modern-day chief priests and scribes, the religious establishment, the well churched" that "Bible knowledge from all the classes and all the books can be precious fuel for worshiping the true Jesus, or a scary excuse for keeping Jesus at arm's length." Increased knowledge doesn't necessarily translate into increased worship, he adds.
And to the "Magi" – the non-churched "pagan" and de-churched disenfranchised – Mathis says, "Please don't let imperfect Christians scare you away from the perfect Christ." "Let the astrologers come to Jesus, and do not forbid them, for such is the kingdom of heaven."