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They presented unto him gifts

Nothing says education so clearly as epiphany, a wonderful word which signifies the idea of things being made manifest, things being made known. Epiphany at once marks the end of the Christmas season and inaugurates something new where the focus is entirely upon things being made known to us which are in some sense or another transformative.

One of the most beloved aspects of the Christmas scene is the image of the Magi-kings coming to Bethlehem. There is something intriguingly strange and exotic, something mysterious and wonderful in the coming of “the Magi from Anatolia” that complements and completes the tableaux of glory that surrounds the infant Christ in the humble lowliness of the stable scene. The Magi have captured the imaginations of the artists down throughout the centuries both in terms of the literary arts and in terms of the visual arts. Legends and stories have gathered around the Magi-kings both in numbering and naming what is otherwise unnumbered and unnamed by Matthew in his Gospel. In these works of holy imagination, something of the universal aspects of our humanity are signified with the Magi imaged as young, middle-aged, and elderly or as representative of the peoples of Europe, Asia, and Africa. Such are the traditions of the holy exotica of the Magi.

What is said about them in the Scriptures is sparse and yet so suggestive. Epiphany has to do with the making known, the manifestation of things worth honouring and worth knowing. The whole scene is about their coming to see, their coming to know, their willingness to enter into the arduous quest to know, the passion or eros to know, as Plato puts it. The Epiphany Gospel begins with an investigative journey, we might say, and ends with a reflective journey about what has been seen and heard, worshipped and honoured. They return not to Jerusalem but to their own country another way, “no longer at ease”, the modern poet T.S. Eliot suggests, because they have been changed inwardly by what they have seen.
They journey first to Jerusalem inquiring about “where is he that is born King of the Jews?” They have followed his star, following the light into the greater light. Herod in Jerusalem is troubled and worried at their coming. He gathers the chief priests and the scribes to find out the answer to the birth of this “King of the Jews”. For Herod it is really about a potential rival to his own power. The chief priests and scribes recall Micah’s prophecy about little Bethlehem. And so, paradoxically, at Herod’s direction the Magi set off to Bethlehem where they see “the young child and Mary his mother”. They fall down and worship him and, opening their treasures, “they presented unto him gifts; gold, frankincense, and myrrh”. The gifts are, as one of the great hymns puts it, “sacred gifts of mystic meaning”, gifts that teach and illuminate our understanding.

The whole Christmas tradition of gift-giving derives from the Magi. Yet their gifts are themselves a response to the gift that is given, the gift of God himself. Their gifts teach us about the meaning of the child King of the Jews. He is much more. He is King, and God, and Sacrifice, as signified by the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, respectively. In a way, the Magi-kings open us out to the entire mystery of the Incarnation and Redemption. Such is the Epiphany, a making known in the humble humanity of the child Christ the great and holy wonder of God with us. How can we not be changed by what we are given to see through what they sought and found?

Is that not the entire meaning of education? That we should be changed by what is made known to us. We, like the Magi, are meant to ponder the sacred mystery of God revealed in the flesh of our humanity. Epiphany is all about the light of God enlightening the darkness of our minds and hearts, changing us from glory unto glory, so that in thy light we might see light.

What is that light except the light of God “of whose only gift cometh wisdom and understanding”, as the School prayer puts it? Wisdom belongs entirely and properly to God and to God alone. All our knowing is but our participation in his eternal self-knowing. There is a star for each of us, each according to the capacity of the knower to know, by which we enter into the joy of knowing what God makes known to us. There is no going back to our former ways. We are irrevocably changed by what we have been given to see.
But what kind of change transpires in us? The same kind of change as in the Magi. Worship. We are “transformed by the renewing of our minds” in what has been given to our minds to see and know. It means to honour and worship what is worthy of our attention; nothing less and nothing more than God himself.
Epiphany is light gathering us into light and glory. It is all about the radical meaning of education as epiphany, of the teaching that is transformative. As Lancelot Andrewes puts it in one of his prayers, “O Lord, grant that we may see light, the light of thy grace today and the light of thy glory hereafter.”

They presented unto him gifts

(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, English & ToK teacher
Chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy

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KES inspires academic, athletic and artistic excellence with a commitment to the traditional community ideals of gentleness and learning, dignity and respect, so that students may discover and cultivate their unique potential, prepare for post-secondary education and develop a life-long enthusiasm for the spiritual and intellectual growth necessary to flourish in the contemporary world.

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King's-Edgehill School is a coeducational boarding and day school for grades 6 through 12, located in Windsor, Nova Scotia, Canada.