When did they recognize? Was it after they first observed the star, rising in the western sky? Did they wonder, while riding in their camel caravan, just what kind of king deserved such a luminous birth announcement?
When did they recognize? Upon arriving at the pseudo-king’s palace? A place over thirty years in construction, second in Jerusalem only to the temple in its magnificence. If not the 30 foot marble stones, 45-foot walls, or multiple towers, then certainly the cedar-beamed ceilings and many pillared porticoes made them wish this were the place above which the star had rested.
When did they recognize? Was it when they heard the location as prophesied by the sacred text of the local religion? Did it give them pause to hear the birthplace was a little town south of the big city? Did they begin to doubt when the great leader was compared to a low-brow sheep herder?
When did they recognize? Was it when the star finally stopped (a miracle in itself)? Their overwhelming response of joy seems to indicate so, however this could have been an expression of relief for an end to their arduous journey. And was this joy tempered upon seeing the destination: a shabby duplex on the south side of Center Street? If not then, did their joy flag upon entering the living room crammed with mismatched couches, clothing-bank blankets, smelling of old socks and Salem Lights? And did they bring their gifts into the house because of faith or out of fear? Wise men would certainly have known not to leave valuables visible on the backs of their camels in this neighborhood.
If they had not recognized the identity of this child by the time Jose and Maria rubbed their eyes and rose from an interrupted nap to greet them, then there must have been something about that baby. Perhaps the child had a physical anomaly like green eyes or eleven fingers. Or, laying on the infant’s bib, was a remnant feather from the wings of a heralding angel. Maybe the newborn gave a little chin bump and brow raise as a subtle sign to their membership among the marginalized.
When did they recognize this deity in their midst? When did it dawn upon them? Exactly when did the epiphany occur? When did the light of ‘aha’ shine upon these unknown number of magi revealing the human one before them was the flesh and blood presence of the creator of their star in the heavens? If it was an exact moment, then surely it was more like a breaking dam than a strike of lightning. Or perhaps it was the gradual accumulation of a multitude of insights that eventually broke the barrier of their typical ways of seeing.
“An epiphany,” writes Elise Ballard, “is a moment of sudden or great revelation that usually changes us in some way.” Who knows exactly when or how epiphanies happen. Does God’s light shine like a comet, only once in a life? Or is it more like the rays of our closest star which rises daily and pauses over every human one? Who knows when we will learn to see as keenly as the magi that learned to see good news in a hard place. Regardless of when or how we come to see, may our response echo these wise foreigners. May we pay homage, offer our gifts, and depart different than when we arrived.