After Epiphany: The Rest of the Story
“And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way” (Matt. 2:12).
Most traditional children’s Christmas plays present the first and the twelfth day of Christmas together. The Epiphany account of the Magi in Matthew 2 is blended into the Christmas Story in Luke 3. This is not a recent religious novelty. It follows a long iconographic tradition that has portrayed the Star of Bethlehem and the Wise Men joining the shepherds at the Nativity of Jesus. Be that as it may, we usually consider the Bethlehem visitations over and done with when the Magi depart as reported in the above verse. However, Matthew’s narrative is not finished. It continues with an account of a third visitation to Bethlehem that is never included in our Christmas plays or cards. This part of the story - we could call it the rest of the story - is a rude interruption to our perceptions of Joy to the World, and it slaps us in the spiritual face.
“Then Herod when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under” (vs. 16).
Listening to the account of the Slaughter of the Innocents is the spiritual equivalent to the sound of fingernails raking across a blackboard. It is hard to listen to, and it raises both irritation and consternation. Who approved such a distraction from the warmth and good feeling of the twelve days of Christmas? Well, God did. While recording the peaceful and endearing images of the Christmas and Epiphany visitations, God thought it also fitting to rub our noses in the rest of the story about a third visitation where the little town of Bethlehem witnesses a horrible slaughter of innocent children. And while this rest of the story is rarely a part of how we present Epiphany, God saw fit to include it as a continuation of His narrative. He also has presented a spiritual warfare version of the Christmas Story in Revelation 12:
“And a great sign appeared in Heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. And another sight appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads, seven diadems. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child, he might devour it. She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne and the woman fled into the wilderness where she has a place prepared by God in which she shall be nourished” (vs. 1-6).
John’s vision signals another dimension to the imminent birth of Jesus: the true account of evil forces poised to move against the Male Child. The working of the Devil himself was behind Herod and his mad treachery. The flight into the wilderness of the woman represents the escape of Mary and the babe following Joseph’s warning in a dream. The Word made flesh would dwell for a time in Egypt to be kept safe from Herod and the wiles of the Devil. Babies of this world would die instead of the baby Jesus.* They could be seen as the first martyrs in the Church.
We sing of “peace on earth and mercy mild,” but what happened to these things in the midst of such gut-wrenching events? For some, the idea of peace simply means the cessation of hostilities. This, however, is not God’s understanding of peace. From the Divine perspective, peace is always connected to the Prince of Peace and His saving work in the midst of great hostilities. The rest of the story of Epiphany teaches us that when God’s peace advances, spiritual warfare against the powers of darkness does not decline. It increases. To put it another way, when God’s peace is about to reign supreme in this fallen world, someone is going to die.
The slaughter of the innocents and the flight into Egypt signal God’s peace is moving toward a final showdown against the powers of evil. Jesus is the Prince of Peace who brings with Him the peace of God (Is. 9:6). He is spared Herod’s wrath that He might one day receive the wrath of God. He will grow in wisdom and stature and will be made ready to receive the condemnation of the Father on Calvary’s cross. The innocent children died in the place of Jesus so the innocent Jesus could die in our place. With that, God’s peace on earth is executed and the forces of darkness are defeated. The Epiphany of God-with-us moves on in the rest of the story to the greater manifestation of God-for-us. The cross of Christ is the climax of His saving work that establishes the peace of God and good will toward men.
As we bring the twelve days of Christmas to a close, let us not forget the rest of the story. Having made our own visitation to the Babe in Bethlehem with all the wonders of the season and its joy, let us not forget that the arrival of this baby portended the outbreak of all-out war against the forces of evil that God was determined to win. The slaughter of the innocent children in Bethlehem is just the Dragon’s first salvo. There is more to come in the rest of the story. The birth of Jesus signals the most pivotal epiphany in human history, setting in motion the events that will lead to the climax of God’s plan to rescue us from sin, death, and the Devil.
We must look to the cross, where they are defeated strangely by the innocent becoming guilty and the guilty becoming innocent. Oh, good news! We are the guilty declared innocent! In, with, and under all the tragic events that attend the Christmas Season – then and now – let us celebrate the arrival of the Lord’s priceless treasure. It was gift-wrapped in swaddling clothes in Bethlehem, protected in Egypt, paid for in Jerusalem, and once again delivered to us this season. Blessings to you after Epiphany. It is the rest of the story.
*We see the same slaughter of innocents in many different fallen events that swirl around us today not
least of which is the unending slaughter of the unborn by the horrendous practice around the world of abortion on demand. Lord, have mercy upon us!