Today is a major Christian holiday that most Americans know little about: the Feast of the Epiphany. From the Greek word meaning “manifestation,” it celebrates the visitation of the Magi to the infant Jesus and his family in Bethlehem.
Until recently, in much of the Christian world, gifts were exchanged on Epiphany, not Christmas day. A colleague of mine, who lived in Puerto Rico when he was kid, recalls neighborhood children leaving straw out for the Magi’s camels on the night before Epiphany.
While people in Puerto Rico, like people elsewhere, have shifted their gift-giving to December 25, Epiphany still remains central to our Christian faith and is worthy of our attention.
Among those who understood this was Lew Wallace. Few, if any, Americans have lived as eventful a life as Wallace did. Civil War buffs will tell you he may have saved the Union at the Battle of Monocacy in 1864. His forces delayed Confederate General Jubal Early long enough to prevent him from possibly capturing Washington, D.C.
Later, as territorial governor of New Mexico, Wallace dealt with the likes of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.
But it was a reunion of Civil War veterans that led to the action for which Wallace is best known today. John Murray, head of the Central Christian School in St. Louis and a commissioned Colson Fellow, told the story a few years ago at the Fox News website.
On a train ride to an 1876 reunion in Indianapolis, Wallace was reunited with Colonel Robert Ingersoll, who was known as the “great agnostic.” Ingersoll traveled across the country deriding and challenging people of faith.
Ingersoll didn’t spare his old comrade-in-arms, even though Wallace, at the time, was at best “indifferent” to his own Christian faith. Wallace later wrote, “To lift me out of my indifference, one would think only strong affirmations of things regarded holiest would do. Yet here was I now moved as never before, and by what? The most outright denials of all human knowledge of God, Christ, Heaven, and the Hereafter which figures so in the hope and faith of the believing everywhere. Was the Colonel right?”
Determined to prove Ingersoll wrong, Wallace returned to a short story he had written during the Civil War. The story centered on the Magi, “who had captured his attention as a young boy -- taking a ‘lasting hold on his imagination.’ ”
Wallace asked “Who were they? Whence did they come?” Above all, “what led them to Jerusalem asking of all they met the strange question, ‘Where is he that is born King of the Jews?”
Starting with this meditation on the Epiphany, Wallace expanded his story over the years, adding more and more meditations on the life of Christ.
And eventually, in 1880, he published his finished work. Perhaps, you’ve heard of it: “Ben Hur: The Tale of the Christ.” The story about a fictitious Jewish prince named Judah Ben-Hur was the means by which Wallace “showed the necessity of a Savior.”
It remained the best-selling American novel until “Gone with the Wind” in 1936. And of course it was the basis of the 1959 film starring Charlton Heston, which won a record 11 Oscars.
By the time Wallace died in 1905, he believed he had met Ingersol’s challenge. Millions of Americans agreed. And it all began with his reflecting on the visit of the Magi.
A reflection that led Wallace, like the Magi before him, to take the light of Christ to those around him. Not just to Ingersol but to the millions who read “Ben Hur.” And similarly, Murray, the Colson Fellow I mentioned earlier, shared this light again by re-telling the story of Wallace and Ben Hur on Fox News. In both instances, the light went forth.
Our calling at the Colson Center is to help prepare you to shine the light of Christ in your world, so please come to BreakPoint.org and check out our Colson Fellows program, and learn about the upcoming Wilberforce Weekend.
A version of this commentary was originally aired on January 6, 2014.
BreakPoint is a Christian worldview ministry that seeks to build and resource a movement of Christians committed to living and defending Christian worldview in all areas of life. Begun by Chuck Colson in 1991 as a daily radio broadcast, BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today’s news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print. Today BreakPoint commentaries, co-hosted by Eric Metaxas and John Stonestreet, air daily on more than 1,200 outlets with an estimated weekly listening audience of eight million people. Feel free to contact us at BreakPoint.org where you can read and search answers to common questions.
John Stonestreet, the host of The Point, a daily national radio program, provides thought-provoking commentaries on current events and life issues from a biblical worldview. John holds degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (IL) and Bryan College (TN), and is the co-author of Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview.
Publication date: January 6, 2017