The Feast of the Epiphany
Readings Isaiah 60 1-6: Ephesians 3 1-12: Matthew 4, 12-17, 23-end
Hymns: Thou whom shepherds worshipped; As with gladness men of old; O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness; We Three Kings of Orient are.
The Epiphany is the second of the three presentations, or revealings, of the child Jesus. For us here, being mainly if not wholly of gentile stock, its importance lies in indicating God’s eventual embrace of and grace for the entire world. We assume the ‘wise men’ were kings, based in part on the immense value of the gifts they brought, and also on the verses in today’s Psalm, 72, in which Solomon can be read as being merged with Jesus as someone to whom ‘all kings fall down before, all nations serve.’ The assumption of and focus on their kingship obscures a fact which was far more important for the spread of Christianity then and now than a mere three kings a-visiting. It is that none of these ‘second-presentation’ visitors were Jewish, but rather from peoples not hitherto especially chosen by God.
There is of course a primary ‘revealing,’ the actual presenting of Jesus by Mary to Joseph her husband: two Jewish parents seeing, holding, cleaning up and swaddling their Jewish son in a properly private event, thankfully unrecorded in either words or paintings. That first revealing, that first Christmas, was not especially prominent in church practice for much of Christian history, that of Epiphany being far more significant than those of Christmas. Do we prefer cosily to identify with a baby, whom we could care for, rather than be challenged by the ultimate purpose of those three public presentations, to live in love and oppose injustice? Before Christmas took precedence, Easter and Epiphany were the two ‘poles of light,’ echoing Isaiah’s ‘Arise, shine, for your light has dawned,’ or John’s ‘Christ as the Light of the world,’ and the usual time for baptisms.
Last week I talked of the first presentation of the Child Jesus to a public represented by marginalised and rather poor people to whom he would later be so devoted, on this occasion ‘shepherds abiding in the fields keeping their flocks by night.’ Candlemas on February 2nd will be the third and final presentation of the Jewish child Jesus, to members of his family’s religious leaders in the synagogue, forty days after his birth. Incidentally, had the holy child been female, the presentation would have been on 14th March, messing up that 40 day pattern embedded in Jewish thought, of which more next month!
Today’s Epiphany, the second public revealing, speaks to so much, from Hebrew Bible prophecies to the eventual reach of the subsequent faith and its adoption by all peoples, themselves adopted as heirs of Christ the baby. Who were they, these wise men? Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar may trip off our tongue, but with as little Biblical basis as calling Anna and Joachim the parents of Mary: though harmless, both sets are figments of fancy or fable. These wise men, these sages, came from afar, perhaps from Sheba and Seba and Tarshish, named in today’s Ps 72. Tarshish is interesting, for it may refer, as seen from Palestine, to Cadiz at the edge of the known Occident or Kerala, its equivalent in the known Orient. There were settled Jewish communities from Cadiz to Kerala and many points between at the time, and each of the three may well have accessed Hebrew texts as well those of other traditions. But whatever their origin, they walked and rode in heat and cold bearing grandiose gifts for a child: gold to embellish or symbolise the role of the recipient and frankincense and myrrh to anoint him at death. Just as there is no Jesus without John, so too there is no Epiphany without Easter. Indeed Matthew emphasised this by having them address the child as ‘The King of the Jews,’ his title on the cross. Yet costly though these gifts were, they were but trivial symbols of the riches of heaven given to us in Christ.
In their arduous travel to give homage to the child, these sages emptied themselves. So too did Christ empty himself for us in service that we, each follower of Christ in this building, in each street, and throughout the world might, as Luther put it, ‘deal with our neighbours as we see that God through Christ has dealt with and still deal with us.’ And this is where Paul comes in. He sees himself as a steward of God’s grace, properly protecting, serving and extending his Master’s purpose rather than his own. His purpose, his task, is to reveal God to the Gentiles so that they, represented by each of us here, may become co-inheritors of God’s promised grace exemplified in Christ’s faithfulness and revealed by the Spirit.
So the Magi stand for us, any and all of us, hence the picture on your service sheet of the Magi coming to the Holy Family in Northern Cameroon, an image taken from the wonderful Jesus Mafa cycle of the life of Christ, one picture for each Sunday of the year. And our offering to that Christ child in Cameroon or Bethlehem or Heidelberg, our offering to the Parent and the Spirit, should include the willingness to see and accept our failings and ask for forgiveness, and the confidence to recognise our pains, our sores, and ask for healing. Why? Not so that after a holy grovel and quick strip of plaster we book our own seat in heaven, ignoring the needs of the rest of humanity for whom God also came to earth. No! The purpose of such an offering is readying ourselves to be transformed, to become twinkling stars over Bethlehem or London, Accra or Singapore, shining with the love of Christ.
Appropriately for this first Sunday of the secular year, let me quote from Bonhoeffer as I did on the last Sunday of the church year, giving his pithy guide to living this Light of Christ:
Don’t chose the cosy way but the right one
Don’t dither indulgently but bravely grasp reality
Don’t take refuge in thinking but find freedom in doing.
Turn away from frightened apathy to the lively flurry of action
Carried by God’s commands and your faith,
And freedom will joyously embrace your spirit.
Revd Dr Elizabeth Koepping
January 4th 2015