... Ecclesiastes 2:26 ...
Cast your bread upon the waters,
for you will find it after many days.

The Feast of the Epiphany
Message January 06, 2013

Epiphany – A Story of Light in the Midst of Darkness

Text: Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7,10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

We begin today’s lections with the imperative, “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” It is the invitation extended to all those who have experienced the darkness be it physical, social, political, emotional or spiritual. While it may have originally been a prophecy of hope to a people in exile, it has come to be the signal of God’s self-disclosure to all peoples in the gift of the Messiah and seems to be a most appropriate intro to the celebration of Epiphany.

January 6th is the day of Epiphany and in many parts of the Christian world is considered a bigger holiday than Christmas. In fact January 6th up till the 3-4th century was celebrated as Christmas and some of the orthodox churches still maintain that distinction. However in the West Christmas was moved to Dec. 25th and January 6th was relegated to a feast commemorating the revelation of God’s gift of a Messiah to the gentiles. This story is represented by the arrival of the magi at the house in Bethlehem.

Contrary to popular belief and the popular Christmas pageants portraying wise men and shepherds alike at the manger scene, the arrival of the magi was probably some months or years after the actual birth, and would represent the fulfilment of Simeon’s prophecy. As we listen to Matthew’s Gospel we are struck by the story of three characters – the magi, King Herod and Jesus. The story’s main characters are of course the magi and I bet everyone here immediately imagines the 3 commonly held names Melchior, Gaspar and Balthazar. Note however, Matthew doesn’t give us a number or name them. This is an addition dating back to the 5th or 6th century and perhaps meant to link the three gifts with three persons. In truth there would have been many among the entourage of the magi, a term here used to connote wise men or scientists of the day. They would most assuredly have been from Babylon, a centre of astronomy and astrology which in those day would have been seen as part and parcel of the same thing – observing the stars and then assigning meaning to it. At some point these magi saw in the night sky a phenomenon which they interpreted as the signal of the birth of a king and determined to go and honour this royal person.

Matthew doesn’t say that they followed a star – only that they saw its' rising – or beginning. We all assume a magical event. Yet it may not have been – there is evidence that the star may have been an alignment of three planets and at their “touching” would have been brighter than the moon. Let us also recall what we know of eclipses which occur frequently. However every eclipse has only a small window or geographically defined area when it can be seen in totality. Such may have been the case with the planets. Thus the magi travelled to see this juncture and having placed a meaning on it went to Jerusalem to ask both for directions and elaboration on a royal birth. The magi though deemed wise are portrayed almost as naïve in their understanding of divine events and guidance. Yet Matthew shows us that it is indeed divine guidance which has been at work from the beginning in the lives and journeys of these gentiles and scientists from the east. The celestial phenomenon which will have its ultimate significance over Bethlehem, the text from the prophet Micah and the dreams they experience prior to their departure from that royal town all mark God’s handiwork. They have not stumbled onto the stage of history nor have they done so solely from their own abilities. There has been a symbiosis of both divine directive and human ability – a combination Matthew continues to portray in his Gospel and which will culminate in the great commission to the disciples.

The magi represent in this regard the role models for all Christians – gentiles seeking a greater meaning led by divine guidance but who come prepared to worship earnestly openly and without reservations. They bring gifts appropriate to the occasion and fulfil the scriptures of Isaiah 60 and Psalm 72 – the wealth of the nations shall come to you…and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.

As diametrically opposed to the character of the wise men, the second character King Herod represents all that is dark in the lives of people. Filled with greed hate and a lust for power Herod, despite not being a Jew in the classic sense is portrayed as that force which keeps the people ignorant of themselves and of what God is trying to accomplish. Scriptures as well as other historical texts especially the writings of Josephus, note that Herod was in reality a cruel and terrible overlord within Judea. He spent monies excessively on personal luxuries – castles palaces and so on. He had very little concern for the common people electing instead to throw his future on the graces of the Roman Emperor. We also know that he was extremely paranoid – having killed several of his sons whom he thought were going to plot an overthrow of his reign.

Herod is the darkness into which the light came. Herod represented in his day the exact same exile the Babylonians represented some 600 years previously. He was also the antithesis of the Davidic line of kings who were all charged with judging the people with righteousness and the poor with justice. Rather than being a defender of the poor as deliverer to the needy and a champion to those being crushed, Herod was the oppressor and the contrast to the third character of Matthew’s story.

This third character is the young boy Jesus who in the story does or says nothing yet is figured by the wise men’s acts of worship as the real king who is and will be the one to fulfil the traits of kingship as detailed in Isaiah 60 and Psalm 72. The excerpt from Micah which Matthew relates as being the guide to Jesus’ dwelling place points out that this new ruler will shepherd the people. The term actually describes the work of a shepherd tending protecting guiding and nurturing. It is the rule and heritage of the nation concerning which Isaiah prophecies. Unfortunately it is the heritage which was refused growth by the Herod and chief priests of the day. Despite this, or perhaps more correctly, theologically in conjunction with this, God prevails because this is the story of God’s redemptive plans not just for Israel but for all of humanity.

How we see and interpret the Epiphany story often will determine who we are as God’s people and disciples. Everyone who comes to the awakening of God’s self-revelation by whatever various routes – cradle belonging; sudden conversion; life-long seeking; has his or her own story of how God was made manifest in their lives and how that manifestation changed or directed their life-journeys. We are all called to discipleship, to worship and, to bring our appropriate gifts or talents which are to be used to enable leadership in the line of the shepherd tradition. If Epiphany is about God’s shining light to the world, discipleship is about living up to the call to be a light to the world; so that our light may shine before others in order that they may see the good works and give glory to God in heaven.

May we truly become the lights in and to the world, dispelling all that is considered darkness.