Isaiah 60:1-7, Matthew 2:1-12
January 7, 2007
Today we celebrate Epiphany. It is the “twelfth day of Christmas.” So we should have “twelve pipers piping” or some such thing. Did anybody give that to their true love today? They’re awfully noisy! Especially if they’re bagpipers!
Actually, yesterday was the real day of Epiphany. But since we don’t have a separate weekday service for Epiphany, like I’m sure they did in earlier days of the Church, we celebrate it on a Sunday only by choosing to do so – unless it happens to fall on a Sunday. And I guess that happens only every six years, or something like that.
So, anyway, Epiphany. What does it mean? Can we even spell it? It took me a while! When we think of Epiphany, what comes to mind. (The Three Wise Men?) That’s often what we say. Epiphany commemorates the visit of these Wise Men, these “Visitors from the East,” to see the infant Jesus. But is that all it means? (From the question, you probably know there’s more, and that I’m gonna tell you!)
The word “Epiphany” comes from the Greek word of almost the same spelling – epiphaneia – only in the Greek alphabet, of course. The word literally mean, “appearance” or “manifestation.”
In the first dictionary definition, Epiphany is “an appearance or a manifestation of a divine being.” In other words, “God revealing himself” in some way. But it’s really a deeper word than that. It has come to mean more of the second definition I found, which was “a sudden realization. A sudden leap of understanding, especially through an ordinary but striking occurrence.” It gave this example, “It came to him in an epiphany what his life’s work was to be.” There’s a feeling here of an “epiphany” being “An ‘Aha!’ experience.” “Ooooooh, I get it!!!” You see?
I think that helps us to understand this word better, even as it’s used in this Christian celebration. One explanation I read says this. “In Christianity, the festival of Epiphany is observed on January 6, celebrating the divine manifestation of Jesus Christ through the Wise Men’s visit.”
Epiphany is more than just a visit by these men. There is a “sudden realization” in this event. There is a “leap of understanding.” There’s an “Aha!” experience going on here. So what is that sudden leap of understanding? Is it about these Wise Men? (And are there really Three of them?) Is it about the appearance or manifestation of Jesus as part of this vision these men had, this star they saw in another country and another culture? Or is it about the world’s realization about who this Jesus is? Is this the “manifestation of Christ to the world? Think about that.
In the Eastern Orthodox Church, there is a much stronger tie between Epiphany and “the Baptism of Jesus. By the way, that’s the actual liturgical designation for today. And we’ve talked about that event on this Sunday last year. But this year I wanted to talk about Epiphany. And the two are related. Remember the story of Jesus’ Baptism. He was “revealed” in that event he was “manifested” to all who were there. The dove descended, and the voice of God was heard, “This is my beloved Son.” Add to that event this visit of these Wise Men, and the story of their journey, and the star they followed.
It’s always interesting to me when someone tries to figure out astronomically what this star could have been. Over the years, I’ve heard speculation that it was a supernova, or that it was a comet, perhaps even Halley’s comet. I’ve heard it was a conjunction, or a “coming together in alignment,” of several objects – perhaps even objects with meaning attached to them. For example, a star or planet that traditionally represented Israel, coming together with an object that represented royalty. Maybe you’re heard such things.
Those are always interesting, although none has really risen above others as the definitive explanation of this celestial event. However there is one thing that is very interesting to me about this. Nowhere else in the story of Jesus is this star even mentioned. Not even in Luke do we find any word about it. And he was the one who wrote the most extensively about the birth of Jesus.
What does that mean? Either it was not noticed by others, or it was not seen as all that important. Or perhaps it was not noticeable or not seen as important unless one interpreted it in the way these Wise Men did. Perhaps they who studied the stars saw this event, whatever it was, as important in a way others might not. I think that was the case, at least in some way. Maybe people saw this thing, and just didn’t know what to make of it. It’s hard to say. But to the Magi, this was so significant that they made this journey. So in a very real way, this was their observation. And it was all about them. And yet it was also about what they represented to the world.
I think one of the most helpful definitions of the word Epiphany comes to us from the gospel according to Webster. There it says Epiphany is “the commemoration of the coming of the Magi as the first manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.” I like that, because it puts the whole thing together. There is in that definition the idea of “appearance” or “manifestation,” but also this “sudden realization,” this “Aha experience” that this Christ, this good news of great joy, truly has come “to all people.”
That wouldn’t be easy for some to accept. There would be great debate about this in the early days of the Church. This Jesus was the Jewish Messiah foretold by their prophets, and awaited by their people. But now who was to be included in that picture? The angel said “good news of a great joy that shall be to (who?) all people.” That meant the Gentiles as well. And this story tells us that! There would be some question as to how that would all look. You can read about it in the book of Acts. A lot of that book is devoted to this question about Gentles wanting to follow Christ. Was this still to be a Jewish thing, and did new believers first have to become Jews?
And what does all this say to us? If Christmas truly is good news of a great joy which shall be to all people, then how are we to be part of that? How do we need to let it be, through us, a message to all people? The Jews of the Old Testament were the chosen people, but they were supposed to bring the light of God to all nations. Instead they kept it to themselves, becoming exclusive in their relationship with God. Then, when God stepped into history, was it in order to restore their relationship with him? Or was it to finish the job they should have done, to bring the light of God to all nations? Actually, I believe it was both!
Epiphany is the story of how Christ was manifested to the whole world! If we are going to be his followers, then we need to continue that ministry. We need to promote his peace and goodwill to all people everywhere, to pray for the needs of the whole world, to reach out to those in the immediate world around us, and to tell the good news, and to live God’s love in our lives, that his light may spread. Epiphany is God manifesting himself to the world. May we see it as a time we dedicate ourselves to being the means for God to manifest himself to our world.
That’s a “tall order,” my friends! If we believe that, we may find it calls for changes in our lives. It will call for us to be more like Jesus, and to think more like he would think, and to love like he would love. Let us pray for the ability to do all of that, as we prepare our hearts and minds for this his Sacrament.
Eternal God, be with us in this sacrament. By your spirit, indwell us, change us, and inspire us, so that we can live in your joy and your love, and so that we can be your light to the world around us. This we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.