Collect for The Feast of the Epphany
O GOD, who by the leading of a star didst manifest thy only-begotten Son to the Gentiles:
mercifully grant that we, who know thee now by faith, may after this life have the fruition of thy glorious Godhead;
through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Old Testament lesson:
Isaiah 60, Vv 1-6
Ephesians 3 Vv 1-12
St Matthew 2, Vv 1-12
Today is the Feast of the Epiphany or, as the Prayer Book so aptly calls it, ‘The Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles’. It is also known by its ancient title Theophany, a word which comes from the Greek language and means ‘An Appearance of God’. The Feast of the Epiphany has been celebrated by the church since about the third century, when it was ranked with Easter and Pentecost as one of the three main festivals, more important, even, than the Nativity. Let us look a little more deeply at what the church celebrates in this feast and see if we can understand its significance. One thing we can be certain of is that, but for the manifestation of God to the Gentiles, we would not be here today: nor would our church! How much of the traditional story is based on Holy Scripture and how much of it is myth?
Our traditional Christmass story, certainly as depicted in cards, carols, cribs and nativity plays, would seem to indicate that the appearance of the wise men, or kings, or magi, was at the manger. This is shown by scripture not to be the case. We know from Saint Luke that Joseph and Mary travelled from Galilee, ‘out of the city of Nazareth, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem’. After the birth it would seem logical for the holy family to travel the 80 or so miles home again. The shepherds almost certainly visited the manger at the time the Holy Babe was born as a direct consequence of hearing the angels sing, ‘Hosanna’, but there are several indications that the wise men came later. Saint Luke tells us that after eight days Jesus ‘was taken to be circumcised’. He further tells us that this event was followed by a visit to Jerusalem for the purification of Mary. According to Jewish law, as prescribed in the book called Leviticus, this would have taken place 33 days after the circumcision. In the church’s calendar this visit is celebrated at the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple or Candlemass, on the second day of February. The Circumcision of Christ is celebrated on the first of January. Since the major feasts in the church’s year are usually chronologically indicated, does this mean that the wise men came to visit after Jesus was circumcised but before the purification of Mary? I suggest not.
Saint Matthew is the only evangelist to tell us of the visit of the wise men. He does not tell us how many there were but there are generally reckoned to be three because they are reported as presenting three gifts. They followed a star from the east and arrived in Jerusalem, the provincial capital of Herod, ostensibly to enquire where the King of the Jews was to be found. This came as something of a shock to Herod – after all, he considered that he was the King of the Jews! As we know he enquired of the Jewish priests and scribes who told him of the prophecy of Micah – ‘But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler of Israel’. Herod sent his visitors to Bethlehem with instructions to call on their way home, ‘to bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also’. It has always struck me as a singular failure on Herod’s part that he did not consider sending agents or spies to follow the Wise Men, but perhaps that was also part of God’s plan. Saint Matthew then tells us that the star went before them until it came and ‘stood over where the young child was’. Here we have clue number one; a young child, not a baby in a manger. Late the narrative tells us that, ‘they came into the house and saw the young child with Mary his mother’. Not a stable but a house. The holy family, it appears, had decided to take up residence in Bethlehem, it was, after all, Joseph’s city, he ‘being of the house and lineage of David’. He may, indeed, have had relatives living there.
The gifts they carried were: gold, which represents wealth and royalty, the sign that he would be king; frankincense, which was burned daily in the Jerusalem temple as a holy offering to God, the sign that he was holy, our ‘Great High Priest,’ as the letter to the Hebrews calls him; and myrrh, a bitter spice used to wrap the bodies of the dead, the sign that, royal and holy though he was, he was born to die. ‘And being warned of God in a dream they departed for their own country another way’. Thus the wise men move out of our story. As a short aside – the names Caspar, Melchior and Belthazar were suggested in the Middle Ages when biblical stories were still being handed down by an oral tradition. They have no foundation in Scripture.
If we read on further into Saint Matthew’s account we find Joseph being warned by an angel to take his family into Egypt, a journey probably in excess of 200 miles! Herod, when he found he had been tricked by the wise men ‘was exceeding wroth’. He was, to say the least, pretty upset! He condemned to death all children ‘in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under’. This is our second clue, a reference to two year old children. What we do not know is how Herod decided the age range of children to be slaughtered. Did he just suggest two years just to be on the safe side? He could have said, ‘all babies’, but he did not! After the death of Herod the angel reappeared to Joseph and told him to return to Israel. Joseph knew that Herod’s son Archelaus now reigned in his stead and decided to return to Nazareth and make his home there, a careful, parental consideration for his family’s safety.
Is this the end of our analysis? Who were these wise men and why did they travel across the Arabian deserts to visit Judaea? It seems unlikely that they were kings, as they are sometimes depicted. They were more likely to be philosophers, astronomers or scientists, interested in the study and interpretation of natural phenomena and the movements of the heavenly bodies. Like today’s technologists they would have been intrigued by a new star in the heavens and would have felt an overwhelming enthusiasm to investigate it fully. But, they were more than that. Today’s investigators would hardly carry gifts for someone that they might meet at the end of their journey; the achievement of their goal would have been sufficient in itself. No, our wise men knew who they were going to meet for they said so to Herod ‘Where is he that is born King of the Jews?’ God personally involved himself in their lives and led them to Bethlehem by putting a star in his firmament. The Old Testament is full of God’s involvement with his chosen people, the Jews, over the previous four thousand or so years. This is the first indication to mankind that gentiles were to be called into God’s domain.
Yet God, through the Old Testament prophets, had foretold of a Messiah coming with a promise for everyone who believed. Isaiah had said, ‘And the Gentiles shall come to thy light and kings to the brightness of thy rising.’ (This reference to kings may be the reason that we hear of the visit of the three kings.) The writer of the Book of Ruth adds weigh to the argument by making a great point of reminding readers that no less a person than King David himself was the great-grandson of a foreigner, the Moabitess Ruth of the title. In many other places in scripture God lays down the Law by which the Israelites are to conduct themselves, and in which they are called upon to make room for the ‘stranger and sojourner,’ So, in this our celebration of the Feast of the Epiphany we are called by God to be part of his chosen people. God had always planned it this way and the Wise Men’s visit was his first indication to mankind of his universal sovereignty. Many years before Saints Peter and Paul debated the future of the Christian church God had already made his plans clear. That ancient term for the Feast that I mentioned earlier – Theophany – is more than a manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles: it is the manifestation of God, Father, Son and Holy Ghost, to the entire world. I think we can now begin to see the importance of this feast and perhaps understand why, in some parts of the church, it still takes precedence over the Feast of the Nativity.
In our analysis of the story of the wise men’s visit to Bethlehem we have, as is often the case in the careful study of scripture, unearthed more questions that we have found answers. Let me pose just a few for you to ponder on when you leave this place. Why did God’s star cause the wise men to call on Herod in Jerusalem when it appears that it could accurately direct them, not just to Bethlehem but to the very home of Joseph and Mary? Was it just that, as emissaries (perhaps) of a foreign power they felt that they had to present their credentials to the king? Their actions certainly led to what has been called the ‘Slaughter of the Innocents’. Just how many children were found, ‘in Bethlehem and the coasts around’, cannot ever be known. Those infants have come down through history and have their own day of commemoration – called simply Holy Innocents’ Day – kept by the church just three days after Christmass on 28th December. Did this slaughter tell the world that things were going to change now that God’s Son had come into the world to dwell as man and they would not always change for the better? Those who claim that ‘God is Love’ can never accept this interpretation – but scripture assures us that this was an event of history? Is there another solution? Did God not expect the visitors to deviate from a direct route to Bethlehem and visit Herod? I leave you to think about that. If God placed a star in the heavens to guide the wise men from the east to Bethlehem why did they not arrive in time to worship with the shepherds at the time of the birth? Did the wise men take longer on their journey than God supposed they would? Was it part of God’s plan that the two events, the Nativity (his Son born into a Jewish world) and Epiphany (the manifestation to Gentiles), should be separated in time and thus in our history and in its records? Did God place a star in the heavens at all? In 1984 two British astronomers calculated that the Bethlehem star was caused by an alignment of Saturn and Jupiter within the constellation of Pisces, about 2,000 years ago. They amplified their analysis by explaining that Jupiter is the planet of kings, that Saturn is the protector of Jews and that Pisces is the zodiacal sign associated with Palestine! Does it matter? If God wanted to use a natural conjunction of the planets for his divine purposes then that is his business – they are, after all, his planets!
Did the escape to Egypt, as foretold by Hosea, leading, as it did, to the family returning to dwell in Nazareth, as prophesied by Isaiah, take place to allow the early ministry of Jesus to take place in a part of the country well distanced from those in authority in Jerusalem? Was that all part of God’s well constructed plan? Why does Saint Luke not mention the visit of the magi? He gives us a detailed account of the conception and birth of Jesus, and tells of the visit of the angels and shepherds. He was, as a doctor, probably a confidant of Mary, in that his descriptions of matters that were very personal to her are openly given to his readers. Yet he says nothing of the visit of the wise men. Saint Mark makes no mention of the Nativity and Saint John only discusses it in the theological discourse of his Gospel’s great prologue – ‘the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us’.
While we ponder upon these questions let us leave this church today with a clear understanding of the importance of the Feast of the Epiphany. God sent his Son into our world at a time and location of his choice. In this very act he manifested Jesus Christ to us; all of us, all who lived then, lived before then, have lived since then and will live in the future. It was always part of his plan for his world. Let us remember that the Nativity does not end on Twelfth Night. While this Feast of the Epiphany does mark the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas, it is also begins its own season, the season of Epiphany. Through centuries of tradition, Epiphany has been the time of year to remember and celebrate the missionary activities of the church, as it continues to spread throughout the world. As the light of the sun strengthens and each day lengthens, so we are reminded that the light of Christ reaches ever further into our hearts and the hearts of the world – even into its most troubled corners.
Thus Epiphany is a time to commit ourselves to be part of this spreading of the light of the Gospel, to the ends of the earth. Having worshipped the Son of God, the Wise Men carried the light of Christ out into the world with them, as they returned to their homes. So we, too, are called to rise from our worship and move steadily into the world, bearing the light of Christ, to our homes, our places of work, our places of study, and wherever we meet. And we are called to welcome as Christian brothers and sisters all that come to share in that light.
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