THE EPIPHANY — 6 January 2013
St. Luke’s, Cedar Falls – 9:15 am
Isaiah 60:1-6 | Psalm 72:1-7,10-14 | Ephesians 3:1-12 | Matthew 2:1-12
“Where is the child who has been born King of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
When I was a child, in the Christmas decorations in our house we made a Big Deal of the fact that the Wise Men did not show up at the manger until the Epiphany, the twelfth day after Christmas Day. We still follow that in our home today, at least in some of our crèches. We have a magnetic nativity set on the door of the kitchen refrigerator, and until today the wise men were around the corner on the side panel, still traversing afar. Down at Trinity in Iowa City the other day, the wise men were still over on the window sills along the east aisle, although I assume that as of this morning they’ve gotten to the crèche in front of the altar. I see you all follow the same custom. My mother would have been pleased.
Of course, if we were actually paying attention to the Gospel reading this morning – one which we have heard and read many many times – we know that the Wise Men did not show up at the manger at all. They came to Joseph’s house, where in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus had presumably been born.
And so I hope we have at some time noticed that for hundreds and hundreds of years we have relentlessly ignored the blatantly obvious fact that if we read the accounts of the birth of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel and in Luke’s Gospel, we see that there are obviously some major historical problems. The stories don’t match up, and that’s only the start! A lot has been written about this, including some work by very fine and faithful New Testament scholars, and wallowing around in the back of my mind is a paper of my own, which still hasn’t made it through my fingers to the keyboard and into a computer file. One of these years. I’ll let you know. But I’m going to bracket all that and set it aside for right now, because that misses the point of St. Matthew’s story as well as the point of St. Luke’s quite different story. (And clearly neither Matthew nor Luke knew each other’s stories.) Suffice it for now to say that wondering about exactly what kind of astronomical phenomenon the Wise Men observed is a lot like wondering at just what mileage point on the road from Jerusalem down to Jericho the Good Samaritan found the man who had been beaten and robbed by bandits. Not what the story is about!
And this story is so rich and wonderful, whatever its relation to what we might in our narrow-mindedness call “historical facts.” (The story is historical, because it gives a true insight into a real historical situation; but to blither on down that road is for another time.) The Christian community quickly built up images and legends that go beyond what is actually recounted in the Gospel story. The wise men – magoi in Greek, in Anglicized Latin magi, by which Matthew presumably meant wizards or astrologers – quickly became kings in Christian tradition, for reasons that should be obvious to us today, starting off as we did with Isaiah 60: “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn …. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.” And then we went on to Psalm 72: “The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall pay tribute, and the kings of Arabia and Saba offer gifts. All kings shall bow down before him, and all the nations do him service.” Were these and similar verses from the Hebrew Scriptures in the back of Matthew’s mind as he was writing? Surely so! As was Balaam’s oracle in the book of Numbers [24:17]: “A star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.” (Thus any astronomical identification of the star of Bethlehem misses the point.) In the story the wise men come seeking “the King of the Jews”; it’s worth noting and meditating upon that the only other time in the Gospels that Jesus is referred to by the title “the King of the Jews” is by Pilate and the Roman soldiers, mockingly, at his crucifixion. “The King of the Jews” was actually Herod’s title, one that had been given him by the Romans.
So today wise men from the East come to worship the Messiah at his birth. Foreigners, we note; but also we note, not Romans from the West. They were from beyond the Empire. They are the world. The Epiphany is the celebration of the Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, as the Prayer Book calls it, obscurely on page 31. But this means that the Epiphany is not just the Adoration of the Magi, as every Renaissance artist worth his salt painted, but the taking of the Good News of Jesus to all the world. Matthew himself makes this clear as he moves from the beginning of his Gospel with the visit of the magi to the conclusion of his story with Jesus’ words: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” [28:19].
It is not enough that we worship, though that is where we start, as we remember especially today, for only from worship can true and faithful mission come. We are called as the Body of Christ not only to adore our Lord, but to follow him, to let it be his life that lives in us, to accept his work as our work. We are called not just to give Jesus presents, but to give him ourselves, that he may form us, change us, renew us, use us for his work of reconciling the world in love to God. We come with the magi to worship him; but unlike the magi, it is not for us just to go home quietly by another road. For us, for us who are called to be the truly wise men and women, it is to go out into the world and to be ourselves the epiphany, the showing-forth of Christ to the world. The Feast of the Epiphany is not the end of the celebration of the Incarnation of God in Christ, but only the beginning.