The Epiphany of our Lord Jesus Christ
Today in the calendar of the church we arrive at the beginning of a new season: Epiphany. Growing up in a different Christian tradition, I admit that the meaning of this period of the church year alluded me for quite some time. Like being a postulant and novice in a monastery, becoming acclimated to the richness of a new tradition can take some time and more often than not, we learn by entering into the life and slowly absorbing little by little all that tradition has to teach us. There usually comes a moment when the nature and purpose of a particular practice will become apparent and make us exclaim: “Eureka! I got it!” While an epiphany seems like a sudden and random event, the truth is epiphanies happen after a significant period of time when a final tidbit of information gathered brings something into focus. While the ‘Eureka effect,’ (the sudden elation one experiences when having an epiphany) makes this event appear to be random, in actuality it is the end of a long process. Epiphany (from the Greek) literally means manifestation.
And so, as you might expect in this epiphanic season, the church recalls stories in the New Testament where the manifestation of Jesus’ as the son of God,[i] the anointed one, the Messiah is made known, not only to the chosen people of Israel, but also to the Gentiles! We read in our gospel lesson today that three wise men (commonly known as Magi) from the East came to Jerusalem to pay homage to this holy child, which caught King Herod off guard. The gospel writer of Matthew says that Herod was frightened. In his commentary on this gospel, theologian N.T. Wright says, “What he (Matthew) tells us is political dynamite. Jesus is the true king of the Jews and old Herod is the false one, a usurper, an imposter. The house of Herod did not take kindly to the idea of anyone else claiming to be ‘king of the Jews.’”[ii] This must have been amplified by the fact that these foreigners were not of Jewish origin, therefore pointing to the fact that other nations perceived the fallacy of Herod’s sovereignty.
Immediately, he summoned the chief priests and the scribes to inquire where the Messiah was to be born. Recalling the prophet Micah, they reveal Bethlehem as location. So Herod, like any great politician, cunningly sends these visitors from the East toward Bethlehem to seek out this perceived rival, asking them to return to Jerusalem to confirm and report what they find so that he too may pay the child homage. So they set out toward Bethlehem, following the star once again until it stopped. Matthew says they were overwhelmed with joy and they entered the house, paid homage to Jesus, and gave gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Being wise sages, they left that place and travelled home via a different route, having been warned in a dream of Herod’s motives.
While this is an amazing story, one that implies the wide reaching manifestation of Jesus to the world, this season will recall other epiphanies of Jesus’ impending glory. Tomorrow we will celebrate Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist in the river Jordan where the Holy Spirit will descend on Jesus and we will hear a voice from heaven exclaim, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” We will follow Jesus with his new disciples as they begin to perceive Jesus as the Messiah. And this great season will end with the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain, and once again we will hear the voice from heaven proclaim to Peter, James, and John, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”
I would say that for us, the season of Epiphany is iconic. These stories not only tell how Jesus’ identity and role was made manifest in the lives of the world of the first century, but they point to the way that Jesus’ identity and role is made manifest in our lives today! Epiphany is a time of revelation and awareness of Jesus as God Emmanuel: that is “God with us.” As you pray with these texts, observe how God is working in you and through you. This could be through the many blessings in your life such as family, friends, a sense of peace and security, and of gratitude. If this is so, give thanks to God who has entrusted you these riches. It could be that you are aware of God’s grace through the healing of something in your life; of the awareness that you have come through deep waters of chaos. And while you may bear the scars from this engagement with life, you have somehow by the grace of God come to the other side; a miracle of God’s own making. If you’re unsure of how God is manifest in your life, then make that your prayer. Ask Jesus for a star to guide you and to shed some light in your life; to give you that last bit of information you will need. It may be that you’re being readied for something, and in God’s time, when you least expect it, EUREKA!!!
[i] See also: Mark 1:4-11 (Baptism of Jesus); John 2:1-11 (Wedding Feast at Cana); Mark 9:2-13 (The Transfiguration)
[ii] Wright, Tom. Matthew for Everyone. Vol. 1, Spck Publishing, 2014.
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