Feast of the Epiphany – January 6, 2019
The prophecy of Isaiah is revealed in Bethlehem. The early church saw today’s celebration as a revelation: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you… Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” The kings come. The three kings from foreign lands come to Bethlehem. The New Testament Greek name for them is “magoi” or, as we would say, “magi,” which means “fortune tellers” or “wizards.”[i] (The English word, “magician,” comes from the Greek, magi.) The Greek name magi also includes astrologers, and so it’s no wonder that the magi reportedly saw a certain star rising, knew it was significant, and followed it. What was this star? There’s been endless speculation down through the centuries, some of it based on the Zodiac, some of it based on astronomy.[ii]The Gospel according to Matthew makes neither explanation nor apology for revealing that the wise men had followed a star.
We warmly invite you to the final sermon in a new preaching series on following God’s call. On February 6, at 5:30 PM, Br. Luke Ditewig will preach on the gift of Community.
Invite a friend to join you at the Monastery at 5:30 pm on Tuesdays during Epiphanytide, as together we gather gifts for the journey.
All Are Welcome!
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.
When a man first comes to the monastery to test his vocation, you may be surprised to know that he does not get a large ‘how to’ manual on being a monk. Nor does he receive a week-long orientation in the essentials of monastic living. Much of what a postulant and novice learns is by observation, trial and error, and asking questions when they arise. When he sings the Offices with the Community, (regardless of his proficiency in music fundamentals) he learns a strange musical script with a four-line staff and peculiar square notes that when stacked on top of each other means they ascend and when written in progression means they descend. He learns that the bell rings ten minutes prior to each service although he may find himself sitting in chapel alone and confused for fifteen to twenty minutes when the Angelus bell rings at noon and no one shows up. There is often that awkward moment when learning to acolyte that he lights the candles on the altar at noonday prayer only to have them extinguished with an explanation that candles are not lit at the noon office. I sometimes joke that I’ve been here over five years and I’m still learning new things each week, although now they are more often epiphanies that dawn on me mysteriously, out of the blue. For me, our lesson this evening from John’s gospel illustrates how the experience of novice monks is not dissimilar from that of Jesus’ disciples.
Isaiah 60: 1-6
Psalm 72: 1-7, 10-14
Ephesians 3: 1-12
Matthew 2: 1-12
We’ve all had that experience of living “in between” things. As children we lived most of our lives “in between” weekends, or vacations and holidays. We would count off the days until the next holiday came along so that we could escape school, even if just few a few days. Later we lived in that “in between” time between relationships, or jobs or children. Now some of us live “in between” seasons of Downton Abbey, anxiously awaiting the next fix to see what will become of Lady Edith or who Lady Mary will marry next.
These wise men who had come from the East, who are they? The New Testament Greek name for them is “magoi” or, as we would say, “magi,” which means occult practitioners, fortune tellers, wizards, priestly augurs , and magicians.[i] (The English word, “magician,” comes from the Greek, magi.) The Greek name magi also includes astrologers , and so it’s no wonder that they reportedly saw a certain star rising, knew it was significant, and followed it. What was this star? There’s been endless speculation down through the centuries, some of it based on the Zodiac; some of it based on astronomy. Maybe the star was a supernova, maybe a comet, maybe a “planetary conjunction” (some astronomers dating Jupiter and Saturn and Mars passing each other around the birth year of Jesus)? The Gospel according to Matthew makes neither explanation nor apology for asserting that they followed a star.
One of my earliest experiences of exciting worship came when I was about fourteen years old, and found myself among a huge gathering of worshippers in London. Even before things began, the singing started, and got louder and louder. You couldn’t help but pick up the atmosphere, and get swept along. I started singing as well. I remember one of the songs was printed on the booklet we all had: and some people started swaying and waving their arms in the air. But the best moment came at three o’clock, when the Chelsea football team came running onto the pitch, and the crowd exploded with shouts and cheers.
We celebrate today the great feast, the “solemnity” of the Epiphany, otherwise known as “The Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.” “Gentiles”, meaning all the peoples of the world other than the twelve tribes of ancient Israel. The Three Wise Men, the Magi, these emissaries from somewhere, represent the peoples of the world not of the twelve tribes. These Wise Men led by a star discover the Creator of the stars of night. And not in one of Herod’s sumptuous palaces, but in an unexpected place.
Perhaps you’ve seen some of those Italian Renaissance paintings of the Virgin Mary with John the Baptist and Jesus as chubby three-year old boys. John is usually wearing a junior version of the camel hair outfit of his wilderness years. Sometimes there’s a little lamb in the scene or John may be holding a staff with a banner that reads “Ecce Agnus Dei”: “Behold the Lamb of God.”
This is a “mash up” of the Luke story about John the Baptist and the Gospel of John’s story. It’s in Luke that we get the suggestion, at least, that John the Baptist and Jesus might have known each other, since their mothers were related. And that they may have played together as little boys. All that is missing in John. It’s in the Gospel of John that John the Baptist calls Jesus the “Lamb of God”—and that is missing in Luke and the other Gospels.