The Epiphany


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or the Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles (January 6th) 

O God, who by the leading of a star…
Ephesians 3:1-12
Matthew 2:1-12

By one of the quirks of the calendar we read about the Innocents before we reach the Epiphany (cf The Innocents Day). Wise men, “Three Kings” according to tradition, probably astrologers, saw something curious in the sky. Their origin is somewhat clouded by Matthew saying they came from the East but followed a star to the East; but it is more plausible that they saw a star from where they were in the East (the gifts suggest the Arabian Peninsular) but the main purpose is to demonstrate the exotic nature of the visitors. Matthew also wants to contrast these venerable men with the wicked Herod. One can see why the news might have troubled him but why “All Jerusalem”? Part of the answer is that Judaism lacked a mechanism for recognising the Messiah. It preferred, to paraphrase T.S. Eliot, to travel rather than to arrive; it preferred waiting for the Messiah to proclaiming him. As a decent scholar, Herod knew perfectly well where Christ should be born but the question gives Matthew the opportunity to refer to the prophetic foundation for his narrative (probably Micah 5:2). Herod, behaving like a pantomime baddy, is already plotting to kill the child but the wise men outwit him. They worship Jesus and bring gifts traditionally associated respectively with kingship, priesthood and burial (Nicholas King: The New Testament)

Before leaving the Christmas narratives we might wish to contrast the mystical and demotic Luke with the down-to-earth and political Matthew. These are the only two accounts we have and, with the exception of the intervention of an Angel and the attribution of Mary’s conception to the Holy Spirit, they do not overlap. As always, I find Geza Vermes illuminating (The Nativity).

This is a very special day for us, as designated in the sub-title of the Feast of “The Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles”. Judaism is not a missionary religion and so the decision to preach Jesus to the Gentiles (Acts 15) was a remarkable proceeding without which Christianity might have disappeared with the Jerusalem Temple in 70 AD. We should not forget as Paul glories in his self-designation of “Apostle to the Gentiles” that Peter’s testimony, following his conversion of Cornelius (Acts 10), was critical.

Paul says he must preach the Mystery of Christ “which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men”, which “from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God”, as it is now revealed. Part of that revelation was that the Gentiles should be “fellow heirs” of the Gospel. The formal declaration confirmed Paul’s view but he had long held it and he is always careful to maintain his direct authority from Christ for it was better to be “less than the last of all saints,” than to be accountable to the religious conservatives in Jerusalem (Galatians 1.12). The end point, as the Collect notes, is that we “may after this life have the fruition of thy glorious godhead”.

For us the wise men present a paradox: we have in general lost our faith in wise men both because of failures following an inflated view of the power of science and because there is a contemporary aversion to ranking one opinion higher than another; but we are more openly astrological than at any time since the ‘Enlightenment’. Wise men tend to appear in accounts of different, usually oriental, cultures and perhaps it is part of Matthew’s intention to stress the contrast between scruffy Palestine and the opulent East. Tradition has made a good deal of this sparse raw material and one aspect of it which is particularly attractive today is the multi ethnic origin of “The kings”. Another attractive feature, noted in Matthew, is the domesticity of the scene. The kingly trio, back stage left of the crib, is profoundly misleading. The travellers visit Jesus in his home presumably some time after his birth and before the exile. It is easy, between the crib and the cross, to forget the domestic Jesus who, if we count in both the exile and a three-year mission, spent more than 80% of his life at home. We might also speculate on what Mary and Joseph did with the gold.

One further aspect of the readings which bears consideration is the juxtaposition of earthly and heavenly powers. Christianity, unlike other major religions, has always had an uneasily equivocal relationship with the secular powers. The early church was naturally anxious not to alienate the Roman authorities and preached a doctrine of obedience to the state, cited in the 16th Century by a series of political (some would say Erastian) settlements which put the secular monarch at the head of national churches. The contrast, then, is not so sharp as it might be between earthly and heavenly powers, with the exception of caricature figures like Herod who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Since the eruption of Roman internecine politics into Palestine in the figure of Pompey the Great in 65 BC, the not unfriendly relations between Rome and Palestine (1 Maccabees 8) came to an end and the economically insignificant but strategically important territory suffered the collateral damage of a series of ‘world wars’ which ended with the Emperor Augustus; but Herod was not to know that and his position was made precarious by Augustus being proclaimed a god. Faced with this degree of complexity, Jesus’ visitors were not only wise in following the intimation of his birth but also in leaving, once their mission was accomplished, by another way.

Starting Points for Sermons or Discussions:

  1. What are the outstanding features of Matthew and Luke’s Nativity accounts?
  2. Does it matter whether Jesus’ visitors were wise men or kings?
  3. In his assertion of independence, how close was Paul to over-stepping the mark?
  4. Discuss the conflicting pressures facing Herod.
  5. What three gifts would you bring today? And why?

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