January 8, 2017 — Nancy Bancroft
Readings: Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12
Epiphany is a complex feast. Originating in the Eastern Church and formed by the mentality of a people whose thought processes differ sharply from our own, the Epiphany is like a rich Oriental tapestry in which the various themes are interwoven; first looked at in their historical setting, and then viewed from the vantage point of the present, there are many messages for us to unpack and on which to reflect.
The story of Epiphany really begins in the Old Testament. Isaiah chapter sixty is part of what is known as Third Isaiah (chapters 56-66). Rather than being the voice of one prophet, it is assumed that this prophecy arises out of a school of disciples. Third Isaiah is situated in the sixth century BCE as the Babylonian exiles returned to Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, a major conflict had arisen between those who remained and those who came back from captivity. Living conditions were extremely difficult. Jerusalem was in ruins. The people were now divided again not against some outside threat or enemy but among themselves; perhaps not unlike our present national climate.
The previous chapters from the one read this morning, 58 and 59 in Isaiah, are characterized by gloom, by despair, by a call to repentance. They are also marked by a yearning for light and glory to come. Then reading Isaiah 60 the radical irruption of light and glory, consolation and joy is amazing! The opening line of Isaiah 60 is like a thunderbolt of glory. What surprises the reader or hearer is the abruptness of the shift from doom and gloom to light and glory. Perhaps what is most surprising in this shift is God’s response to the people’s sinful ways and their sense of despair: they are not asked to mend their ways first (out of fear) rather God comes, God irrupts, God arises and shines forth in glory! This coming, this shining forth is unconditional. God is always a God whose glory is acceptance and grace. The people’s repentance, their living out of justice is a response to this coming! It is not an attempt to be made right with God but it is thanksgiving for the one who has come; who reveals life and love in the midst of the community.
The message in this Third Isaiah is a strong one given to a religious group who had a narrow, exclusionist understanding of what it meant to serve God. In Third Isaiah God comes to the righteous and sinners alike, and even foreigners and eunuchs can serve at the altar.
God’s glory in the Hebrew scripture is always God’s presence.
The liturgical season that Isaiah 60 inaugurates is a season of revelation. Epiphany, in the early church, was not about the arrival of the magi but the revelation of Jesus Christ, to the whole world as God’s beloved child. Epiphany is God’s self-revelation to the world, the beginning of Christ’s public ministry. It was one of the three major feasts of the liturgical calendar around which faith communities organized the rhythms of their life: Easter, Epiphany, and Pentecost (not Christmas).
In our second reading, we don’t know for sure what Matthew meant by Magi. We don’t know how many magi there were – three, thirty, or three hundred. They might have been Zoroastrian priests who had special power to interpret dreams. Or, they could have been men who practiced various forms of secret love and magic. In the Old Testament, they were referred to as enchanters, astronomers, and interpreters of dreams and of visionary messages. In early first-century Rome, they were known as astrologers, magicians, and readers of dreams. Since Matthew depicted the Magi as having seen a star, it is highly possible that they were astrologers from beyond Palestine.
In the Old Testament the “people of the East” were also desert Arabs. These nomadic Arabs often had wise men as a part of their entourage. Likewise, astrology was not unknown to them. Arabian tribes often took their names from the stars. In addition, gold, frankincense, and myrrh were gifts that eastern Arabs would use to express their feelings.
By celebrating the visit of the magi, those mysterious Persian astrologers who traveled the eastern caravan routes following a star we are reminded that this little One who is born “King of the Jews” is also King of all kings, the Lord of all lords; that Israel’s messiah is the world’s messiah. No one has a monopoly on Him.
One meaning of the word “epiphany” means “appearing,” as in the appearing of a deity, the appearing of God. Epiphany takes its name from the Greek epiphania, which denotes the visit of a god to earth. According to Matthew, these Arab astrologers reacted to the birth of Jesus by following a star to the city of Jerusalem, a scant five miles from the hill town of Bethlehem. After inquiring about the birthplace of Jesus, they followed the star to Bethlehem where they found the child and Mary, his mother. Having found the infant, they bowed down and paid him homage. Then they opened their treasure boxes and brought out gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. So in addition to remembering that Emanuel is for all peoples we are also taught by the story of the magi that the means of discovering God and responding to the epiphany are many and varied and all sacred.
Closely linked to both these themes of divine manifestation and world kingship is a third idea running through the Epiphany feast: that of light. During Advent, the world was in darkness, and we prayed and waited in the spirit of the Jewish nation which lived in expectation of the Coming Light during thousands of years. At Christmas the Light shone forth, but dimly, seen only by a few around the crib: Mary and Joseph and the shepherds. But at Epiphany the Light bursts forth to all nations and the prophecy is fulfilled: “The Gentiles shall walk in Thy light, and kings in the brightness of Thy rising.” The mysterious star of Epiphany, “flashing like a flame,” is still another facet of the light-motif. Even as all the Christmas lights are coming down, the light of Christ is shining undeservedly down on us, and we, reflect His light into our present darkness. “Let your light so shine before all that they may see your good works and give glory to God.”
There is much food for thought and reflection contained in these various themes, and what a significance they have for our own time! Epiphany lifts our eyes from the family celebrations and beckons that we include in our vision “all the ends of the earth.” It invites us, like the magi, to recognize Divine Spirit in however unexpected a way it is presented to us and to have the courage to follow the light of the star we have seen, however uncomfortable or anxiety-provoking the journey. It also exhorts us to welcome, respect and support others in their faith journeys, no matter how they may differ from our own.
Epiphany is season of light and worship and joy and offering and praise to God who is wonderful and gracious to not leave us in darkness, who has reached out to us through others, and who reaches out to others through us, to make known the great good news that this world has a King who is the Prince of Peace for all.
Bask in the glory of His light. Live as children of the light. Reflect His light to this darkened world.
A blessed Epiphany to all of you.