THE FEAST OF THE EPIPHANY
“When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.”
A very happy feast of the Epiphany to you! Today, the joy of Christmas morning continues to shine forth, the good news of a savior being born into history is furthered propelled into the mystery and beauty of the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. And so we enter into this season of Epiphany as a kind of continuance of Christmas, for we find ourselves yet in the presence of the Christ-child, the promised seed of Eve, the One who would eternally reign on David’s throne, the one to whom Moses and the prophets looked to: God has come. And so Epiphany- the appearing of God in the flesh- builds upon Christmas by further interpreting the incarnation as the self-revelation of God, the God who has chosen to make himself known (and not only to Israel), but mercifully he has manifested his Glory to the whole world.
The days and weeks of Epiphany-tide are filled with such incredible beauty. In fact the very word itself is beautiful: “epiphany”. The beauty of Epiphany fills the imagination with such wondrous images from the Gospel narratives, a gallery of masterful landscapes of simple yet mysterious eastern deserts brilliantly illuminated by heavenly starlight, or the splendor of foreign kings each dressed in majestic robes, carrying strange and wonderful gifts. Or the pious picture of the Holy family: Mary, Joseph, and the Christ-child. Not set in a palace or arrayed in riches, but rather, in a lowly manger. Not surrounded by a throng of courtiers but nearly alone save a few animals. Today’s Gospel provides another picture, a very familiar one, a picture of the gentiles being led by a star, the adoring of Christ by the Magi who came from afar to look upon the glory of God made manifest in a little child. This iconic is simple, its pure, unadulterated- one might say it’s perfect. Its simplicity and honesty is powerful and it is beautiful.
Beauty is such an inherent part of our worship. So much so that it can become part of the subconscious, like a man living on an island who after sometime forgets he’s surrounded by the splendor and mystery of the ocean. Just look this beautiful sanctuary, so richly adorned with these marvelous stained glass windows, the craftsmanship and care taken in producing these pews, the rail, and the altar; with its fine linens, and brass, and lively candles. We are fortunate to have inherited from the church of the ages and the foresight of the founders of this parish who valued not only truth and goodness, but valued beauty as well. One of the great contributions Christianity has given to the world is beauty and that’s because God is beauty, he in himself (Father, Son, and Spirit) is beautiful. And this truth has been manifested century after century by the Church through her beautiful works of art, through sculpture, in architecture, hymnody and literature.
Beauty abounds from the very pages of Holy Scripture. Just listen to one of Israel’s prophets, who foresaw the day when God, in his mercy, would make himself known to the nations, “Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the LORD is risen upon thee. For, behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people: but the LORD shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee. And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.” Such powerful words, wrapped in mystery for sure, perhaps even a bit foreboding, and yet filled with such tangible hope, “the gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.”
For us, Christianity and beauty are almost inseparable and yet it took several generations for the advent of Christian artistry to emerge from the earliest Christian communities. In fact, historians generally agree that There is no surviving evidence to suggest that Christians used art to express the central tenets of their faith prior to the third century. During the third century, however, they did begin to experiment with visual images, decorating their tombs, churches, as well as household objects and personal items, with pictorial decoration. Stories from the Old and New Testaments served as important sources of inspiration in this process. It wasn’t until around the 4th century under Constantine when Christian art began to flourish. It has been said that Constantine’s conversion came both by word and sign: approaching Rome in his successful bid to seize the imperial throne, he apparently saw a cross in the sky and heard the injunction, “In this sig, conquer” Perhaps the importance of the visual stimulated his lifelong program of erecting beautiful places of worship and the creation of Christian art to adorn these magnificent edifices.
Now, the earliest art was catechetical in nature depicting prominent scenes and imagery from the life of Jesus Christ. Under Constantine the church grew and with the multitude of new converts came the need for Christian art to teach, to catechize and disciple, thus Christian narrative art was born, and this art was dominated by imagery depicting the infancy narrative or our Lord. What we find is the prominence of the Magi in the earliest Christian art, imagery and story that has fired the Christian imagination since the earliest times. In art, the adoration of the magi appeared earlier and far more frequently than any other scene of Jesus’ birth and infancy, including images of the babe in a manger. And, in reading the early Fathers we quickly find that the early church attributed great theological importance to the story of Jesus’ first visitors—an importance not overtly stated in this enigmatic gospel account of omens and dreams, of astrological signs and precious gifts, fear and flight, darkness and light.
“WHEN Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the East to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.” So opens the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, the only biblical account of this nocturnal visit. In vivid contrast to Luke’s gospel, Matthew omits any mention of Mary and Joseph’s trip to Bethlehem to be registered, a crowded inn, a sheltering manger, or watching shepherds startled by an angel’s announcement of the messiah’s birth. Instead, the first gospel focuses on the journey of these eastern emissaries, who see an unusual star rising, interpret it as an omen that they should investigate, and follow its path first to King Herod of Judea and then to Bethlehem, where it appears to stop above a house in which a child had recently been born. Entering the house, the men pay homage to the babe and offer him gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh.
By the giving of a sign, a brilliant star hung in the vast night sky, God began his salvific work of redeeming the Gentiles. For by a star he drew those who were afar and, using St. Paul’s term, living in darkness, into the radiance of his glory shining forth in the face of an heavenly child. But the time had come, for God to make known to the creation, the great mystery hidden in the previous dispensation, a mystery gracious revealed to St. Paul “...the mystery of Christ... which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy Apostles and Prophets by the Spirit; that the Gentiles should be fellow-heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ, by the Gospel. The hidden mystery, kept and guarded in the secrecy of the Holy Trinity, made known to Paul and then to the Apostles, first revealed by an Eastern star. The light which it radiated some 2000 years ago signified and fulfilled that which Isaiah had foretold, which is the very testimony of the beloved apostle John who testified to the True Light, who “in Him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in the darkness. The light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.”
Beloved The Light came into the world to save sinners. It was the mercy of God which placed that star in the heavens. A star so mysterious and profound that the Magi, even being led by their own wisdom, had to follow. For in giving such a brilliant sign, God, in his wisdom, knew they would come. And in coming, they would behold Divine Glory in the face of a child, the glory of God made manifest in the incarnation of His Son. Epiphany is the revelation of God’s mercy, his loving kindness, his great desire “To bring unto the gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ; to inaugurate the eternal purpose which he purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord. Not the wisdom of this world, nor of the princes of this world, but the wisdom of God.” It was the love of God that not only saw the lowly plight of Israel, but the poor estate of men, women, and children from every nation on earth. Thus fulfilling his promise to Hosea, “I will call them my people, which were not my people; and her beloved, which was not beloved.” For by a sign, the nations represented in the Magi, have come, from which the Father is making a new people, a new priesthood, and by His Son, is calling those who are in darkness into His glorious light.
The epiphany of Christ is our Heavenly Father’s revelation of salvation: that the Gentiles should be fellow-heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ, by the Gospel. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. No sweeter or more beautiful words have ever been spoken. Friends, the dawning of a new day is here, the radiance of the glory of God shines bright in the person of Jesus the Christ. “It is full-time for us to awake from sleep… the night is far gone, the day is at hand. Let us cast of the works of darkness and put on the armour of light.” Let us break free of the false reality of materialism, out of a world which elevates and seeks understanding in all that is ugly under the hood-wink of authenticity. The manifestation of the mystery of Christ beckons us to leave a life of earthly pursuits without comprehension of the world beyond what we can see, or touch, or taste. Epiphany should inspire sobriety and holy living, that having beheld by faith the Glory of the Lord, we might run our race with courage, pressing on to attain the beatific vision, a vision of the exalted Christ in all of his majesty, a vision at the end of the age that will far eclipse the Magi’s sight of Jesus in his lowliness.
Let us pray,
O God, who by the leading of a star didst manifest thy only-begotten Son to the Gentiles; Mercifully grant, that we, which know thee now by faith, may after this life have the fruition of thy glorious Godhead; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.