Sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany
Jan 6th, 2018
St. George’s Church, Moncton
“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.”
I have very vivid memories, and perhaps you do as well, of what Christmas was like when I was a child.
I remember the almost unbearable anticipation that began sometimes as early as November 1st or a bit later. I remember the excitement of getting to open the first little door of a chocolate Advent Calendar that neither began on Advent 1 nor contained anything that one could ever reasonably consider actual chocolate. Nonetheless, it was an integral part of the building anticipation for Christmas day.
I remember the early Christmas mornings when my long-suffering parents would be dragged out of bed probably only a few hours after hitting the pillow to come downstairs and share in our wonderment.
And I remember the crushing feeling of disappointment that I experienced year after year after the last present was opened, the wrapping paper put away, and dinner finished. “Well that’s Christmas for another year,” I would think, as if the light that had only just entered the world that morning had been promptly snuffed out.
Even now we feel that pressure from the secular world around us to pack up Christmas soon after the 25th and simply get on with our lives, we feel the post-Christmas blues and the feeling that we must get back to the doldrums and darkness of winter.
The good news is that this is not how the church sees it, nor has ever seen it.
Today is, of course, The Feast of the Epiphany, the Theophany as our brothers and sisters in the Orthodox church call it, the celebration of the coming of the Magi, the wise men, to Bethlehem to worship the infant Christ after following the light of a star to the manger.
The Feast of the Epiphany, far from being a stand-alone and separate celebration from the Feast of the Nativity, Christmas day, is expansion of the same celebrations. Christmas is not a day but a season that extends at least as far as Epiphany, but for medieval Christians and for many Christians throughout the world today Christmas and Epiphany continue through to Candlemas, the Presentation of Christ in the Temple on February 2nd.
In some sense Epiphany – a word which simply means a manifestation or a showing forth – is a completion of what we celebrate at Christmas; not that the Nativity lacked anything that we receive in full today, but that at Christmas God took on flesh in the form of Jesus Christ and was made manifest to God’s chosen people, the Jews. It is at the Epiphany, though, that the will of God is fully revealed – the Magi, Gentiles, representing the rest of us are led to worship the King of Kings, a symbol that the birth of the messiah, salvation, is not for a few, but for all, for the whole world.
There is a theme of sight and vision, of light and darkness, that runs through the collects and readings of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. In Advent we wait in darkness for the coming of a great light given to us in a manger in Bethlehem; we hear in the post-Christmas festal days of various spiritual visions as we pray through the collects that God would do such things as cast his bright beams of light upon his church, that we might steadfastly look up to heaven and by faith behold the glory that shall be revealed, and from today’s collect that we, “who know thee now by faith, may be led onward through this earthly life, until we see the vision of thy heavenly glory.”
But in the weeks to come, from now to Candlemas, you will notice a shift in our collects. They become simpler. Shorter. The sound more like the prayers of new Christians than did the collects at the end of Trinitytide or the beginning of Advent. They sound like the prayers of people who have just had an encounter with the Word made flesh; people whose eyes are still adjusting from the darkness to the blinding glory of uncreated light.
St. Augustine once said that the Magi prefigure – are symbols – of those who, “walk by faith, yet still desire to see,” because they arrive by faith, following the star, and announce why they have come, but yet they ask where to find the child as well.
We are those whom the Magi prefigure; those who walk by faith through this life, desiring the vision of the heavenly glory for which we ask in the collect today, and who are able as the Magi were to leave this encounter, this manifestation of God in flesh, rejoicing and sharing our joy with others. The Magi leave Bethlehem and return home by another way just as we, having encountered God, cannot remain the same people.
The Epiphany is the Feast on which we recognize the temptations given to us by the secular world to let our joy fade on December 26th, and overcome them. Epiphany occurring 12 days after Christmas reminds us that God’s work of being manifest in the world, in your life and in my life, is never over.
If we feel the burden of the world around us we need to examine our hearts and see the ways that we may be shutting our eyes to his appearing and choosing to live in darkness before his unrelenting light.
The church has given us 40 whole days to witness to his being made manifest in the world for us and to receive him.
Let us in the days that remain continue to welcome him into our hearts.