The Epiphany of Our Lord
6 January 2008
A Sermon Preached by the Rev'd Dr Andrew C. Blume
O God, who by the leading of a star didst manifest thy only begotten Son to the peoples of the earth: Lead us, who know thee now by faith, to thy presence, where we may behold thy glory face to face; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Isaiah 60:1-6, 9
As I am sure I have told a number of you, I was primarily formed as both a Christian and as an Anglican by daily morning prayer at my little boy’s school over on the East Side. Each day for nine years between the ages of six and fifteen, I heard a passage from the Authorised Version of the Bible, sang a hymn from the 1940 Hymnal, and recited the Lord’s Prayer before hearing various sporting and book reports and being sent back to our classrooms for Latin or Shakespeare or something equally edifying. The succession of music masters who chose the hymns were, as I think about it, relentlessly seasonal about their choices and thereby I was also formed into a profound awareness of the annual cycle of feast and fast that is the Church Year.
So every year, on the Friday when we returned from Christmas vacation and everyone gathered for our weekly all-school Assembly, we were treated to a very special rendition of “We three kings of Orient are” (Hymn 51). What made this so special, and anticipated by the boys, was that each of verses two to four was sung by a different Master, each playing the part of one of the kings. Throughout my nine years there, two stalwarts did it every year, one of whom was Mr Mila. Now, Mr Mila was, legend had it, a former Czech Olympic hockey player who has skied to freedom into West Germany and ended up teaching physical education at St. Bernard’s. Mr Mila was always Balthazar and sang “Myrrh is mine: its bitter perfume / Breathes a life of gathering gloom; /sorrowing, sighing, / Bleeding, dying, / Sealed in the stone-cold tomb” (ask me to do it at Coffee hour with the accent). This is my childhood vision of Epiphany, and along with its reference in the previous verse to Frankincense, was also my first lesson in incense blending.
Epiphany was about the mysterious and exotic kings of the hymn and their wonderful and splendid gifts. Nothing I subsequently learned as an Italian Renaissance art historian changed this view either. That part of my life filled my head with images from sumptuous representations of the arrival of the kings, such as Benozzo Gozzoli’s frescos in Palazzo Medici or Botticelli’s various versions, all of which depicted none other than the members of the Medici family as the kings. For my fifteenth-century Florentines, the Magi were men with whom the rich and powerful could identify, who showed that Christ came not just for the humble shepherds, but for kings, and princes, and high-powered international merchant bankers. It marked a counterpoint to all those depictions of the Adoration of the Shepherds and gave the rich hope that their wealth—those things that they had to offer to God and the Church—were valued and important both to God and to the foundational Christian story. There was even a procession throughout the streets of Florence each year on the sixth of January in which the local grandees formed part of the kings’ procession and even played the parts of the three kings themselves.
But if we look to the Epiphany story from Matthew, we get a slightly different picture. Matthew talks about “wise men from the East” who have come to Jerusalem because they have read in the heavens portents of a significant event. These men, who were not Jews themselves, sough him “who has been born king of the Jews. For [they] have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.” Herod was concerned that these interesting characters had turned up bringing news of a Davidic Messiah who might be a challenge to his authority, so he called those learned in scripture to advise him and the visitors of where this event might take place. The scribes and the Pharisees told them, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it is written by the prophet: ‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will govern my people Israel.’” So these wise men headed off to Bethlehem, guided by those heavenly signs. They brought gifts, precious gifts that were hugely significant in the trading culture of the Ancient Near East—gold and frankincense and myrrh. They presented them to Jesus and, most importantly, even before they gave him the treasure, “they fell down and worshipped him.” When they left and went back to their own countries, they showed themselves not only honourable, but true partners with God in his purposes, in their refusal to be Herod’s spies.
The Magi of Matthew were not international merchant bankers or kings or princes. In a sense they were closer to my motley assortment of schoolmasters singing “We Three Kings” than they were to the words of the hymn: three men with acumen and learning, one a Cold War defector, another a preppy hippie Viet Nam vet, and the third someone quite forgettable other than that he knew his stuff. The Magi represented those strangers, those non-Jews, those exotic foreigners, who without the benefit of great learning in Hebrew Scripture, recognised that in the birth of Jesus Christ something important had happened. They knew that in the birth of Jesus Christ into the here and now of the world in which we all live, God had acted decisively to bring the whole world within the sphere of his authority, within the whole sphere of his love.
Without knowing exactly where they were heading, or knowing exactly what they would find, the Magi responded to something that they saw happening in the world around them. They found the signs they read and understood so compelling that they set out, bearing valuable objects as symbols (even sacraments) of their seriousness, towards Jerusalem, towards the unknown. When they reached their destination they found a humble baby and his mother and immediately they “fell down and worshipped him.” They gave a baby Gold and Frankincense and Myrrh as tokens of their respect and admiration, as tokens of his importance, as tokens of the way in which he will change the world into which he has been born.
As Jesus was manifested to the humble shepherds, to his fellow Jews in Judea, so too is Jesus manifested to the stranger, the foreigner, the gentile. Jesus came not simply to be the redeemer of Israel, but he came so that the whole rest of the world might be brought into God’s plan for salvation.
This is what Paul is saying to the Ephesians, “how the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” In this same way, Paul felt that it was his mission, his ministry “to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all men see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places.”
On the Feast of the Epiphany we learn that soon after Jesus was born, within days of his incarnation and his manifestation to Israel fulfilling the prophesy of Emanuel, God with us, God also brought understanding of this amazing event beyond Israel. In the Epiphany, in the visit to the manger of three strangely dressed, foreigners, Jesus Christ came into the world for everyone and not just for a few. In the Epiphany we learn of the universal, Catholic mission of God in Christ that all the world, the whole wide earth, might be reconciled with him. In the Epiphany we learn also a model of how we are to act as Christians. We are to come before the presence of Christ, fall down and worship him, and present to him those precious gifts that each of us possesses. We are to offer to God our skills and experiences, our ability to love, and even, sometimes our worldly possessions, so that together we may use these gifts with God in his eternal project of Love.
Andrew Charles Blume+
The Eve of the Epiphany, 5 January 2008
©2008 Andrew Charles Blume