Epiphany, or the Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, is one of those Prayer Book feasts – “red-letter days,” as they used to be called, when liturgical books were printed more often in two colors – that often gets short shrift, because if falls during the week.
Its date is January 6th; its eve or vigil, on the 5th, is traditionally known as “Twelfth Night,” being the evening of the last day of Christmastide. We commemorated it (more accurately, anticipated it) liturgically at the 10 o’clock service of Holy Communion this morning, but I thought some folks who were not able to attend might like to see the homily:
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
“And lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. 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.”
This year, I had a friend ask me – having been asked by a young child – “if the Wise men saw the star in the east, how come they came west?” That is actually a good question, and perceptive on the part of that young one! But the answer, of course, is that the phrase “they saw in the east” is ambiguous, at least in English; the proper translation should probably be “the star which they had seen while they were in the east.”
The precise identification of the star continues to exercise scholars and pundits to this day, of course; everything from a supernova to a comet to a planetary conjunction has been proposed, but of course we do not, and probably will never, know precisely – at least not here in this world! It is one of many divine mysteries which the Scriptures leave for us to ponder, and to take on faith.
As St. Paul’s letter to the Hebrews puts it, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” If we had everything we wanted to know all neatly laid out for us, what we would have would not actually be faith at all, but certainty – and God, for reasons of His own, does not desire to provide us with certainty! I have some ideas about why that is, but that goes beyond the scope of this service, and this homily…
In any case, the Wise Men, also known as the Sacred Kings, or the Magi, responded in faith to what had been revealed to them. Here again, we do not know their specific identities; here again, there is rampant and widespread speculation. And if you have not already read it, I commend most earnestly to your attention a wonderful little book by Henry van Dyke entitled “The Other Wise Man,” which takes the tale into the realm of speculative, but devotional and in my opinion quite wonderful, fiction! But I digress:
The significance of the Wise Men is twofold: first, they were the first of the Gentiles – the word means “the peoples,” or “the nations,” and refers to the non-Jewish peoples – to see the newborn Saviour, the Messiah, the King of Kings, and to worship Him. And worship Him they did: our Gospel lesson is very clear about that! Even the shepherds were not said to have done so, though they did “return, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.” So we see that indeed it was the Gentiles, the peoples of the non-Jewish nations – us! – who were the first to worship the Lord.
That is not so much something for us to glory in, as a new “chosen people” – although of course 1 Peter 2:9 reminds us that we are indeed “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people” – so much as it is to be humbled by, since we Gentiles so often fail to worship him in our lives, and in our world. And not only today, though of course we now live in exceedingly secular times, when the faith is held but too lightly by too many who call themselves Christians, and attacked actively by too many who do not.
But it was indeed the Gentiles, in the persons of the Wise Men, who in what we now celebrate as the Feast of the Epiphany – from the Greek word for “appearance,” and especially the manifestation of gods and kings – first bowed in worship at the crib of the Most High, falling down before Him, and presenting unto Him treasures of great value, and of great mystical significance: gifts of gold, and of frankincense, and of myrrh.
The wonderful Epiphany hymn, “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” by John H. Hopkins, is a work of musical and lyrical artistry, not Scripture; but its verses do an excellent job of capturing this significance.
Gold is for His Kingship, the highest, purest, and most costly and widely-sought of precious metals, in the ancient world, suitable to royalty:
Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain,
gold I bring to crown him again,
King forever, ceasing never,
over us all to reign.
Frankincense was and is a resin with a sweet savor when burned in an incense-burner, and was offered to honour the Divine, both Jewish and pagan, in the world of antiquity:
Frankincense to offer have I,
Incense owns a Deity nigh;
prayer and praising, voices raising,
worshiping God on high.
Myrrh was also often burned as incense, but it was also used in embalming, and the preparation of the deceased for burial, and this use has long been the traditional understanding of this gift:
Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume
breathes a life of gathering gloom;
sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
sealed in the stone-cold tomb.
The hymn concludes with the haunting, but triumphant, refrain:
Glorious now behold him arise;
King and God and sacrifice:
sounds through the earth and skies.
Whether the Wise Men were philosopher-kings, or Persian Zoroastrian priest-sages, and regardless of how many there were, or what, precisely, was the star that led them to that little town of Bethlehem, and the rustic manger in that rude stable, they brought gifts of great consequence, and of great significance, pointing to both the manifestation and the destiny of the child Jesus: the Creator of all Creation, nestled in a bed of straw; the omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent Word of God, localized in a tiny baby, in a backwater town, in a particular province of Roman Judea.
God seems to have a sense of humor, and He definitely has a sense of proportion. He also seems to like unexpected juxtapositions and paradoxes! There are few or none greater than the Incarnation itself. And the fact that the first to worship the one born King of the Jews, the Jewish Messiah – though they knew Him not – was first worshipped by Gentiles was certainly one of those. Proof positive that He came not for one nation, but for all.
To quote another carol of the season, “I wonder as I wonder, out under the pines, that Jesus our Saviour was born for to die – for poor orn’ery people like you and like I! I wonder, as I wonder, out under the pines.”
Thanks be to God for His great mercy. Glory to Him from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever! Amen.
While the Eve of Epiphany on the 5th marks the conclusion of Christmastide proper – the “Twelve Days of Christmas,” reckoned from Christmas Day itself, it is not the completion of the Nativity Cycle: that continues until the 2nd of February, often known as “Candlemas,” but in the Prayer Book, “The Presentation of Christ in the Temple, commonly called The Purification of Saint Mary the Virgin,” forty days after His birth.
So if you feel like “keeping Christmas” for a bit longer, a good argument can be made for it! “English Heritage” (UK) encourages people to “do as their medieval ancestors did and leave up their festive adornments until Candlemas on 2 February.” The idea that one should not leave decorations up past Twelfth Night “is a modern take on the tradition,” they note, and continue,
“Falling exactly 40 days after Christmas, Candlemas (or the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary) was observed as the official end of Christmas in medieval England. The date itself was a great feast day and is so-called because candles intended to be used in churches in the coming year would be blessed on that day. There were also candlelit processions in honour of the feast. Evidence that decorations were kept up until the evening before Candlemas is well documented. To this day, Christmas cribs remain in place in many churches until Candlemas.”
So you’ve got almost another month, if you want to take advantage of it. But because Christmastide itself ends with Twelfth Night, I shall wish you all a final (for this year) Merry Christmas, and close with my prayers that God may bless you richly in this new year of 2023!
Faithfully yours in Christ,
Fr. Tom Harbold