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Darkness Covers the Earth, but Light Has Come: Epiphany

Sunday, January 3, 2021 (anticipating The Epiphany):
Isaiah 60:1-6
Ephesians 3:1-12
Matthew 2:1-12

“Epiphany.” The day in the Christian year we celebrate today, but also a word that is reasonably common and familiar to us. It’s a feeling or a moment of realization, or understanding. Maybe self-understanding. And we’re the better for it. Something that may have been there, under the surface the whole time, but we’ve finally clued in to it. “Revelation” is another word we could use. And it’s also one that can have both a sacred or a mundane meaning.

We most commonly associate Epiphany with the story of the Magi that we just heard. And understandably so. It’s a story with interesting characters, with a diversity of motivations, with strange signs in the sky, with political intrigue, and a big baddie looming in the background. But if we look at Epiphany in wider Christian history and practice, we’ll find that Epiphany is also associated with the story of the baptism of Jesus, and the Gospel of John’s story of what is often called his first miracle, at the wedding at Cana. These latter two stories are a little less sentimentally ‘Christmassy,’ but they’re very much epiphany stories: they help us to understand and realize something more about Jesus. At his baptism we see the Spirit of God descending like a dove and hear the voice: “this is my son, the Beloved.” And at the wedding, when the water is turned into wine, we gain some understanding into the power that Jesus has. These are moments of realization, of revelation; they’re epiphanies.

What is the realization, the revelation that today’s gospel story wants to clue us into? I think what the story expressed in narrative form is spelled out quite plainly in the New Testament letter we heard: “It has now been revealed… that the gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” Elsewhere, near the beginning of the letter to the Romans, Paul writes that the Gentiles, though they didn’t have the Law, this special, unique relationship with God that the Jews have, God was nevertheless perceived by them in their instincts, in their consciences, and in “the things [God] has made,” creation. So it naturally follows in Matthew’s story that these wise sages from the East — gentiles — discern that God was up to something through their study of the stars. This revelation, or epiphany, brings them to Jerusalem. But they’re still seeing this, as it were, “through a glass darkly.” So they, and the other characters of the story, search the scriptures for insight into this matter of this child born to be king. And it’s that back-and-forth interplay, that conversation between God’s leading in and through creation, and in the stories of people of faith, that the Magi arrive at Bethlehem, and then, with the reappearance of that star, to the house where Jesus was found. To me, there’s this Epiphany story, proper, with the Magi. But there’s also the epiphanies of our own lives. Those moments when we realize, or have revealed, or remember or feel that God truly is with us. And God is with us in a way that goes beyond the boxes and categories we tend to put God in.

So the Epiphany story of the Magi can be our story, too. We can discern several movements in the story of the Magi that may well be movements in our own lives. Firstly, they, we read, “go and search diligently.” They are on a journey, a quest to look for God. All of us, too, are on a journey of faith. And accompanying us on this journey are other people, and also ourselves (our instincts, our consciences), and the Word of God revealed in scripture and the work of God in the world all around us. Like the Magi we’re navigating the journey of faith with all these tools at our disposal.

And then as we continue in the story of the Magi, we read that they notice that the star comes to a stop, pointing to where Jesus can be found. And their response? “They were overwhelmed with joy.” Is that part of your journey of faith? Stopping, noticing. Looking deeply. And do we allow ourselves to feel joy? The joy of being a part of God’s story? Or are we too busy rushing from one thing to the next?

And then what do the Magi do? “They knelt down and paid [Jesus] homage.” They worshipped. Our journey of faith every day of the week brings us to moments of joy and moments of worship. Are we humble enough, vulnerable enough to bow down and honour God in song, in prayer, and in the sacraments?

And in the last movement of this epiphany faith journey the Magi open their treasure chests and offer to God — to the child — their gifts. Sacramentally and liturgically we do this in a highly ritualized and concentrated sort of way on the altar of our Eucharist, our Communion meal (albeit less often as we would like during the pandemic). This meal enters our very bodies, and becomes part of who we are. Or if we haven’t shared in that meal in some time, then still, I think we could reasonably say that if it’s been an important part of our lives, the discipline of the Eucharist — giving thanks to God — has shaped who we are.

And so we find that this mysterious story about visitors from the east is, in some way, our story. And the revelation given to them reflect the revealing that God wants to do in our lives. With the Magi we can study, search and journey. We stop, pause, and rejoice. We kneel down, and worship. And we offer our gifts — our very selves.

The Epiphany story reminds us that God is ever present, and giving us cause for hope. The dangers and frustrations are many: For Isaiah it was exile from the land, and challenges in the return home. For the Magi and the Holy Family it is the danger of a jealous, tyrannical, conniving ruler like Herod. For us in our own day, we can quickly point to the pandemic, but also to the host of issues we find within and around us. But in spite of this, and because of this, God wants to be known. And not just known, but known to be present to us. “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.”

© 2021 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter