What's An Epiphany?
(A revision of a sermon first preached on January 3, 1993)
Matthew 2:1-12 The Rev. Carol DiBiasio-Snyder
Introduction to the Scripture:
Today's reading tells the story of the Magi searching for and finding
Jesus. Matthew is the only gospel that includes this story. Yesterday was
the 12th day after Christmas, the feast of Epiphany in which this story
plays the central role. Let us listen now for the word of God.
My sister is seven years older than I am. I've always been a little jealous of her. That comes with the territory of being a younger sister, I think. At Christmas time I was particularly jealous of the nativity scene that belonged to her. As a young child, I was not even allowed to touch it. Rules of the house, made by my mother, enforced by my sister! At least I could look at it.
Proudly getting it out each year, my sister would place it on the wash stand in the corner of the dining room and plug it in. Yes, it was electrified. It was made with an unusually sturdy cardboard framework, the landscape of Bethlehem at night painted on the backdrop. On the right side were ceramic figures of Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus. A Christmas tree light bulb fastened through a hole above the manger simulated the light from the bright Christmas star.
But it was what was on the left side that particularly fascinated me: three majestic, ornately robed kings. They stood, one in front of the other on a little circular platform that rotated round and round after you wound up a key on the top. As they rotated by the holy family, with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh for the Christ child, a music box in the base of the platform played "Silent Night".
I wonder how often I stood in front of that nativity scene with the lights off in the dining room, my hands gripping the edge of the wash stand, lest I actually lose control and touch those kings. I spent hours in the glow of that mystery, watching the magi go round and round, perpetually bringing their gifts to the baby king under the Christmas tree bulb star.
The kings have captured the imagination of more than just a few people over the ages. Many stories and legends have grown from the biblical account you just heard. The celebration of the feast of Epiphany began in the early church. Epiphany means "manifestation" or "showing of God". In the early eastern church, Epiphany was observed on January 6 and celebrated all aspects of the birth of Christ, the showing of God, including the visit of the magi. It was in the early western European church that the celebration of Epiphany became associated solely with the kings and the rest of the birth story was celebrated in December.
There are catacomb paintings that date back to the 2nd century showing the wise men. At first they were represented as astrologers - priestly scholars - a portrayal closer to the biblical story than kings. But by the 6th century they were kings owing to certain Old Testament references that became associated with them that refer to kings. 2 Kings, 4 kings, even 12 kings are found in works of art and in legends about them. While the Bible does not give us a number, 3 was eventually settled on because of the 3 gifts. Magi plays were performed as part of Renaissance church services until they got too boisterous because of the character of Herod, who acted like a raving lunatic, beating people, including the parish priests!
In some art work the kings were used to portray three ages: one of them young, one middle aged, one old. In other places they were painted as representatives from the three continents of the known world: Asia, Europe, and Africa, affirming that Christ comes to all people. By the eighth century the kings acquired names, physical descriptions, and their gifts took on definite symbolism. In a work ascribed to St. Bede the Venerable we find the following description of the magi:
The first was called Melchior, he was an old man with white hair and long beard, he offered gold to the Lord as King. The second, Gaspar, by name, young and beardless, of ruddy hue, offered Jesus his gift of incense, the homage due Divinity. The third, of black complexion with heavy beard, was called Balthasar, the myrrh he held in his hands prefigured the death of the Son of Man.
There is a legend about the rest of their lives. St. Thomas converted and baptized the three kings, so the story goes, and they eventually became bishops. The final story tells of St. Helena finding their remains and taking them to Constantinople. Later, in the 6th century these bones were moved to Milan. But it seems our traveling magi, whose story began with a journey, were not yet to find their rest. When Milan was conquered, their remains were once again moved, this time with great pomp and circumstance to Cologne Cathedral, where they rest today in a magnificent, ornate reliquary.
I like an old tradition practiced in many European countries of baking a special cake on Epiphany called, a King's cake. Often a coin was put in the dough before baking and whoever found it was the "king." It was an old custom in France to put aside a piece of the King's cake, "for our Lord," and give it to some poor person after the feast. Another tradition in France demanded that rich people help collect a large sum of money given as a donation for the piece of cake. The money, called "the gold of the Magi" was then used as an educational scholarship fund.
Well, so much for lessons in legend and history! You now know more than you ever wanted to about the magi!
Thousands of years ago, God made an epiphany, God made an appearance, a manifestation, a showing in the form of the flesh and blood of humanity. The shepherds recognized it, the magi searched for and found it. Where does God appear today? How does God manifest God's presence in our world, in your life?
To be sure, God's epiphanies must be easy to miss, overlook or ignore. Surely there were other magi in the east that first Christmas who never saw the star, or seeing it, chose not to follow it. And God's epiphanies can be clouded by their circumstances and settings. Who would expect the Son of God to be born to unwed teenagers in a small town with grimy shepherds and animals in attendance.
Epiphanies may be difficult to see. The light of the epiphany to the Magi, a sign that Christ is revealed to people of all places and times, was darkened by the actions of Herod. God's epiphanies are not always surrounded with light and joy and peace. Treachery, intrigue, deception and state sponsored murder of children darken the story as the magi are warned to return by another way and Mary, Joseph and Jesus must flee to Egypt, becoming refugees in a strange land. Was it the gold, frankincense and myrrh that helped them survive this unexpected journey?
Yes, darkness can overshadow the light of God's epiphanies. Overshadow, but not overcome it. Epiphany proclaims the durability of the holy, redeeming light of God. Martin Marty put it this way:
Christmas is not about babyhood, but about weakness that brings its own power, about helplessness that brings its own strength, about a liberating grace that will not let go of us.
Powerful kings bowed at the manger, a power-hungry king lashed out at the innocent to fight off a threat to his throne, and Jesus, the king with a new, a mightier kind of power, the power of love, cooed in his parent's arms.
Some of the greatest power, some of God's strongest moments of working come in small packages and in unexpected places.
If Don Olsen was here today, I think he would tell us about some experiences he would call epiphanies. Don is the Associate Executive Secretary for Missions in the national office of the Congregational Christian Churches. He wrote the following in the magazine, The Congregationalist which arrived in our home this week. Reporting on some of his trips to various missions around the world this year, he talked about going to Nigeria to visit Christ to the Villages Mission. Some of our benevolence funds this past year went to support this worthy work.
He tells frankly that he dreads going to Nigeria because he finds himself overwhelmed by the pollution, crime and poverty. But he is always eager to see Christ to the Village mission because, as he says, "God is doing amazing things through the faithful stewardship of Solomon Oledele, his dedicated family and competent staff. Just visiting with them is exhilarating, So, I go."
Then he relates the following story. One of the highlights of this trip was a moment shared with Gia, a young girl I met on my last trip to Nigeria. Gia was born with a birth defect and is unable to walk. The good folk of the Congregational Home in Wauwatosa donated a wheel chair, which I delivered.
I wish for all a moment like this. Gia entered Solomon's home in the arms of her mother. Gia's sisters were also present. Their village was half a day's walk away. Solomon translated as I explained that a gift had been given to help Gia get around. The chair was introduced. Gia looked fearful and her mother appeared perplexed. With some coaxing by Solomon, Gia was placed in the chair and immediately cried in fear. Solomon and the mother began to jabber away, I had no idea what was being said. Solomon explained that they had never seen a wheel chair. Gia, still crying was removed from the chair and Solomon took her place. He wheeled himself around the room spinning in circles as Gia watched. Through her tears Gia smiled. Her eyes lit and smiled too. Now it was her mother who wept.
Gia and her mother, Solomon and Don Olsen all shared in an epiphany moment. Where do you see God's epiphany? In a moment, we will participate in an opportunity for epiphany as we gather around our communion table for the first time in this new year. We gather today here in God's light. Soon we will disperse to reflect that light in places and among people where its brightness is much needed. We are an "Epiphany People." We look for the light of Epiphany in our lives, we reflect the light of Epiphany in our world, and we are guided by the light of Christ's Epiphany as we journey, even as the magi did so many years ago.
During this first communion of 2001, let us each take these moments to commit ourselves to make this a year in which we look for and become epiphanies, showings of God, in our world. Amen.