The Strange In-Breaking of God
Message for Epiphany Sunday January 6, 2018
Once every 6 years January 6th falls on a Sunday, and this is the year, today is Epiphany, the 12th day of Christmas. It is considered one of the Principle Feast Days in the calendar of the Christian Church. Principle Feast Days are—well let’s look it up! Where? In our trusty BAS (Book of Alternative Services)! Turn to page 14. The Church has developed a pretty complex calendar of celebratory days. Why? Well, let’s take a closer look at page 14.
So you’ll see that there are Holy Days, Various Feast Days, Major Feast Days, days of Special Devotion, days of optional observance and more Saints Days than you can shake a stick at. Now if you turn to Page 18, you’ll find the seasons of the church year and the Sundays and Major Holy days within each season. It’s amazing what you can find in the prayer book! And of course each season has a colour associated with it, and that colour is reflected in the altar hangings.
The seasons of the Church along with the seasons of Mother Nature come together, they’re entwined and were very much a part of the day to day living of Christians for centuries. But as society has become increasingly secular, the influence of the Church has lessened and so for many, our understanding of the significance of Feast Days and Holy Days has decreased—especially in the western world. And celebrations around the Feast of the Epiphany is a good example. In many countries and Christian traditions, Epiphany is the day of gift giving—commemorating the giving of the gifts to the Christ Child by the wise men or magi, to use the biblical Greek word. Matthew is the only one of the 4 gospels to record this event happening. And it’s a story that has intrigued people for years, and so there are many legends and traditions that have grown up around it.
For example, how many wise men were there and where did they come from? Matthew doesn’t say. So where did the number 3 come from? Well, from the three gifts, it was presumed that each gift came with a different wise man, so 3 gifts, 3 wise men. Over the course of time, they even get names, and according to one source I found:
a document dated to about 500 A.D. lists the names of Melchior, Caspar, and Balthasar, a tradition that has been maintained in Western Christianity. Other Eastern Christian churches have ascribed other names to these figures. …In the East, tradition has generally pictured 12 magi. … Matthew’s gospel doesn’t specify where the magi originated from, except to say that they came “from the East.” The East could have been Babylonia or Persia, although later legends imagined them originating from destinations as varied as India and China. Ultimately, we simply don’t know how many magi there were, what their names were, or what color of skin they had.1
And just who were these wise men anyway? And why would they become so important in the story of Jesus’ birth? Well, these wise men or ‘magi’, were “a Persian religious caste”2 according to Smith’s Bible Dictionary.
Another source describes them thus:
While Christian tradition holds that the Magi were kings … a more precise description might be that the Magi belonged to the priestly caste of Zoroastrianism, which paid particular attention to the stars. This priestly caste gained an international reputation for astrology, which was at that time highly regarded as a science. So these Wise Ones from the East were scientists and practiced other religions, and God used their faith and knowledge to bring them to the Christ. More ironic, God used scientists who practiced other religions to let King Herod and the chief priests and scribes of the people in on the news that their Messiah had been born.3
That is irony, isn’t it! It took strangers from far away to come to Jerusalem to tell Herod what was happening in his own back yard. Herod then confers with his own ‘wise men’, the chief priests and scribes of the Temple, who check out the scriptures to confirm the knowledge the foreigner brought them. The light of the world, the son of God, the Messiah, the Saviour for whom they had been waiting and whose birth was foretold was in their midst and they were so busy with the details of their own lives, that even the religious ‘experts’ –those who studied the scriptures—had missed it. It took foreigners from far away to provide the locals with the “recognition that the prophecies of the Messiah had become a reality”4.
God used a most unexpected way and unexpected people to break into the lives of the upper echelon of Jewish society to announce the coming of Jesus. Now, God had used the angel Gabriel to tell Elizabeth of John’s birth and Mary of Jesus’ coming, and an angel came to Joseph and Zachariah. The entire heavenly host announced Jesus’ birth to the shepherds in the fields. Somehow God’s using angels to make divine pronouncements seems less strange than God’s using Zoroastrian scientists or astrologers from Persia, doesn’t it?
God does come to us, God can and does break into our lives in unexpected ways and times, and if we maybe are missing the divine messengers, well, God can and does make God’s presence known to us in other ways! That’s what the birth of Jesus was, the in-breaking, the incarnation of God into our world, God coming to us at our level, in a body just like ours. God wants so much for us to be aware of God’s presence, God’s love, the light of the divine that lights our way to God. That is the kind of God we worship! And then, how do we respond to the presence of that loving God in our lives? That too is part of this Epiphany story. The magi recognized the specialness of this child and brought precious gifts. King Herod, himself a Jew, placed in power by the Romans, he felt threatened and fearful by this baby-King could usurp his place of power. So he ordered all male Jewish babies under 2 years of age to be killed. These were dark times for a child of God to be born into!
I will close now with some insightful words from writer Cathie Talbot entitled ‘Follow the Star’:
Epiphany is about…revelation, insight, mystery, and the offering of gifts; opening up our hearts and hands to give gold, frankincense and myrrh. But the story is also about power-hungry kings, and secret meetings, and signs and dreams, and violence. There are choices to be made and the journey is not straightforward. The Epiphany story tells us that there is light and glory in the world, sometimes hidden, but shining through for those who can see it, a radiance that can’t be overcome by cunning and violence. We are invited again and again to follow the star and to become spiritual adventurers in search of a more full and authentic life. We are invited to a lifetime of insights, epiphanies, and revelations on our pilgrim journey.5
Let us Pray: God of stars and epiphanies, guide us in light and in darkness to follow your leading and to recognize your presence. Create in us an unending Epiphany. Amen
Rev. JoAnn Todd, Rector, The Regional Ministry of Hope
1 Ann Naffziger via http://bustedhalo.com/questionbox/was-one-of-the-three-wise-men-balthasar-really-a-black-man-like-some-artwork-depicts
2 Smith’s Bible Dictionary: ‘magi’ p 364.
3 Craig Satterlee, Commentary on Matt 2: 1-12, from www.workingpreacher.org, accessed Dec. 31, 2012
4 William V. Arnold: Pastoral Perspective for the “Epiphany of the Lord” in Feasting on the Word, Year B. Vol 1 p. 212
5 Cathie Talbot from The Season of Hope” Wood Lake Publishing [firstname.lastname@example.org] www.wholepeopleofgod/epiphany2014 .