The key to understanding what this feast day of the Epiphany is all about is not so much in the specific details of these strange visitors from the East coming to offer gifts and worship to the newborn king of Israel, but in the bigger picture of what these magi represent. We heard last Sunday about the promise that the Lord made to Abram when he called him from his own people and his own family to go to a new place, a land that God will show him, where God will make Abram to be the patriarch of a new people, and a new nation, but also to be the source of blessing for all the nations.
God began to reveal this plan for all the nations slowly. Just as a human baby takes time to develop and mature, so also the human family who received this message of covenant love and faithfulness needed time – generation upon generation – to make sense of the radical call and identity that God was inviting them into. We should not be surprised that when we read the ancient Hebrew scriptures now that many of the teachings and claims strike us as crude and perhaps barbaric. But they were mere steps along this journey towards what God originally intended for all the nations to be part of.
So what began with one family, gradually developed into a larger and more complex reality that became one tribe, then twelve tribes, which grew into a new people during the time of slavery in Egypt, so that as the people escaped and made their Exodus journey through the wilderness and into the promised land, they became a new people and then became slowly one nation and one kingdom during the days of King David. But this was only the beginning. Paul (or one of his disciples) tells us today in Ephesians 3 that the original plan of God, that was hidden for so long, began to be revealed in glimpses through the Prophets, but in our time was finally revealed through the birth, life, passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. Paul saw himself as the great evangelist of this new announcement: that what was understood as exclusive and particular, was now to be experienced as inclusive and universal – a blessing that belongs to all people, nations, languages, cultures, genders, sexuality, colours, social status, education levels, ethnicity and creeds. A message that some magi from the East happened to stumble across in Bethlehem, was now made available for all people. But now the work of Christmas needs to begin – to bring this inclusive and universal gospel into the lives of all people.
Feast of the Epiphany. Matthew 2:1-12; Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:2-3,5-6.
Although there is nothing in the Gospel of Matthew about camels, kings or even how many of the strange magi visited the child Jesus and his mother Mary – there are enough details to provide much pondering. The first chapter of Matthew’s gospel – although we are given a full (stylised) rendering of the genealogy of Jesus and then the announcement of the pending birth of Jesus from Joseph’s perspective – no information is given to provide any clue about the exact location in time or space of the events (beyond the genealogy) and no human has actually spoken a single word – only angels have spoken so far. So when the second chapter opens with a brief mention of the name of Jesus, we are told where and when he was born and we are then introduced to the central characters of this part of the story – the magoi. In fact, they are given the right and privilege to be the first humans to speak, as they ask their question: “where is the child to be born?” It is interesting that in this most Jewish of all the Gospels, that the first words are allowed to be spoken by people who are not only non-Jewish, but so totally removed from the whole Jewish story of creation, salvation and prophecy. Which leads to the question of what role strangers like this are going to have in the whole of the story, and why they are here if not at least in part to provide something like the first-fruits of the great Gospel commission that will conclude this same Gospel of Matthew in chapter 28.
Recorded at St Paul’s, 8am (8 mins)
Epiphany Sunday. Matthew 2:1-12
In considering the account of the Magi arriving in Jerusalem and Bethlehem in the gospel is already richly told. Even so, many traditions, legends and carols have added all kinds of details to the story, most of which cannot be supported by the text itself.
When the magi arrive in Jerusalem, they would first have to have made their presence known to Herod, the King of Israel and thereby seek an audience with him. They must have presented as guests of some significance in order for their request to be granted. When they finally had the opportunity to make their request to Herod and ask their question of the place of birth of the prophesied king “of the Jews”, no doubt they would have been surprised that this king did not know something so basic in the spiritual and religious law and traditions of the people that Herod was supposed to serve. When the chief priests and scribes are called, they give the obvious answer of the city of David: Bethlehem. When they finally arrive at the house of the holy family, they do the only thing that they can: they kneel in worship before the child Jesus and offer the most previous gifts that they can provide.
The response of the magi stands in stark contrast to that of Herod. Although he talks sweetly and feigns religious allegiance, Herod is insanely threatened by the birth of this child as a potential and likely claimant to the throne that he had worked so hard through political intrigue to achieve. So rather then contemplating worship or blessing, Herod’s response is the one that we see all too commonly around us: to curse the unknown threat and strike against it with hated and violence.
Recorded at St Paul’s, 9:30am
Video reflection: Epiphany (Shift Worship)
So we arrive at the feast of the Epiphany and the customary three wise men make their way from their hiding place elsewhere on the sanctuary or in the sacristy to their appointed places in the manger nativity scene, joining the shepherds, angels and animals in adoration beside the holy family. All very standard and wonderfully historically accurate. Or is it? What our nativity scenes attempt to do is offer a mash-up between the two very different Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus – the Gospel of Luke told from the point-of-view of Mary with the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the census, the absence of room in the traditional lodgings, the making use of the ground floor room where the animals are usually kept, and the visit of the maligned shepherds as the first guests and witnesses to these events. Then the Gospel of Matthew told from the point-of-view of Joseph, situates the birth of Jesus within the greater story of the people of God. Matthew begins with origins of Joseph, Mary and Jesus in their genealogy and then the very simple recounting of the birth of Jesus to the virgin Mary. Chapter one gives us no details of where or when the child is born – only that he is as an act of God. Attempting to bring both shepherds and magi into the one scene felt a bit like all the extraneous characters in Peter Jackson’s third Hobbit movie – or even worse if he had decided that the most appropriate people to save the heroes (Bilbo and the dwarves) was Harry Potter and Albus Dumbledore.
Epiphany Sunday. Matthew 2:1-12
In the Gospel of Luke, it is the lowly and outcast shepherds who are the first to visit the child Jesus in the stable in Bethlehem; in the Gospel of Matthew, it is foreign magi who have journeyed for weeks, if not months, to come and seek the new-born king of the Jews. What is odd that it is not the respectable citizens of Jerusalem, nor the high priests or scribes of the temple that make their way to see the child. Even after the appearance of the magi in Jerusalem, none of them bother to make the two-hour journey across the small valley to Bethlehem to see for themselves what all this fuss is about and to confirm the signs in the heavens that the magi report.
Recorded at St Paul’s, 10am (6’58”)
Gathering to celebrate the Eucharist on the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, the liturgy provides fantastic images to reflect upon. From the prophet Isaiah who reminds us that the Lord will not crush the bruised reed, to the Lord Jesus who after he comes up out of the water receives the gift of the Holy Spirit. We are also given an opportunity to reflect upon our own experience of Baptism, and perhaps the best way to do this is through an Ikea pillow…
Recorded at Zero Gravity youth camp, with 185 teenagers at Mount Tamborine. (14’24”)
When I caught up with some friends during the week to celebrate a mutual friend’s birthday, the conversation turned to the Feast of the Epiphany and the celebration of Christmas. Mainly this was because one of the guys was a deacon in the Coptic Orthodox church, and he was gently berating me and the other Catholics present for celebrating Christmas on the wrong date and for not keeping the fast before Christmas (as we hoed into barbequed chicken, beef and pork ribs); meanwhile the high Anglican was talking about his church and the tradition of celebrating the season of Epiphany, rather than a single Sunday. This started me thinking about the different meanings of epiphany (meaning manifestation or revelation) and the way that each Gospel in turn really does present a different aspect of the ‘epiphany’. Although we are most familiar with Matthew’s story of the magoi coming to visit the ‘new-born king’, Luke’s gospel tells a similar story with very different characters in the angelic vision to the shepherds; meanwhile, Mark’s gospel reserves the epiphany for the Baptism of Jesus and John has his at the first sign that occurs at the wedding feast in Cana. So, since we will celebrate the Feast of the Baptism next week, and will read from John 2 the following Sunday, in some ways the church still celebrates the season of Epiphany, even if we don’t name it as such.
What all this points to is that there are many ways that Jesus is revealed to us. If we spend too long examining the gospel account in Matthew and pondering on the nature of the stellar events, counting the magoi, determining the date that they arrived in Bethlehem, making names for them, or speculating why they brought such un-practical gifts, we will miss the true beauty of this season of Epiphanies.
Recorded at St Paul’s, 10am (8’25”)
Solemnity of the Epiphany
We are so used to thinking about the Christmas story as told in the gospel of Luke, that Matthew’s equally compelling story can get sidelined. When we do turn to Matthew’s story, we can get so distracted by the crib scenes and carols that the true details also get lost. It is worth pondering the details of the visit of the magi and what challenge it still offers to the contemporary church.
Epiphany Sunday. St Mary’s Leppington, 8am (8’09”)
Feast of the Epiphany. The journey of the magi provides us with an opportunity to reflect on our own relationship with Christ and the lengths that we go to seek out truth and bring our lives in worship before the child king in Bethlehem.
Recorded at SJV, 6pm (7’00”)
Recorded at SJV, 10.30am (6’41”)
Paul reveals (Eph 3:5-6) that in the visit of the Magi we see not a new plan, but the long hidden plan of God to include all people in his inheritance, his body and his promises.
Recorded at St Michael’s, 9.30am (8’20”) Guitar by Dan Mueller.