Sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany 2020
5th Jan 2020
Sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany 2013 (Year C)
Depiction of the Magi from The Church of St Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, 550 AD.
We returned to our places, these kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
TS Eliot The Journey of the Magi.
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, and this word is taken from the Greek word epiphanos, and it has two meanings. The first of these speaks of ‘a sign’. The sign is something shown, a manifestation of something new and startling. It is revealed in the birth of the Messiah, which summons our three wise men to find the sign which had been promised by Isaiah and announced by the angel Gabriel; of the appearance of the longed-for Messiah as a baby, “wrapped in swaddling bands and lying in a manger”:
The heavenly babe you there shall find
To human view displayed,
All meanly wrapped in swaddling bands
and in a manger laid.
The appearance of the infant Christ provides a second epiphany. This is the epiphany of conversion as a sudden and new perception of realities. It is what Eliot means when he tells us that the wise men returned to their places "no longer at ease in the old dispensation". It tells us of the renewing effect that the showing of the sign has upon those who witness it.
Fear not to enter his courts in the slenderness
of the poor wealth thou wouldst reckon as thine
Truth in its beauty and love in its tenderness
these are the offerings to lay on his shrine.
Epiphany calls us to true and undiluted worship of our Saviour. The Magi travelled from afar in search of the truth. When they found that truth in Jesus, they were bowled over by it. Their lives were changed. A very early Christian wall painting shows the three Magi walking towards Christ and His Mother as though they are in fact dancing in perfect synchronisation. The clue to its understanding is the fact that it is painted on the walls of a catacomb, the place where early Christians buried their dead. In this setting, we are walking not towards Bethlehem but rather towards Jesus the Lord who will come one day to judge both the living and the dead. If that is so, then you and I must walk both with eagerness and with integrity. You and I must offer lives that are shaped by our quest, by the grace of the Lord Jesus whom we serve and to whom we come. And we must respect what we believe to be our Christian vocation and not betray its importance. Our lives must find their expression rather as a dance in synchronisation and in step with the One who keeps time...
Just as the magi travelled from afar to see the Sign, we too follow that same journey in our own Christian lives. It is the journey we make in our hearts to the place where we see and we know Jesus and where we bear witness. We may, out of the joy and the peace of his appearing, offer him the best gift we have to give, the gift of ourselves and of our own being and of the deepening of our witness. To speak like this is to speak of the Feast of the Epiphany not only as a Feast of Signs but as a time and a place in which the divine presence is revealed to us as something vitally necessary for us.
The Story of the Three Wise Men is not just one which has been ‘tagged’ onto the Nativity for extra effect. It is has a crucial significance in the message of the coming of the Son of God. We continue to remember that the divine name given to Jesus is ‘God with Us’. His coming to birth has caused a rupture in Eliot's ‘old dispensation’. It has challenged the fixed separation of heaven and earth; and of the existence of God and his relation to us as remote. God has in Jesus come to us in flesh and blood, has come to us as a pauper child, has come through his life on earth to raise us all into the likeness of God Himself. We are to respond as did the wise men:
O Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness;
Bow down before him, his glory proclaim;
With gold of obedience and incense of lowliness
Kneel and adore him; the Lord is his Name!"
J S B Monsell (1811-1875).