Sunday, January 6, 2008

The Proper of the Day: The Epiphany

Adoration of the Magi, Gentile da Fabriano, 1423

On this Principle Feast of the Church, one of only seven, we recall and remind ourselves that Jesus is for all people, that he was "manifested," shown forth, revealed to, both insiders and outsiders. Ironically, Matthew records that it is outsiders who recognize Jesus first and act on it. Epiphany is the beginning of the season of recall Jesus's various manifestations, (dare I say "revelations"?) particularly his early ministry.

I served at St. Thomas's Vernon NJ again today, and offered the following. Comments and feedback are always welcome!

St. Thomas’s Episcopal Church, Vernon NJ

Feast of the Epiphany

Isaiah 60:1-6,9; Psalm 72:1-2, 10-17; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

The Rev. R. F. Solon, Jr.

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be always acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

Signs. Road signs. Go this way, go that way. Some clear, some not. Story about getting lost at the Airport. Long Drive to Toledo and back. Signs.

We hear about signs on this special day. One very special sign especially. That’s the star that led the wise men to Bethlehem. This day is Epiphany, part of Christmas but not part of it, the last of the Christmas stories. That’s why we still have the decorations up. Twelfth Night was last night, and may communities celebrate Epiphany then. Just like every other principal feast we celebrate, Epiphany has its own Eve, just like Christmas. This year, Epiphany falls on a Sunday, and so we observe it in our regular round of Sunday worship.

What’s so special about the visit of the wise men? Why is it we count this observance right alongside Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, Trinity, All Saints, and of course Christmas? It’s a wonderful story, of course. By tradition, there have been three wise men, magi, sometimes called kings even. Many people don’t add their wise men to their crèche at home right away. Instead, they have them wander around the house during the Twelve Days of Christmas, until they finally get there on this day. Their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh are, by tradition, to be for Jesus as King, Jesus as Priest, and Jesus as Prophet. The three wise men even have names: Gaspar, Melchoir, and Balthazar. There are some great Christmas carols – we sang one this morning already. That’s all very nice, of course, but what is so important about this day anyway?

Think for a moment about who is involved today. We have the baby Jesus and Mary of course. We have King Herod, and the chief priests, and the wise men for the East. Notice that all the characters except the wise men are Jewish. And it’s the Jewish people who have the insider information. The chief priests and scribes quote the prophet Micah about where the messiah will be born. The wise men, for all their wisdom, don’t seem to know that. How could they, of course? They weren’t Jewish. All the other characters of the story are. And what happens? Who is it that correctly identifies who this baby is? Who is it that pays homage to Jesus, and presents him with precious gifts? The visitors, the ones who weren’t Jewish – the outsiders. They called them Gentiles back then. It’s a pretty important concept in the New Testament. You were either Jewish, or you weren’t. It didn’t matter if you were Roman or Greek or Syrian or Cyprian or what. If you weren’t Jewish, you were a Gentile. Epiphany reminds as us, in the words of St. Paul, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

And that, my friends, is the point. The story of the visit of the wise men is all about who sees Jesus for who he really is. And it’s the outsiders. How ironic that they’re the onese who get it first! In a way, this story foreshadows the entire life, ministry, and death of Jesus. Jesus comes among his own, and his own people reject him. But many who are not his own people do accept him, and he is shown to be Savior not only of Jewish people, but of all people everywhere. Sound familiar? We heard it in John’s Gospel just last week.

Epiphany as a word simply means “manifest” or “show forth.” Epiphany is so important because it reminds us that Jesus was manifested – shown forth– to everybody, absolutely everyone. All people are invited to accept God in Jesus. You. Me. The folks down the street. Everyone. Epiphany and Pentecost are very similar. Both point us in different ways to those beyond us, those outside our own comfort zones. I don’t think it’s coincidence at all that in both major festive times of the year, Christmas and Easter, we begin them with what has become the most significant days of the year. We end them with two festivals that should probably be more important than we’ve let them. We tend to let Epiphany, and Pentecost, too, slide a bit. I wonder why. Is it because we’re uncomfortable with what they’re telling us?

The Epiphany of Our Lord reminds us of something else, too. By its very placement as both the last day of Christmas and the first day of the Season of Epiphany, this day is a sign. It’s a sign that says Christmas is over. We have waited for Christmas throughout Advent, and when it arrived - finally - we celebrated for twelve whole days. We’ve paused with Mary and the baby at the inn. Alongside the wise men from the East, we presented our own precious gifts – our time, talent, and treasure, if you like. And now, today, we stop looking back. It’s time to get up and get going. The magi didn’t stay for very long with the Holy Family. They were off and about their business again. We never hear about them again. And we know that, like them, we can’t linger at the crèche. We’re going to have to put it away after today, and it’s time to look forward.

This Epiphany season, my hope and prayer is that you here at St. Thomas’s will begin to look forward as well. There is a wonderful tradition, from the time when only the clergy were literate and had calendars, that on this day the Epiphany Proclamation is read. Since Epiphany is always on January 6, it’s the last day of the Christmas cycle, which is always fixed by the calendar. But the next great cycle – the Easter cycle – varies year by year depending on the date of the full moon. So on this day, the last day of the fixed cycle, we look forward to the central festival of the Church and it’s great promise, by announcing when Easter will be and when all the dates that depend on Easter will be as well.

I think that’s a wonderful reminder of what Epiphany is. It isn’t just a wonderful story. It stands on the edge of both Christmas and Easter, and it reminds us to look forward, to not stay focused inward and on ourselves. Instead, we should look outward and reflect on who the wise men – and women, too – are in our communities. Who is it that are outsiders to us who have not yet seen the Star of the Messiah and need to do so? Who are outside our comfort zones? Who are the Gentiles for us here today? We can be stars for them, you and I and every member of St. Thomas’s. We can be those who lead others by our light to the light of Christ. We don’t have to wait for the arrival of your new vicar. We can do it now. In this Epiphany season, as we celebrate the manifestation of Christ to all people, not the just the insiders who already know what’s going on, let’s take that to heart. Who do you know, or who are you aware of, who needs to hear about Jesus but is outside? And remember your own gifts of time, talent, and treasure, that you’ve laid at the foot of the crèche? How can each of us, me included, use the gifts I bring to God to make Jesus known – manifest – to somebody else this Epiphany season?

My friends, the Good News is not only for us. Everyone saw the star at its rising, not only the insiders. Just because you understand what’s going on doesn’t mean you get it or act on it. Epiphany reminds us, compels us, to remember that, even as we finish celebrating the Twelve Days of the birth of our Saviour, we, like the star, must look outward and forward into the whole world, outside of our comfort zones, so that all people can enjoy the Light of Christ as well.

And so, in honor of this great celebration which stands at the cusp of both Christmas and Easter, may I ask you to rise as you able for the age-old proclamation named for this day:

Dear brothers and sisters,
the glory of the Lord has shone upon us,
and shall ever be manifest among us,
until the day of his return.

Through the rhythms of times and seasons
let us celebrate the mysteries of salvation.

Let us recall the year's culmination,
the Easter Triduum of the Lord:
his last supper, his crucifixion, his burial,
and his rising celebrated
between the evening of the twentieth day of March
and the evening of the twenty-third day of March.

Each Easter -- as on each Sunday --
the Holy Church makes present the great and saving deed
by which Christ has for ever conquered sin and death.
From Easter are reckoned all the days we keep holy.

Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent,
will occur on the sixth day of February.

The Ascension of the Lord will be commemorated on the first day of May.

Pentecost, joyful conclusion of the season of Easter,
will be celebrated on the eleventh day of May

And, this year the First Sunday of Advent will be
on the thirtieth day of November.

Likewise the pilgrim Church proclaims the passover of Christ
in the feasts of the holy Mother of God,
in the feasts of the Apostles and Saints,
and in the commemoration of the faithful departed.

To Jesus Christ, who was, who is, and who is to come,
Lord of time and history,
be endless praise, for ever and ever.