The Feast of the Epiphany at the Church of the Epiphany.
The first feast of the Epiphany was the revelation of God’s love to the world through the birth of Jesus Christ, and the proclamation of that birth and its promise throughout the nations, not only through the usual channels – the prophets of Israel, the preaching of the Temple, the covenant of the chosen people – but in a direct and unmistakable message to the wise men of the east that God had chosen to be born in Bethlehem, a small city to the south of Jerusalem; chosen to be born as prince and pauper all rolled into one, as king of the Jews and ruler of the whole world, wrapped in cloth and lying in a feeding trough. Incongruous is not the word. Ironic barely hints at it. Unmistakable might. With all of those angels and stars and shepherds and wise men, there was no mistaking that something truly divine had happened – an Epiphany.
Some heard it through the music of the spheres. Some discerned it through studying star charts – science and mathematics applied divinely. Some dreamt of it. Some found it after years of waiting in faithful temple worship, and found their lives to be completed by it.
Some were disturbed by it, frightened, and all Jerusalem with him, because as often as they worshipped in the temple and invoked God’s name, they never really expected that God would answer, and it was disconcerting to think that God might, in fact, still be involved, still be interested in their lives. How many times had Herod prayed along with his people for a Messiah, only to be dumbfounded, terrified and driven genocidally mad when his prayers were answered?
A side note: it is not unimportant that the wise men came from the East. Why not from the west, from Rome or Greece or Gaul? Maybe in part to undermine the wisdom of the empire, but also in the scriptures of Genesis and the early stories of the Bible, east was the direction that took the people away from God. East was as far as you could get from God. Adam and Eve left Eden by the eastern gate; Cain, the murderous son of Adam and Eve who killed his brother, “went away from the presence of the Lord” by settling in the land of Nod, “east of Eden.” To summon the men from the East, in the terms of the story, God reached as far as God could, to the people as far from Eden, as far from the promise of paradise as God could, in order to cover the whole world, those found, those lost, and everyone in between.
Saul was truly lost. He was so lost that even after they crucified Jesus, he carried on persecuting his disciples for daring to preach the gospel, to suggest that God had done something new, had carried out a resurrection and a salvation and laid a new foundation for the kingdom of God. He was so lost that on the road to Damascus, out to do more persecuting, he found himself unable to see which way to turn, until finally he asked the way, and heard the voice of Jesus calling him back to the way of life, the way of peace, the way of salvation. His was a less gentle epiphany than that of the wise men; a brighter light and a ruder awakening. It was frightening, to be so directly confronted by the truth of the gospel. It was certainly unmistakable.
Having found his way, Saul, who was renamed Paul, became, as he said, “a servant of the gospel… to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known.”
Through the church, the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known.
We are called as the church, in this church, to be an epiphany for the world, the means by which God demonstrates the reach of God’s mercy, the sureness of God’s embrace, the reality of God’s salvation embodied in Jesus, available to all.
That sounds daunting, maybe even frightening. But it starts simply, with recognizing, and remembering, and realizing where our own epiphanies are to be found. Is it in the music? Is it in the stars, or the sun, or the snow? Is it in the sleeping beauty of a child or a lover, or in the storm over the lake? Is it in the scientific precision of a world of intricate detail and wild wonder? Is it in the Sacrament, the holy mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known?
For me, it started with a few school teachers who were faithful in passing on the prayers, and it grew in the wonder of the mystery of the Eucharist, the strange but unmistakable presence of Christ in the bread and the wine, the Body and the Blood. Sometimes, it is a sunset that reminds me, often it’s a friend – not always the same one, sometimes a poem or a single phrase of music; sometimes the strangeness, the mystery of life itself draws me back into conversation with God, and finding a willing partner, I am once again struck by the revelation of God’s far-reaching embrace and dazzling light.
It is a revelation and a relationship that I would not want to live without. That is my epiphany, and when I share what I have found, what I have seen, then I am doing the work of the church, letting the variety of God’s riches be known.
It is the work of us all. Years ago, before I stood on this side of the pulpit, I met a woman who had been badly hurt by the church. I told her I was sorry, that she was right, and that I wished she would give the church a second chance, because it helped me so much despite that wrong, and it was precisely because I was not the priest of that church that I was able to tell her that I would be happy to stand by her side if she ever did want to give it a go. She never did come to church with me, but years later I spoke with the next priest that served that church, and she had gone to him, and told him her story, and asked him about arranging for the baptism of her children at a different church down the road.
I, too, am from a faraway land to the east, and unlike the shepherds, the townspeople, the midwives and innkeepers of Bethlehem, it may take me longer to get to into the light and to bring my neighbours to see the sleeping baby than for those who have always lived next door.
In plain terms, it is easier for you to sit by the side of someone you invite to church than it is for me.
The Epiphany was the revelation of God’s love to the world through the birth of Jesus Christ, God’s endless reach to the farthest wanderers in time and space to bring them back into the promise, the relationship that is our salvation, the knowledge of the love of God. Our own epiphanies continue, the little reminders reassuring us day by day that God is still involved, still interested in our lives. Often, you are that sign for one another. Our call as the Church of the Epiphany is to be the sign, the star, the Sacrament for our world, our community in this time, reminding and reassuring our neighbours that God is still with us, all of us.
We do it by donating dimes and helping those in need of a hand. We do it through sharing our worship, the hidden mysteries of music and word and Sacrament and sight. We do it when we are willing to share our own stories of how God has reached far, far to the east of our lives to call us home to Christ, when we say to a friend, a colleague, one searching for a sign in the stars, “Come, see what I have found, here in the city, so unexpected, so incongruous, yet so real.”
“Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has dawned upon you. For behold, darkness covers the land; deep gloom enshrouds the peoples. But over you the Lord will rise, and God’s glory will appear upon you. Neighbours will stream to your light, and people to the brightness of your dawning. The Lord will be your everlasting light, and you will shine with God’s glory.” (Isaiah 60:1-3,19b/Canticle 11 paraphrase)
It is God’s promise. It is our charge. It is Epiphany.