9 Jan 2011
“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” (1 Cor. 13:1) In the name …
We’ve now moved into the Epiphany season in the church. Liturgically, we’ve grown accustomed to combining Christmas and Epiphany into the same story. Our Christmas Eve manger has Jesus surrounded by Mary and Joseph and also the Bethlehem shepherds. We leave the Magi on the window sills of the church and depict them as still traveling toward Bethlehem. Then on the twelfth day after Christmas, the Feast of Epiphany, we add the Magi to our manger. This is what we do liturgically, but this isn’t how it is told biblically. In the Bible, Luke’s story of the shepherds and the angels is separate from Matthew’s story of the Magi and the star, and neither Evangelist knows the story told by the other. Luke gives no hint of knowing about the Magi and their gifts, and Matthew offers no evidence that he has any knowledge about the shepherds and the manger. These are two distinct stories about Jesus’ birth. But liturgically it doesn’t make much sense to tell one story one year and the other the next so the alternative is to cheat a little bit and tell them simultaneously.
The Epiphany story speaks of Magi. Magi were members of the priestly caste in ancient Persia, modern day Iran. They studied the heavens and because of this they were also associated with astrology, not astronomy, the science of the heavens, but astrology, that the stars tell our story. The Evangelist Matthew is extremely attentive to all the ways in which Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies about the coming of the Messiah. And one of those prophets is found in the last chapters of the Book of Isaiah. He foretells that “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn … A multitude of camels shall … bring gold and frankincense.” (60:3, 6) And this becomes the basis of Matthew’s Epiphany story, of foreign nations coming to Israel’s Messiah with their gifts of homage.
Matthew hints in his story that these Magi may have searched for the Christ Child for up to two years as they followed the star that announced His birth. We learn this because of the Holy Innocents. When King Herod of Israel realizes he has been duped by the Magi, that they will not reveal to him who the newborn King of the Jews is, he orders the massacre of all the baby boys in Bethlehem who are two and younger. This gives evidence in the story that when the Magi speak to Herod they tell him they have been searching for the child since the star first appeared in the heavens two years prior.
This is where the idea of Epiphany enters into our story too. We’ve transformed the word into meaning a sudden realization, but Epiphany isn’t about time, especially about a sudden realization since the Magi have been searching for two years. It’s about place. Epiphany literally means “an appearance from the outside.” Epiphany in the church refers to the Magi as the outside witnesses to the birth of the Jewish Messiah. They and their gifts fulfill the prophecy that the nations of the world will come to worship this Saviour sent from God, that this Messiah is intended to be for all people. For possibly two years these Magi devoted themselves to seeking out the sacred in the world. Their quest was to discover the object of their worship. And ever since, Epiphany has called upon us to search out where God is still present among us and where He is in our world. Epiphany tells us that God is in our world, but it also challenges us to go out and find Him.
Matthew’s Jesus lives in a Bethlehem house not a Bethlehem manger, in other words an ordinary dwelling. The star doesn’t shine a beam on that house because then why would the Magi be asking questions in Jerusalem about the prophecies concerning where the child is to be born. The Magi must search for God’s Son. They must seek out where He is to be found. That’s the Epiphany message for us still today, that ours is a mission to find God’s ordinary presence in the world. This past Tuesday I was visiting with Florence Sadowski in the nursing home. She likes to sit out in the hall with some of her friends. As I was talking to her a young man, an employee of the nursing home, was coming around and emptying trash cans. This is a basic entry-level job. I didn’t expect him to be too happy about doing it either. But as I was finishing my visit with Florence, as I stood up, he tapped me on the shoulder and wished me a happy New Year. Then he told me to always remember Philippians Chapter Four. The verse in particular was: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, Rejoice!” (4:4) Here was a man emptying trash cans in a nursing home and his proclamation to me was “Rejoice always.”
He had found his own Epiphany. He had found joy through his faith in something as ordinary as his job. And his joy was my Epiphany too, my revelation from the outside. For his willingness to begin the conversation, for his excitement about sharing his trust and joy that God surrounds us, in this I felt the presence of God. I was carrying Holy Communion with me at the time, but just as holy was his message of “Rejoice.” God is most definitely here in this sacred place, but because of Christmas and now Epiphany we should also know that God is everywhere, that God and the sacred are even to be discovered in the ordinary. The challenge of Epiphany is that God is in our world, but we have to seek Him out. We have to discover the sacred in the worldly and the ordinary. Jesus was hidden in a house. God’s word was spoken by a janitor. God is waiting to be found. This is why the Epistle reading for the First Sunday after Epiphany is the Christian hymn to love. This greatest of God’s gifts has the ability to transform the ordinary into the holy. To act without love is to act for show. To act with love transforms any act into a sacred act. This is why the hymn ends with the words: “The greatest of these is love.” Let us learn from Epiphany to search for God in our world, and to realize that the ordinary can become the sacred when we find God there and when we bring Christian love there. And for this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo