EPIPHANY NO. 1 Isa 60. 1 – 6; Ps 72. 1 – 11; Eph 3. 1 – 6; Matt 2. 1 – 12
3 January 2021 St Dunstan’s Camberwell
EPIPHANY AND THE THREE WISE MEN
Today we celebrate the Epiphany, the feast of the Church year that speaks so powerfully to us of the mystery and awe of God.
The gospel of Matthew chapter 2 is where we find the story that we have come to know as the Epiphany. This is a story with a star, and mystery and secret plans, and a momentous, auspicious meeting.
We learn that wise men come from lands to the east to Jerusalem, led by the star, and seeking the child who they had come to believe has been born king of the Jews. When they get to Jerusalem, they ask around where they might find this child and they even have a secret audience with King Herod, who is, not surprisingly, alarmed at the possibility of a rival for his throne. In the event, the wise men find where the star that they have been following stops, they enter a house right there, they see the child Jesus, with Mary his mother, and kneel down and pay him homage. They give him three gifts: the first of gold—fitting for a king to receive; and then frankincense—for a priest; and myrrh—traditionally used to prepare a body for burial. The three gifts signify who Jesus is, and foretell that his mission to live and die for all humankind.
These wise men were seekers after wisdom, always on the look out for signs and portents, and ultimately, for someone to worship with their lives, and in Jesus they found him. After this, they leave for their own country, avoiding King Herod.
The legend in the early Church was that in time the wise men became followers of Jesus Christ and were martyred for their faith. S Matthew’s gospel doesn’t say how many wise men there were, just that there were three gifts, but over time, the popular view was formed that there were three wise man and they were even given names: Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar. Their bones were said to have been laid to rest in Constantinople after their martyrdom, then later moved to Milan and eventually to Cologne Cathedral. Today, in the cathedral, their reliquaries (that is, the caskets for their remains) are viewed by millions of tourists each year.
WHO WERE THE MAGI?
Who were these people really, whom our Bible calls ‘wise men’? In the original Greek of the New Testament, the word used for them is ‘magoi’. The term ‘wise men’ is quite a broad translation for Magoi because the magoi were not just any wise men, they were a specific group of people. The word magoi has also been translated as ‘kings’ (which is incorrect) and as astrologers, which is partly correct but confusing because of the modern connotations of that word. Other Bible translations don’t translate the word ‘magoi’ and those Bibles just call them magi, because they can’t find any other modern word which is close enough in meaning. We also often refer to them as the MAGI, too.
The Magi were in fact a caste of very high ranking advisers on political and religious matters. They advised the rulers of the Median and then the Persian empires (roughly equivalent to the modern countries of Iran and Iraq). So, well to the east of Rome and even Palestine. They were wealthy and held positions of privilege at court. In Roman times, the Magi forged powerful alliances to keep a degree of autonomy for their empires in relation to the Roman Empire.
The Magi were renowned throughout the ancient world for their power, their learning and their independence. We should also remember that astrology was the area of learning in the ancient world that is closest to what we would today call the empirical sciences. It had elements of mathematics, astronomy and psychology. These men, powerful and learned, used their learning – their knowledge of the stars and of geography too, to find their way to Jesus Christ.
They remind me of all those eminent scientists of our own time, especially physicists, who say that their research only confirms for them the existence of God and strengthens for them their Christian faith.
MEANING OF EPIPHANY
‘Epiphany’ is a Greek word meaning ‘appearance’ or ‘coming into light’. The Greeks used the word to describe the dawning of a new day and also for when a god who was usually invisible showed himself to humans in a visible form.
In the early church, the visit of the magi to Jesus came gradually to be known as the Epiphany. It celebrates the revealing of Jesus as God – not only to the magi but to all humankind. A showing forth of God’s glory to all the world. In the Eastern Church, that is, the Orthodox Church, this day is still the most important feast surrounding the birth of Jesus, more important than Christmas Day.
In our Anglican Church, the Feast of Epiphany marks the end of the twelve days of the Christmas season and the start of the season of Epiphany, which lasts till the 2nd of February. In this season of Epiphany, we celebrate three other epiphanies of Jesus Christ recorded in the gospels, when the fact that he was God, the Second Person of the Trinity, was revealed to the world. These epiphanies are the Baptism of our Lord, which is next Sunday; then the occasion when Jesus turned water into wine at the wedding at Cana, which is on the Sunday after that; and then on the 2nd of February, the Presentation of the infant Jesus in the Temple in Jerusalem.
THE WISE MEN’S GIFTS AND OUR GIFTS
Turning again to our wise men, we know that the gifts they gave the child Jesus were the costliest substances in the ancient world, as well as deeply significant. They also give of themselves, because they truly worshipped Jesus.
Do they receive anything in return? Well, it seems that they received wisdom, the knowledge of discerning good and evil and life and death, because they certainly sussed out King Herod and his designs. Did they make it back to their homes? Did they return some years later as the legends have it? Whether they did or not, through their encounter with the baby Jesus and his mother they came to know a way of light and truth and life.
The wise men give us a model of what we should give priority to in our lives. Notice how they don’t just come to see Jesus. The gospel tells us that they worship him. This is what the Church is for. This is why we come to church. It is to worship God. It is an opportunity each week to show our love and our devotion to God, our delight in who God is, our obedience to God, our thankfulness for his love and sacrifice for all humankind. We do this by our presence, our singing, by silence, by prayer, by listening to the Holy Scriptures, by participating in the Holy Communion. It is about setting aside the cares of the week and glorying in the Sabbath, which is also a gift from God, meant for us to rediscover every seven days who we most deeply are. This is what is involved for us in worship. This is what the wise men did and this is what we do.
And, like the wise men, we give of ourselves to God and to those for whom he cares, that is, other people. We give from our time and our talents and from our resources, our money—just as the wise men gave of themselves and their treasure. All of this is involved in the true worship of God.
I wish you a happy and holy Epiphany. The Lord be with you.
Bishop Alison Taylor
A version of this sermon was given on
6 January 2013 at St John’s Camberwell