O God, by the leading of a star you manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth: Lead us, who know you now by faith, to your presence, where we may see your glory face to face; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (BCP, 214)
Epiphany is one of the oldest feast days in Christianity. It has been celebrated since the end of the second century, long before the Christmas holiday was first established in 336. It is commonly known as Twelfth Night, Twelfth Day, or the Feast of Epiphany. It means “manifestation” or “showing forth”. It is also called Theophany (“manifestation of God”), especially by Eastern Christians. The Epiphany celebrates the revelation of God incarnate as Jesus Christ. In Western Christianity, the feast commemorates principally the visit of the Magi to the Christ Child, and thus Jesus' physical manifestation to the Gentiles. The Eastern Orthodox churches focus more on Jesus’ Baptism, the second of the two occasions on which Jesus’ divinity was manifested to all. (We in the West have a separate feast day for Jesus’ Baptism. We call that “The First Sunday After the Epiphany: The Baptism of our Lord.”)
The famous story of the visit of the Magi can be found in Matthew’s gospel (2:1-12), and is followed immediately by the tragic and appalling story of King Herod’s order to massacre all male children two years old or under in and around Bethlehem because of his fear about what Jesus might mean to his own sense of his power and authority.
We see, again and again, that any historical sketches of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus include accounts of his rejection by some and acceptance by others. In general, he was rejected by the religious and political elite of Jerusalem (the center of power in Jesus’ area of ministry), and was accepted by many Jews and Gentiles who found truth, hope, and joy in the Good News of his teachings. In this story for the feast of the Epiphany the future rejection and acceptance of Jesus is foreshadowed by the rejection and acceptance at his birth.
When the Wise Men tell Herod, the current king of the Jews, of the heavenly indications of a newborn king of the Jews, the immediate reaction is fright. The advent of the long-awaited Messiah does not lead to celebration but to fear. Herod and the chief priests know that the child will be a threat to their position and power. They have corrupted the faith they were pledged to protect, and when the true faith arrives their corruption will be exposed. Notice how Herod’s nefarious intentions are cloaked under a seemingly harmless quest for information and disguised as piety. Herod’s behavior shows him to be a hypocrite, one whose words do not align with their actions, whose outside is not aligned with his inside. “For you are like white-washed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Matthew 23:27-28) In Matthew’s gospel this is the enduring temptation of religious and political leaders, saying what is pious and respectable while harboring treachery in their hearts.
The Wise Men are overwhelmed with joy, for they have found the one whom they sought, the fulfillment of human longing. The religious and political leaders, though, choose fear as their response to God coming among us. Why? Perhaps because it will mean that significant change is required in order for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10), and they do not welcome that change.
Truth be told, we can find ourselves on either side of this great divide at various times and in various circumstances. Sometimes we welcome the Word of God with glad and open hearts, other times we guard and protect our long-held beliefs in a more pugilistic stance, ready to fight and defend ourselves at any cost. But the Epiphany – the manifestation of God among us – calls us to choose. We will never find true and lasting peace as long as we play both sides of the fence, keeping all our options open, and maintaining our “right” to accept or reject God’s Word at will. Not until we, like the Wise Men, choose to follow love into mystery will we truly and deeply come to know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Jesus Christ is the answer to every question that’s ever arisen in the human heart. For Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8), and he is the way, and the truth, and the light (John 14:6). We have received our Theophany. The time has come to choose.