The revelation of Jesus is for everyone!
So – have you already taken down your Christmas tree or are you planning to do this today??
Sadly, this is the closest a lot of people ever get to even noticing that there’s any sort of “extra” holiday much past Christmas Day and New Year. Epiphany – meaning a manifestation or revelation of a divine or supernatural being – has become the more secular sounding “Twelfth Night” – and transformed into one tradition here saying that this is the deadline for all Christmas decoration to be removed. I would guess that if we went around the local neighbourhood and asked if anyone had heard of Epiphany most of the responses would be blank looks, even among some people who consider themselves “religious.” In Britain this important holy day of the Church seems to have lost its grip on general public consciousness, and become submerged in the post-Christmas recovery period.
There may well be other reasons for this erosion of Epiphany as really distinctive, because it isn’t something which feels like it needs an identity separate from Christmas. And this could well be due to the usual run of obligatory Nativity Plays in countless parishes, all following roughly the same pattern. What do we see? It’s the shepherds and the Wise Men all arriving together at the stable to worship the baby at the same time. While this may be a good reason to involve more children and put together some fancy costumes for the Kings, it completely obscures the message of the Bible that there are two quite different birth stories, aimed at two very different audiences.
Is Epiphany just three kings, Casper, Melchior and Balthasar, riding their camels up to the stable in Bethlehem and presenting symbolic gifts to the baby they find there? If you look in the only place this story is told – in Matthew’s Gospel which we’ve just heard, there’s no mention of kings – let alone three of them or their names, or camels – or even, according to the original Greek word “magi” , that they were all men. With such a dramatic tradition now seemingly firmly cemented into so many churchgoers’ minds, what could the Church do to reclaim and proclaim the real message of the Epiphany? And why is that message so very crucial to Christians? What is the Feast of the Epiphany all about anyway?
Epiphany is observed by both the Eastern Orthodox and Western Churches, but a major difference between them is the focus on which events the feast commemorates. Eastern churches celebrate the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan, and consider Epiphany as the third most important date in the church year, with only Easter and Pentecost being more important. For Western Christians, the feast primarily concentrates on the journey and arrival of the Magi. Some of the western Christian denominations include a minor reference to the baptism of Jesus and the water-into-wine story in the Wedding at Cana; but Anglicans have dedicated another Sunday to the Baptism of Christ – this year it’s next Sunday. In both eastern and western traditions, the core meaning of the feast is the same: the revelation of Christ to the world (whether as a baby in the manger or as a grownup in the Jordan), making real the Mystery of the Incarnation.
The two different “birth of Jesus” stories in Luke and Matthew reflect the serious controversy in the early church about who could become followers of Jesus and what people he was sent to by God. Was Jesus only available to the nation of Israel or could Gentiles, meaning all non-Jews, take part in the new Kingdom? Did potential followers of Jesus have to first become Jews and then be baptised, or could Gentiles join without taking this major – for men anyway – commitment. The earliest Christian writer, St Paul, just isn’t interested in any sort of birth stories; even if such things were circulating by the time he was writing his letters, he didn’t think them important enough to mention. For Paul it’s enough to believe in the Resurrection and have faith in Christ to join the Christian community and be saved. Anyone was eligible to be baptised. The Jerusalem, Jewish-oriented church insisted on circumcision as a prerequisite for Gentile baptism. Later on, when the Gospels were written down, the earliest one, Mark, starts with the baptism of Jesus, and the last to be created, John, starts “in the beginning”. Just perhaps – maybe – Luke and Matthew created their birth stories to set out their own theological agendas for their individual audiences.
Luke, probably a Gentile himself and writing for a Gentile audience, tells about angels announcing the birth of a saviour to the shepherds representing the Jewish nation of Israel. The shepherds, the poor who are among the least important in Jewish society, go to the manger, recognise and then worship the one who will be known as God’s Anointed, the Messiah, the Christ. All three words mean the same. They are given the knowledge of who Jesus is even if the rest of the world doesn’t see it. They don’t bring expensive gifts, they can only bring offerings of themselves and their worship. This is the revelation, to the Jews, to the Chosen People of Israel; what Christians observe as Christmas. But is this Messiah restricted to saving only the Jewish people? If Christmas represents the revelation to the Jews, how does that relate to us gentiles?
Matthew, traditionally identified as the Jewish tax collector Levi, and writing for a Christ-following Jewish community relates a story about group of important, high ranking foreigners called magi – Gentiles, probably astrologers; who see the magic signs in the heavens and travel a long way from their homeland to find the one that the signs point to. They bring costly, symbolic gifts to the infant identified by the signs in the skies. This is Epiphany, God’s revelation to the Gentiles – the rest of the world, all people who aren’t Jews.
As a Jewish man, Matthew would have been familiar with hearing Isaiah, and he uses the passage in the first reading, “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn…” to teach his own Jewish origin community that God’s revelation of the Messiah isn’t just for them. This Jesus will draw in everyone. The whole world, including us who are Gentiles but incorporated by baptism into the community of faith in Jesus. will be entitled to join in. Or, as Ephesians says, “the Gentiles have become fellow-heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” This is why the message of the Epiphany is so important for us. Weare the foreigners at the manger. Weare the Gentiles. This is why separating the Nativity Play shepherds from the arrival of the Magi makes an important visual point; or even – revolutionary! – eliminating the Magi entirely from the Christmas Nativity Play and giving them their own extra Epiphany Play. If we put all our attention on Christmas and sideline the observance of Epiphany, or ignore its significance, we lose the truly boundary-shattering reality of God’s promise of inclusiveness.
Have we, Western Christians, placed too much emphasis on Christmas and on the gift giving by the Magi at the expense of forgetting the real message – the revelation of God’s Messiah to and for the whole world? That God’s purpose is to reconcile everyone and everything in creation with God’s own self; and for Christians this is through belief in and following the way that Jesus the Anointed shows us. The essential words are “for the wholeworld,” not just for the people of Israel – the Jewish world Jesus was born into and stayed a part of for his whole life. The revelation of Jesus and his identity as Messiah and Saviour is given to everyone, Jew and Gentile, the Chosen People and the foreigners equally. We need both Christmas and Epiphany to show that inclusiveness.
And as one verse from a popular seasonal hymn says:
Holy Jesus in thy brightness
To the Gentile world displayed
With the Father and the Spirit
Endless praise to thee be paid.
© Leslie Spatt 2019