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Epiphany

24 December 2020

Isaiah 60.1-6; Psalm 72.1-9 [10-15]; Ephesians 3.1-12; Matthew 2.1-12

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APPROPRIATELY for the appearing of Jesus to the world and all peoples, at the heart of Isaiah’s prophecy is a veritable orgy of giving. The glory of the passage is its positivity. Light shines. God’s people become a source of light for other peoples. All the good things of earth and sea will be given as a willing tribute, a thanksgiving offering.

My favourite among the gifts is the camels. I can’t help finding unintended humour in the news that “a multitude of camels shall cover you.” Picture this in your mind’s eye, and the result is hilarity. It reminds me of a dry observation made by the dramatist Sophocles: reflecting on Homer’s beautiful description of dawn as “rosy-fingered”, he pointed out that if the goddess Dawn really had rosy fingers she would look like a dye-worker, not a goddess. The gap between literal and metaphorical language was nailed for ever, there and then.

A similar range of ways of reading a text is apparent in the Gospel for the Epiphany. If Bethlehem is a city, with all its buildings doubtless packed closely together, how could the wise men from the East tell exactly which one the star had stopped over? That precise point was sent up in the opening section of Monty Python’s Life of Brian, and ever since 1979 we have been made to work a little bit harder to take the Gospel at face value.

Our understanding of how the world works tells us that stars cannot change their course, or stop moving. The text tells us that this is what the wise men observed; and we know they were experts in astronomy, because it was their noticing of this unusual phenomenon in the sky that prompted their journey in the first place.

In other words, it struck them as odd, too — so odd that they were prepared to face great difficulties: “A cold coming they had of it at this time of the year, just the worst time of the year to take a journey. . .the ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off, in ‘the very dead of winter’.” So Lancelot Andrewes described it, in a famous sermon in 1622.

Beyond this, the Gospel cannot take us. If we want to understand the astronomy of the Epiphany, we have to look to science, not exegesis. I can’t say I’ve ever been tempted to try that road, though commentaries on the Gospel are full of heroic efforts in that direction. For me, it’s enough to know that this is what those present thought had happened, and what they carefully recorded so that we could know it, too.

In Ephesians, Paul tackles Epiphany from a different angle. He continues his exploration of those key concepts of “economy” and “mystery”, which describe the unfolding of God’s eternal plan in human time. It is no accident that he returns repeatedly to “grace” as the gift which spills out abundantly through the epiphany — or “appearing” — of Christ to all peoples.

juan lopez ruiz/AlamyMorocco, 2020: riders on their camels on a desert dune at night with the full moon and a shooting star in the background

Unlike camels, or gold, frankincense, and myrrh, this grace is not something we can wrap and hand to a recipient. Paul tells us how he came by this understanding of God’s grace at work. He didn’t construct it for himself, or intuit it from creation, or find it in the law and the prophets. It came to him through revelation.

The Greek word for revelation is “apocalypse”, or “uncovering”. God communicated to Paul by uncovering his divine hand at work in human affairs. The wise men’s star was another such revelation. No one in Jerusalem seems to have noticed the star, or understood its meaning. That isn’t surprising. Most Christians probably don’t experience more than a few revelations (if that) in a lifetime.

Most of the time, God communicates with us in straightforward ways: through seeing, speaking, or listening. That makes an omission from the Gospel text all the more surprising. A word that appears twice in the Greek original, idou, has been left out of the NRSV. The AV translated it first as “behold” and then as “lo”. Omitting it implies that there is no modern equivalent. But “look!” or “see!” would do fine. We should put this word back in, if only to prompt ourselves to us sit up and pay attention; and remind us that the gospel needs to be revealed, spoken, heard, and seen.

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