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Epiphany

30 December 2022

Isaiah 60.1-6; Psalm 72.[1-9] 10-15; Ephesians 3.1-12; Matthew 2.1-12

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IT MAKES sense to focus on the Gospel when we celebrate the Epiphany, especially in Year A; for the story of the Magi and their journey is Matthew’s gift to the Church. No other Gospel mentions it. This does not mean that only Matthew thinks that the epiphany message matters to Christians — we have the reading from Paul to remind us about the inclusion of the Gentiles (he mentions it twice). And Isaiah records God proclaiming it centuries before Christ’s nativity.

Despite that instruction from God through his prophet, no such inclusion of the Gentiles had been instituted. Either some Jewish people did not want to mix with Gentiles, or the Gentiles had no use for an act of welcome which was meaningless to them (because they did not call themselves Gentiles, or know what the term meant), or both. I suspect the latter.

We find it easier to proclaim inclusive principles than to live them out, particularly when it will cost us something to uphold those principles. Still, it matters that the prophecy, with its principle of inclusion, was preserved in scripture for us to keep coming back to. No one who claims to be a Christian should be able to say that they did not know God wants this from us.

Luke — himself a Gentile — had worked hard in his Gospel, and in Acts, to smooth away possible sources of misunderstanding, where Jesus’s Jewishness might be difficult for his Gentile readers to understand. Not so Matthew, for whom Jesus is a new Moses, complete with his own miraculous infancy rescue and departure from Egypt (Exodus 2). It is Matthew’s Gospel, with its sensitivity to Jewish history (as well as some less helpful moments, 27.25), which understands how broad is the gulf that needs to be bridged.

Perhaps it is unfortunate for Matthew’s inclusive message how the English language has developed in its use of the term “epiphany”. I can understand why people find it an attractive word-choice; for it sounds exotic (it is Greek) and has four syllables, which help it to resound impressively. In the Bible, it is used of Christ’s first appearing (2 Timothy 1.10) and his final appearing (1 Timothy 6.14).

In neither of these two examples is it used in the way in which Christians now use it, to refer to that specific act of appearing (on the part of the Christ-child), and the act of acknowledgement by the three Gentile wise men (marked by their giving of kingly gifts). When the New Testament took shape, it was just a standard way of talking about the materialising of any divine being before a mortal, whether Christian or “pagan”.

This makes me wonder what non-Christians make of our celebrating the Epiphany. We could try using the Prayer Book’s alternative label, the Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, but “Manifestation” sounds equally exotic and theological, and has even more syllables, so that is unlikely to help.

When it is used in ordinary speech, “epiphany” may be nothing more than a synonym for “appearance”. Sometimes, I hear someone using it to describe their coming to a sudden and unexpected realisation. Neither of these does anything like justice to our “epiphany”, but if we take them together they do preserve some aspects of the fuller version which are genuinely important.

First, the epiphany is an act of witness: something that we have to see. We may not be able to rival the Magi with a journey from the ends of the known world in search of the King of the Jews. But we can still imitate them by a little pilgrimage: to church, to worship, to prayer.

Second, the epiphany changes us, from a state of ignorance to a state of knowledge. We should not depart for our own country — not by any road — without having learned something, or realised something, or without being re-energised for whatever lies before us.

Certainly, the vision that greets us when we behold our infant King and know him for who and what he is must be treasured. We depart bearing a knowledge more precious than any of the gifts we came with. But, above all, that Epiphany vision is for sharing. The Light must beget light; for, taken all together, the three readings for the Epiphany are shot through with light — dawn light; star light; and, above all, divine light.

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