St. John the Evangelist

St. John the Evangelist

Thursday, 3 January 2013

The Epiphany

January 6                                NOTES FOR REFLECTION                         The Epiphany

Texts:  Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

Theme:  The obvious choice would be the official title of this celebration – The Epiphany of our Lord Jesus Christ, but I have a semantic (pedantic) difficulty with that phrase.  It implies that Jesus (the infant Christ, to be more accurate) had the epiphany, which would be rather like saying the bath water rather than Archimedes had an epiphany, or the apple rather than Isaac Newton.  As this celebration is usually taken to mark the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles a theme such as "The Revelation to the Gentiles" would be better, and would accord well with the three readings.  But I'm tempted to go with something like "The Dawning Light".  Not only does that pick up the imagery in Isaiah's classic Epiphany text - it also accords with our modern expression "Ah, it's just dawned on me" meaning the same as "the penny's dropped", or more simply "Aha!"

Introduction.  The Epiphany completes the Christmas Season.  Just as we take 40 days to ponder Easter, so we take 12 to reflect on the meaning of Christmas.  At the heart of the mystery of Christmas is God's self-revelation and communication in a totally new way.  That was well picked up by the author of the Letter to the Hebrews (see 1:1-4), and it is at the heart of St Paul's teaching in our epistle reading today.  So extraordinary to the Jews was the idea that salvation was for the Gentiles as well as the Jews that St Paul had to refer to it over and over again in his letters.  Today he calls it a great mystery, or a great secret which  God had kept to himself for centuries, until the time was right for it to be revealed in Jesus Christ.  St Matthew uses this story as part of his campaign to "situate" Jesus in the messianic prophetic tradition, of which today's passage from Isaiah is a classic statement.  In effect, St Matthew is "proving" that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah because in him all the messianic prophecies have been fulfilled, beginning in his infancy with this strange visit by the Magi bearing gifts, as Isaiah had foretold.

Background.  It is important to note that this is a Matthew exclusive.  It is most unlikely to have been part of the original Christian oral tradition; and there is certainly no indication that Mark, Luke or John was aware of the story, except in Matthew's text.  The story is a parallel with the succeeding story, the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt, which has a similar purpose.  We can almost see Matthew grappling with awkward "questions from the floor" as he sets out his argument in support of his belief that Jesus of Nazareth is the long-awaited Messiah of Jewish teaching and tradition.  In chapter 1 he gives us the genealogy of Jesus to establish that he was of the house of David, an essential if Jesus is to be accepted as the Messiah, and ends with a classic swerve in verse 16 to extricate himself from the problem that descent through Joseph was not much help if Joseph was not the father of Jesus.  The rest of that chapter is then given over to explaining how Joseph was persuaded to accept the situation no "normal" male fiancé would have tolerated.

In chapter 2 Matthew simply asserts that Jesus was born in Bethlehem (leaving the explanation for that to Luke), but showing how that itself fits with the prophetic tradition, this time from Micah.  The whole story of the Magi is surely infused with the passage from Isaiah that we have as our first lesson this week.  Matthew then follows up with the story of the Holy Family seeking refuge in Egypt because he needs to show that Hosea's prophecy is fulfilled in Jesus ["out of Egypt I called my Son"].  He concludes his "early biographical details" about Jesus by reporting that the Holy Family, on their return from Egypt, went to live in Nazareth, thereby "explaining" how it could be that Jesus was known as Jesus of Nazareth even though he was born in Bethlehem.

The other biblical context for this story is the Jewish belief relating to "End Times" or "End Things".  As the prophetic tradition developed, a sort of "derivative salvation" was thought to be possible for Gentiles.  At the end of the age God would come to the Holy Mountain, Zion, and, as it were, take up permanent residence there, either as God or in the being of the Messiah.  Israel would become an ideal state ruled with righteousness and justice.  Thus it would fulfil its destiny to be a light to the nations, and their people would flock to Jerusalem to worship God and learn to walk in his ways.  Thus there would be a great in-gathering of Gentiles into Israel.  Matthew perhaps presents this story of the Magi (who, of course, were Gentiles) as the first-fruits of this in-gathering.  A similar thought may underlie the story of the arrival of some Greeks seeking to meet Jesus in John 12:20-23.

So what are "epiphanies", and why do we persist in using a word that sounds as though it ought to be the Hebrew version of the noise we make when we sneeze?  Well, it happens that I have been reading a wonderful book by two American psychologists, William R Miller and Janet C'de Baca, Quantum Change: When Epiphanies and Sudden Insights Transform Ordinary Lives.  The sub-title gives a pretty accurate description of the contents of the book.  For years the authors, both of whom specialised in treating people with alcoholism and other forms of addiction, had tried to help their clients change their behaviour gradually.  But over the years they noticed that, while most of them achieved improvement (if at all) very gradually, some people seemed to have dramatic breakthroughs.  So they decided to study people who have had one or more profound experiences that transformed their lives suddenly and permanently.  It turned out that there were quite a few, with some very extraordinary tales to tell.  Much of this book consists of case studies in which the persons concerned tell their stories in their own words.

The authors suggest that these experiences can be broadly grouped in two main categories, which they call the insight type and the mystical type.  The insight type seems to happen inside us – a sudden solution to a problem that has baffled us for a long time, would be one example.  Although we might have a feeling of being given this brand new idea, the more likely explanation is that the mind/brain has been cogitating away and made a new "connection".  By contrast the mystical type seems to come to us from outside, and tends to have a more profound and lasting effect on us as people.

Brilliant insights like those of Archimedes and Newton might have made them feel better but probably did not transform them as people.  The sudden mystical experience that Saul of Tarsus had on the Road to Damascus undoubtedly did.

The authors suggest there are four basic qualities of such experiences.  First, they are vivid – the person who has the experience is in no doubt that something extraordinary has happened.  Secondly, they come out of the blue, as a complete surprise.  In no way can they be sought or induced.  Thirdly, almost invariably, they are experienced as benevolent, profoundly positive and helpful.  And fourthly, they effect permanent change in the person who has them.  Appropriately enough, given the time of the year, the example from literature given by the authors is Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens' classic A Christmas Carol.

All of which raises an interesting question.  What became of the Magi after their experience of meeting the Christ child?  What became of the shepherds after their extraordinary experiences?  What became of the servants at the wedding at Cana who knew what had happened to the water?   Perhaps epiphanies only true "take" in people who are open to them and accept that life can never be the same.  Perhaps many of us fail to see, or refuse to accept that we have seen anything at all?  The Epiphany is an opportunity to celebrate all those who suddenly broke through and "saw" God in Jesus of Nazareth, in infancy or in adulthood, and had their lives transformed for ever.

Isaiah.  A wonderfully rich passage, drawing on traditional teaching and applying it to a vision of the future.  Verses 1 and 2 probably owe much to the idea of God leading his people through the wilderness, in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.  The reference to "darkness" may simply be a symbol of gloom, oppression and sin among the people; but I sense a reference back to Genesis 1:2, in which case the idea of a new creation may be part of the message here.  The idea of nations coming to Israel for anything other than battle and pillage is a complete reversal of the past: history will be turned on its head.  In this future time they will come to Israel to pay homage to the God of Israel.  The contrast between the past and the future is emphasised by the reference to the camels of Midian in verse 6: it was on camels that the Midian armies once devastated Israel.  Sheba (modern-day Yemen) is best known for its queen who famously visited King Solomon, bringing him gifts of gold and spices.  It was also known for its incense.

Taking It Personally.

·        Can you recall a break-through experience when you suddenly "saw" something you had never seen before?  Did it seem to come from within or from outside?  What effect did it have on you, either briefly or permanently?

·        Traditionally this is the day on which we take down our Christmas decorations and throw out the tree.  From our faith perspective, what might that symbolise? 

·        Isaiah was a master at drawing on the experience of the past to create a vision of the future.  Drawing on your past experience of God what are you looking forward to in faith and hope for this year and beyond?

Ephesians.  My New Year Resolution is to finally bow out of the academic argument over the authorship of this wonderful epistle, made all the more wonderful by the fact that it was written in prison.  To me it is Pauline in spirit, vision and theology, and that should be all that matters to people of faith.  The heart of this passage (and the heart of Paul's teaching) is found in verse 6.  In God's great wisdom the universal scope of salvation was kept secret (apart from a few prophetic leaks over the centuries!) until the time was right, when it was revealed in and through Jesus Christ.  Hence it's suitability for this celebration as we remember the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles.

Taking It Personally.

·        As Gentiles this is our time to ponder this great mystery and be thankful!

·        When was this great secret first revealed to you, and by whom?  Give thanks again.

·        Commit verse 6 to memory, and recite it every day this month –giving thanks daily.

·        Focus on verse 10.  Is your local church succeeding in making this great mystery known to others?  Are you?

·        Now turn to verse 12.  Do you approach God with freedom and confidence?

Matthew.  In some ways this is a very provocative story that Matthew has constructed here.  The first people to realise who Jesus was were Gentiles?  Think what trouble Jesus got into when he reminded the congregation in Nazareth of God's favour to the widow in Zarephath and to Naaman, the Syrian army commander: Luke 4:24-30.  Notice that there were three gifts, but no mention of how many Magi were in the party.  Theology has attached particular significance to each of those gifts, but whether Matthew had those symbolic meanings in mind is a moot point.  The role of the star is fascinating.  It may even link back to the pillar of fire leading the people in the wilderness.  More likely it subordinates the wisdom of astrology to the purposes of God, and the worship of heavenly bodies to the worship of the God who made them and commands them to do his bidding.

Taking It Personally

·        What symbols have been important to you on your faith journey?

·        What gifts do you bring to Christ in worship?

·        Can you recall being guided to do something or refrain from doing it through a dream?  Did you follow that guidance or dismiss it as "just a dream"?


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