January 6, 2019
Feast of the Epiphany
All Saints’ Church
Nerd alert: today is the Feast of the Epiphany, which is always on January 6. The last time Epiphany fell on a Sunday was 2013. You see, because Epiphany is always celebrated on a fixed date it’s like Christmas in that it’s always falling on a different day of the week. And since we’ve gone full nerd, I might as well tell you that Epiphany was being observed by Christians about 75 years before they started celebrating Christmas, meaning it’s an older and originally more important feast. But that’s a different sermon.
Anyway, Sunday, January 6, 2013, the last time Epiphany was on a Sunday. On that day, I worshiped at the Roman Catholic cathedral in the city of Trier, in Germany. It’s an old Roman bath town—a lovely place not far from Luxembourg, where my godson and his parents—my good friends—were living. I was visiting them after celebrating Christmas here at All Saints’. My godson wanted to sleep in, so my friend and I drove from their house through the rolling countryside on a bright morning. We got there early, so we walked along the Mosel River and looked at the Roman ruins. Construction on the original cathedral in Trier began in the late third century, when this part of Europe was on the outskirts of the so-called civilized world.
The liturgy was simple and lovely. The deacon read the story of the wise men following the star from the East to find the Christ child—in German, of course, but I guess I already knew the story so that was fine. From what I could understand, the priest preached a nice little message. We left the cathedral, and I squinted as we stepped out into the winter sun as it struggled to rise in the sky. I felt light, renewed. It felt holy to be in that place on that day—so far from home, but nonetheless connected. Connected to my dear friends even though they lived far away, connected to people everywhere around the world who would hear the story about the star this morning, connected to the people who had been hearing this story in this very spot for 1700 years.
On Christmas, we celebrate the incarnation of God, the birth of a human child to Mary, the God-bearer. On Christmas night, our imagination is filled with the image of Mary and Joseph kneeling at the manger, and the local shepherds coming to pay homage to the newborn Lord. It is a domestic scene, a stunning tableau of God’s immensity and majesty on display in the lowliest of places.
But on Epiphany, we learn that even though Jesus is just a little child, he cannot be contained by the limits of the human imagination. Jesus belongs not just to Mary and Joseph or even to the shepherds, Jesus belongs to the world, and even to the cosmos. Jesus comes not just for you and me, but for everyone and everything.
This story we read today from the Gospel of Matthew—it’s a strange one. It seems like it comes out of nowhere, really. What is this star? Who are these men, and what do we call them—kings, wise men magicians? Why are there three of them and not just one or two? They’re from the east, supposedly—but where in the east?
The Gospel provides no answers. Over the years, people have tried to fill in the answers, giving the men names, writing songs about them, even fixing this otherwise arbitrary date to the morning they found Jesus. But the Gospel never really gives you the details. And why? Because we will never know as much as God does. Because this Jesus is not just my Jesus, the ones who knows my joys and my sorrows, my sins and the longing of my soul. He is your Jesus too. And he is the Jesus of people, like the three wise men, who are complete strangers. He is the Jesus of Park Slope and the Jesus of Trier. He is the Jesus of the Roman Empire and the Jesus of the American Empire. He is the Jesus of people not only who I don’t know, but whose existence I can’t even comprehend. He is the Jesus of everyone and everything. He connects us all to one another, near and far, past, present, and future. That’s what makes him God. Not my God, a little baby idol I can put on my shelf to worship as I please. But Emmanuel, God with us, manifested to the nations of the world. His glory is proclaimed by the stars themselves so that all may see it.
We need the Epiphany because there is a profound spiritual danger in pretending that my God is my god and not yours. Of course we all rely on God in our own personal moments of need and of celebration. I do believe that God knows the concerns that weigh on my heart, the ones I can’t help but raise up in prayer. I’m always looking for ways that I think God might be acting in my own life. The danger comes in when I forget that God is doing that for everyone else too. Because if Jesus only cares about what happens to me, then I can start to believe that he really doesn’t care about what happens to the people I don’t know or understand. If Jesus just belongs to me and not to them, then their very existence can become an aggravation to me. This is the kind of thinking that is at the heart of neglect, cruelty, and violence. And it can really only be healed by accepting the mystery, the enormity, the impossible-to-comprehend fact that this Jesus belongs to strangers from the east as much as he does to me.
Leo the Great was pope in the mid fifth century and one of the most important theologians in Christian history. He presided over the church in a time of political upheaval, when Rome was flooded with migrants from throughout the Empire, and he galvanized the Church to welcome them and serve their needs. Leo believed that the Epiphany told the story of faith as much in his time as in the time of Jesus. Here’s what he said in a sermon he preached on the Feast of the Epiphany while he was pope:
The day, dearly-beloved, on which Christ the Savior of the world first appeared to the nations must be venerated by us with holy worship: and today those joys must be entertained in our hearts which existed in the breasts of the three magi, when, aroused by the sign and leading of a new star, which they believed to have been promised, they fell down in presence of the King of heaven and earth. For that day has not so passed away that the mighty work, which was then revealed, has passed away with it, and that nothing but the report of the thing has come down to us for faith to receive and memory to celebrate; seeing that, by the oft-repeated gift of God, our times daily enjoy the fruit of what the first age possessed. And therefore, although the narrative which is read to us from the Gospel properly records those days on which the three men, who had neither been taught by the prophets' predictions nor instructed by the testimony of the law, came to acknowledge God from the furthest parts of the East, yet we behold this same thing more clearly and abundantly carried on now in the enlightenment of all.
According to Leo, Jesus was revealed to all the nations, not just in former times, but in all times—not just to our nation, be even to those far corners of the world our minds can scarcely imagine. His light enlightens all people. His light is like the light of a star, belonging to no one person and visible to all people. It is this Jesus who is the oft-repeated gift of God, as Leo puts it, and with each passing year, as we receive this gift again, we behold more clearly and abundantly that he came for the enlightenment of all.
May the light of God shine in your lives. And the more brightly it shines, may you see ever more clearly that it is the same light shining in the hearts of all people in all places. Amen.