01/06/19 – Epiphany Recollections

EPIPHANY RECOLLECTIONS

January 6, 2019
Epiphany of the Lord
Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

 

Today we celebrate Epiphany. The word epiphany originally meant a divine revelation, though in our vernacular it has come to mean a surprising understanding. The actual date of Epiphany is always January 6. We do not always have the privilege of celebrating on the day. But, this year we do and I decided to make a special emphasis on this day that gets lost in the shadow of Christmas. In the Eastern Orthodox Christian church, Christmas is celebrated on Jan. 6. This is the day St. Nicholas brings presents to children and gifts are exchanged. If you think about it, this makes sense. The Bible doesn’t say anything about the shepherds bringing any presents to Jesus.

You see below the pulpit the three kings as imagined in our western culture. These handsome men were in Janet Kelly’s family and she gave them to the church. Having visual images is significant. The Bible, as a work of literature, as well as sacred scripture, uses many literary devices, which arouse visual images. During this season of Epiphany, we will be reading many passages of scripture, which use the imagery of light to dramatize the unparalleled revelation of Godself in the personhood of Jesus Christ. Christ the Incarnation of God – the Word-Made-Flesh “who dwelled among us.”

Did you notice in the reading of this gospel passage there is no mention of the number three or any number of men who came to visit the Christ child? Matthew’s gospel also does not say they were kings. The Greek text says they were “magoi,” the word for a magician, sorcerer, or, as is the most appropriate for Matthew’s text, an astrologer – someone who studies the night skies for particular knowledge and insights. Since Matthew doesn’t tell us hordes of people descended on Bethlehem, we might logically assume that only those who were watching and studying the stars and other celestial bodies would have noticed. And, only those who believed that a star could be a sign from God would have taken their valuables and crossed the desert to an unknown site. The wise men had faith in a higher power than themselves. They continued to watch and to study so as to observe and learn from divine revelation whenever or wherever it might occur. Matthew instructs us that this is an effective spiritual discipline in our life of faith.

This word, “magoi,” comes from a Persian word, which denotes a member of the priestly caste of Zoroastrianism. Matthew’s gospel tells us these “magoi” visited the infant Jesus in an “oikian,” a house not a stable. But years of telling and singing the story have burned into our minds the image of three men with crowns on their heads bowing before the infant resting in a manger inside a stable.

Matthew takes great pains in his gospel to link the First Testament, what we call the “Old Testament” with the gospel. The passage from Isaiah clearly informed the gospel writer’s account of strangers from the East following a star to find the infant Jesus, the newborn King. A prophet, in the footsteps of Isaiah, announces to the discouraged Jewish exiles, who returned to a Jerusalem in ruins, that the beleaguered city will rise again from the ashes:

“Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn” (60:3)

and

“A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Median and Ephod;
all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD.” (60:6)

The interpretation of these visitors from the East as being kings is both biblically based, from the Old Testament, as well as theologically based. Matthew asserts that the kingship of Christ is greater than any political leader. Even powerful tyrants such as King Herod will not defeat Christ the King.

For the returning exiles, the words of an Isaiah prophet “Arise, shine, your light has come and the glory of the Lord has risen among you” was a call to hope and a call to action to make Israel great again. Not great as defined by political power and military might, but greatness as defined by obedience to God. The light of God would shine on the world through Israel’s witness to God’s righteousness. Matthew draws a parallel from the Old Testament text to the new light, a star that guides the illustrious wise men from the East to Christ.

To the two gifts of gold and frankincense Matthew adds a third, myrrh. With these three gifts readers have extrapolated there must be three visitors. Taken all together, we now have three kings arriving with camels. And to this day, I cannot think of this passage from Matthew without the background music of the hymn, “We Three Kings of Orient Are.”

One of my favorite books of all time is John Irving’s “A Prayer for Owen Meany.” In the fourth chapter, the young protagonist, Owen Meany, takes over the planning of the Christmas pageant. The rector’s wife has, in his young mind, strayed too far from the biblical story. This is one of the most humorous depictions of a Christmas pageant I have ever read. It is also one of the most poignant. One by one, Owen cites the degradations to the biblical story that the rector’s wife has inserted into the pageant, based on Christmas carols, such as two children dressed as giant turtle doves being added to the menagerie. One of the many corrections Owen insists on is to sing all 5 verses of “We Three Kings” rather than skipping the final verse for brevity’s sake. I happen to know an organist who is adamant that all verses of a hymn must be sung because to do otherwise is to ruin the poetry of the text.

In “A Prayer for Owen Meany” the actors in the Christmas pageant are having difficulty keeping up their roles through the length of time it takes to sing the whole hymn and has done some improvisational acting that did not sit well with Owen. The rector suggests that a simple solution would be to skip the fifth verse to save time. This meets with a howl of protest from Owen. The narrator observes:

“To conclude with the fourth verses was a far cry from ending with the hallelujahs of the fifth; Owen begged us to pay special attention to the words of the fourth verse – surely we did not wish to arrive in the presence of the Christ Child on such a note:

He sang for us, with emphasis – “’SORROWING, SIGH-ING, BLEED-ING, DY-ING, SEALED IN A STONE-COLD TOMB.’”

That odd little boy, Owen, had his theology correct. To leave out the fourth verse would leave out the crucifixion and take us to a meaningless pseudo-resurrection. The fourth verse begins:

                                                 “Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;—“

Matthew added the third gift, myrrh, for an important reason. Just as Jesus entered the world on a dark night in a land oppressed by an earthly king, he would die on the edict of another political tyrant. When he breathed his last on the cross, the sky would again become dark. His dead body would be covered with myrrh to keep the stench at bay while the body decomposed. It is after this bitter truth that we can sing the Halleluiahs of the fifth verse.

                                                  “Glorious now behold Him arise,
King, and God, and Sacrifice;
Heav’n sings Hallelujah:
Hallelujah, the earth replies.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it”. (John 1:5)

Matthew has given us, in the story of these foreign wise men, a wonderful metaphor for our own faith journey. God directed the wise men, not to trust King Herod and return to him with the news of the newborn king. They “went home by another way.” We are to travel on a different road than the one worldly powers would have us follow. We are to seek the kingdom of God, as revealed to us in Christ, for our guidance rather than the worldly values. We are to prepare ourselves to read the signs God sets before us with an open heart and an open mind — to seek wisdom and God’s guidance constantly. To be willing to go to the margins of society – to the poor, the oppressed, the very young, the very old, the stranger and find Christ there.

We journey now to Christ’s table. This is the sign Christ has given us as our continuously repeated epiphany. To us is revealed the spirit of Christ sitting down at the table with sinners like us, bidding us to go out to fill the empty tables in the world until we all meet again at God’s heavenly banquet.

All power, honor, and glory to our Triune God.

 

 

© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2019, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church
1420 W. Moss Avenue – Peoria Illinois 61606
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