Some Notes on the Epiphany
“We are still at the feast of Christmas, and this is, last and great day of the feast,” as John Cosin said at the start of a sermon on Epiphany at St Edward’s, Cambridge, in 1621.
“A feast of joy it has been all this while, but this day was given us that our joy might be full. They were tidings of joy that the Angels brought, a while since, to the shepherds, Jews, hard at hand; but when the glad tidings of the Gospel came abroad once to all the people, as this day they came so, then were they no more tidings of ordinary, but of great joy. 'Behold, I bring you tidings,' saith the Angel, but not to you alone; though to you, yet to others as well as you, 'which shall be to all people: Hitherto, then, it was Evangelizo vobis, vobis Judæis, but to-day it was omni populo; that now a Saviour was born unto us all, Which was Christ the Lord. And indeed this is our Christmas-day, that were Gentiles; for though Christ was born twelve days since in Jury, yet he came not abroad the world while now, and to us He seemed as yet unborn being but like a rich treasure in man's field, at this time not known to be so,) till He was this day manifested unto us in the persons of these Wise Men, the first fruits of the Gentiles.”
The relationship between the feasts of Christmas and Epiphany is a more complex matter than can be usefully set out in this space. For an adequate introduction to the question, see the Wikipedia articles
on Epiphany [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epiphany_(holiday)]
and Christmas Day [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas_Day] and the references therein.
In the western Church the word Epiphany, which means appearing or “manifestation” is primarily associated with the visit of the Magi, wise men from the East, who were seeking the one “born King of the Jews” so that they could worship him. Hence the title of this day in the Book of Common Prayer, The Epiphany of our Lord; or the Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles. Other events which manifested Jesus as Son of God and Lord are also associated with the Epiphany, particularly his Baptism in the Jordan: in our Calendar the Sunday after Epiphany celebrates this event. The hymn Songs of thankfulness and praise (number 96 in the 1938 Book of Common Praise -- I do not know if it is in the more recent book) is helpful in setting out many of the moments of epiphany reported in the Gospels, and would be of some profit if committed to memory. The last line of each verse declares the theme of Epipany: “Anthems be to thee addrest, God in Man made manifest.
As always, I recommend that you see the Comments and Clippings at the Montreal diocese' RCL commentary, http://montreal.anglican.org/comments/zepifm.shtml
In Isaiah 60.1-6 the prophet exalts the city of Jerusalem to rise and shine, for its light has come and the Lord’s glory has shone upon it; her sons and daughters return. This light is not only for the exiles returned from Babylon; all the nations of the earth will come to the brightness. When we read this passage on apiphany we understand the light that has come to Jersualem as Christ himself (John 1.4-5). The coming of kings to the broghtness of her rising, and of the gifts of gold and frankincense brought on the camels of Midian cannot be separated in our from the account of the visit and gifts of the Magi.
Psalm 72.1-7, 10-14 is a prayer for God’s blessing on the king, and is traditionally associated with Solomon, son of David. The character of the king is like that of the coming Messiah: a judge of the peope and bringer of justice. The welsth of the nations will be brought to him by kings who will worship him: this again evokes the story of the Magi.
In the epistle passage, Ephesians 3.1-12, St Paul declares that God manifested himself in Jesus Christ not only to the Jews but to all the nations of the world, so that the Gentiles are now “fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (v. 6).
Two points need to be made about the Gospel story of the Magi (Matthew 2.1-12). The first concerns the star. Much research has been done and much ink has been spilled in the pursuit of this star. Was it a nova? a conjunction of planets? a special star God put in the heavens just for this occasion? When we read what the Gospel actually says we must confess that the question cannot be answered, for there is not enough information. The magi say nothing of its size or brightness, or even that it led them to Jerusalem, only that they were searching for the one who was “born King of the Jews” because they had “seen his star at its rising” (or “in the east”). This suggests a star that astrologers associated with the house of Judah, or a star rising in a section of the sky associated with Judah, but tells us no more. The search for “the star” is a waste of time. It is more profitable to associate the star with the prophecy of Balaam in Nubers 24,
I see him, but not now;
I behold him, but not nigh;
a star shall come forth out of Jacob,
and a sceptre shall srise our of Israel …
The RCL notes suggest that the star of the Gospel story arose from this prophecy. However, an earlier commentator notes that “It is much more credible that there was some phenomenon to account for the story than that it arose mythically out of such a prophecy as Num 24.17. If it had, we should have expected some reference to that passsage to betray itself. But there may be mythical elements in the details of the story, as in ver 9.” There is no easy answer to any question of the historical background to these stories.
Nor is there any simple appraoch to the second point, which is that there really are reasons for wondering how historical the onfancy narratives are. It is not even at all clear that the stories of Jesus’ infancy in Matthew and Luke can be harmonized with each other. Matthew’s account seems to imply that Joseph and Mary originallt lived at Bethlehem and went to Nazareth later. As another commentator noted, “Our information respecting these primitive events is very imperfect. The magi saw Mary, but Joseph is not mentioned; the shepherds saw them both.”
The difficulty with these questions is that the scholars do not all agree: it is not at all like thephysical sciences, where an experiment can settle the point. So what are you, an ordinary, intelligent, person who is not a biblical scholar to do?
First off, rather than looking for one simple answer (a Yes or No), try to find what us the state of the question. That is, to find what most scholars think on the subject, and whether there are scholars who disagree. Good resources for this addressing question are the New Jerome Biblical Commentary and The Birth of the Messiah, R. E. Brown’s comentary on the infancy narratives.
Second, whatever decision we come to about these stories, we can be sure that Jesus was born and lived, and we can honestly celebrate his birth. That is surely the most important thing. The people who wrote the Gospels began with the Resurrection, and wrote to show that Jesus who was raised from the dead was the promised Messiah and Son of God. So whether or not we believe that every word of the infance stories is a fact, the important thing about them is that they declare to us who Jesus is, and show how the history of salvation prepared for his coming. Even more, we can use them as ways of coming to know him, so that his light can shine in us, and through us to the world. And that is the point of Epiphany.