Today we celebrate the feast of Epiphany.
An epiphany is defined as a revelation…the making known of things unknown. The realization that God’s saving grace was available for all people, Jew and Gentile alike. This is an ancient festival that actually predates Christmas on Dec 25th …Christmas and Epiphany both were celebrated on Jan 6th.
Epiphany itself though is a feast that has ancient and frankly entertaining traditions. Some of which included the blessing of epiphany water, the blessing of houses with that same water and the marking of doors with chalk writing saying CMB standing for Caspar, Melchior, Balthazar the traditional names of the wise men. Also CMB are the first letters of the latin phrase ‘bless this house’.
Another ancient custom was called the feast of twelfth night or the feast of misrule, which you likely know best via Shakespeare. Special cakes were baked with a dried bean and other offerings within it… the one who got the bean became King for the day regardless of their real social station. The social structure of towns and households would be turned upside down, with chimney sweeps acting as bishops, young boys as town mayor or lord of the manor.
The day would be filled with jokes, merriment, feasting and toys…the closest that we get nowadays to twelfth night festivities are the crackers we pull at Christmas dinners…which crown us all as kings and are filled with jokes, candies and toys.
However, the meaning behind all this tomfoolery was some very real theology. The feast of misrule reminded people that all things in Christ will be turned upside down. As we recall from the Magnificat of Mary; God has pulled down the mighty from their seats and has exulted the humble and meek. He has filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he has sent empty away. A revelation of what the world could be like under the rule of Christ…not foolishness and mischief, though the joy of that may be a part, but that human understandings of social status and wealth and hierarchy will mean nothing, that everything and everyone will be made equal.
In our readings for epiphany today we can see that ‘turning upside down’ concept taking place. Jesus was born to a humble family in a humble town, and although it is made clear by visions and the miracle of his birth that Jesus is the Messiah, he is also a vulnerable baby. Yet, we read that the Roman proclaimed ‘King of the Jews’, Herod, felt threatened by Jesus. The King in the castle furious at the thought that there might be another King of the Jews…even if he was a baby.
In fact, we later read that Herod was so threatened by the babe Christ that he had all boys two and under killed to eliminate the possibility of a threat to his position. Beyond the horror and madness of this, and indeed Herod was mad with power, it is notable that Herod was a Jew…one who should have been waiting in anticipation for the Messiah, rather than being his enemy.
In contrast, we read that wise men, some say Kings, from the East, not Jews but gentiles…foreigners and strangers traveled from distant lands to bring gifts and homage to that Jewish babe. They knelt down and paid him homage, opening their treasure chests and offering him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
A little babe, born to nobodies in the back water of nowhere…being given gifts meant for kings and Gods….that is certainly not the way of the world…God had already begun turning things upside down.
The coming of the wise men, which we read of in our gospel today, is often said to prefigure the preaching of the gospel to the gentiles, that the wise men were the first to carry the message of the gospel to the ends of the earth and that we have inherited that legacy.
The revelation of Christ to the most unlikely people, the turning upside down of the normal way of doing things, that seems to be God’s way. It doesn’t seem to be God’s way to do the expected and common place, God is certainly with us in everyday events, but it seems that the turning points…the epiphanies…the start of great journeys… very often begin with turning upside down everything that seems normal.
Even our epistle today, … was written by an unlikely man. Saul was a Pharisee, a devout and pious Jew, one who rigidly obeyed all the laws…even assisted in the persecution of the followers of Christ. Yet he too, received an epiphany, a revelation…an understanding of faith that was a turning point in his life…Saul became Paul, and a great journey was begun.
So that, in faith he could write and preach things that one would never have believed possible…imagine Saul, who held the coats at the stoning of Steven and who hunted down Christians being the one to write…”I, Paul, am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles” Another great journey of epiphany…from darkness into light.
And none of these journeys were easy. The wise men had to avoid Herod and go the long way round to get home, Jesus and his family became refugees in Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath. Paul, became persecuted himself, preaching and teaching so boldly, that we find him writing from prison of that revelation he received and the message he proclaimed.
Yet, through all this darkness…we see the light of Christ shining. Through the benefit of 2000 years of hindsight we can see how the Magi, the holy family and Paul’s faith changed the face of Christianity. If not for those who lived in darkness, trouble, and walked the long journeys we would not be here today.
And I wonder how much light they truly saw and how much they simply believed the light would come. Knowing that through their faith and the revelations they had received that they were following Christ, doing God’s work … and that from what must have seemed like thick darkness a light would dawn.
It is like our first reading today…the Israelites had been captive and far from home for many years…so long that they had gotten used to the ways things were. The captivity that had used to be appalling was now normal… so that now that the people of Israel had been told they could return to Jerusalem…some didn’t want to.
They had grown used to their captivity, …one might say… better the devil you know. They had spent so long in the dark, that they feared the light. Prophets like Isaiah encouraged the people to look beyond the darkness of their lives and troubles and see the possibilities that the future could hold.
Isaiah preached a revelation… the epiphany that he had received…Arise and shine for your light has come. It was time to shake off the fear and the doubt, to turn what had become normal upside down and begin a journey towards a bright new future. God’s glory is shining upon you, Isaiah said a new dawn is rising and it is the time for action.
All of us are on a journey … much like those ancient Israelites, like Paul, and like the wise men. We, as a wider church, have been sitting in our pews and gotten used to what church looks like…we look around and lament that it is no longer so.
We dream of a church full of light and life, a place with community of all ages and great diversity, a place full of children and youth programs, a place of inspired and life giving worship. A place where energy is spent in mission, outreach, community events, and spreading the gospel. A place where the whole community engages in pastoral care and caring for all our neighbours.
A place where people are drawn in, because those inside are not afraid to risk it all and head out their doors. A place where God is in all, Christ is central and the Spirit given free reign to inspire the gifts of all. A place where all those gifts are sought out, embraced and encouraged.
Then, as Isaiah says …”then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice”. What a vision that would be…the dreams and revelations of all of us coming together and living as we wish we could.
But to do that, Kings may need to be thrown down and the humble lifted up. The whole way we do things, understand things, the very ways we understand who we are as a church may need to be turned upside down…in order to let Christ right them again.
With the feast of Epiphany, on Jan 6th we come to the end of the twelve days of Christmas. The joys and miracles of Christmas day culminate with the revelation of Christ to all the earth. From the holy family and the shepherds to the wise men with their gifts and tribute. Christmas is the story of the beginning of a journey…the journey Christ makes here on earth, a journey made for our benefit, by our savior. Our spiritual journeys are reflected in the stories that we tell over Christmas as well, in the stories we have told today.
On Christmas we pulled crackers and donned paper hats, but did we really over turn the status quo? Did boys become kings and kings become servants? We no longer emphasize the feast of Epiphany, we no longer celebrate festivals of twelfth night and the reminders that they bring.
What we do have is our scriptures, and our communities, which need to work together to remind each other, much like Isaiah did for Israel…that the light that is ahead in the unknown…rather then in our past or present. The light of Christ is found in the epiphanies that we have been granted and the gifts that we each have to give…so that we can all be there to see the darkness turn to light, the paupers turn to kings and church fulfill its purpose.
This epiphany we can start a journey…one which may take time to complete after all in reality the wise men didn’t really get to the crib side in a mere 12 days…but a journey that is well worth taking, because it is a journey we take with Christ and all of those who have pioneered the way to Christ’s crib. Epiphany heralds the end of the Christmas season, but for us…it is only the beginning. amen