The Feast of the Epiphany (January 6th) is one of those relatively rare days in the Christian lectionary when, whatever the year, the Bible readings, including the Gospel, are always the same.
The reason is very simple. Although this has long been a major feast of the Church -- and of special importance in the Eastern Orthodox tradition -- only Matthew makes any mention of the strange event on which it is based. Matthew's short account of the arrival of strangers from some far-off place at the stable in Bethlehem has been filled out by tradition. The visitors have become three ‘kings’ or ‘wise men’ from Persian lands, and given the names of Caspar, Belshazzar and Melchior. The Bible does not provide a basis for any of these details, and in some modern translations 'wise men' is rendered 'astrologers', or even 'magicians'. This reduces their status considerably, but increases the mystery. Why has this brief episode attracted so much attention for so long?
The answer lies in the theological significance that has been found in it. First, the fact that the travellers seek out Herod, and then fail to report back to him, gives an early sign of the 'political' context into which Jesus was born; the actual Messiah ultimately proves quite at odds with what people had traditionally hoped for, or (in the case of Herod) feared. Secondly, the gifts that the wise men leave in the stable all have symbolic meaning; gold and frankincense are traditional gifts for a ruler, while myrrh presages death – an odd gift for a baby. Thirdly, these men are Gentiles, which is to say, foreigners. This is perhaps the most important aspect. As the Old Testament lesson reminds us, the story of the birth, ministry, suffering and death of Jesus is firmly rooted in the Jewish theology of a long-expected Messiah, and must remain so. Yet properly understood, it has significance far beyond the confines of Jewish life and thought. The Gospel is a Gospel for Jew and Gentile alike.
This is St Paul's great insight. “Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise of Christ Jesus”, he writes in the passage from Ephesians that is the Epistle for Epiphany. It is an insight that led him, at intense personal cost, to begin the enormous task of proclaiming a Jewish Gospel to a Gentile world.
'Epiphanic moments' are those times when, quite suddenly, something of the greatest importance strikes us unexpectedly. At the Feast of the Epiphany we commemorate and celebrate the moment at which the universal importance of the Jewish religion is, for the first time, revealed to the whole world. It is the point, we might say, when the birth of the historical Jesus is suddenly revealed to be the incarnation of the eternal Christ.
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