Originally preached as a sermon at Choral Matins for the Epiphany (transferred to Sunday 3rd January 2016)
‘The next day John [the Baptist] saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”… “And I myself have seen and testified that this is the Son of God”’ (John 1.29, 34.)
+ In nomine Patris…
Is there more to the Epiphany than the Magi?!
Well, given the relative paucity of biblical material, aside from the reference in St Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 2.1-12), perhaps we can say that, without dismissing them, there is more to epiphany than the Magi.
As one of the readings for matins on the Feast of the Epiphany St John’s gospel (John 1.29-34) never once mentions, or even alludes, to the Magi, or gold, frankincense and myrrh, and yet the opening chapters are suffused with epiphany.
Epiphany, from the Greek, means ‘show out’. Epiphany is about showing out, which is an awkward, but dynamic, phrase in English.
‘To show’ someone something is rather passive, but to ‘show out’ has a vibrant edge to it. It is just like when we ‘point out’ something; it throws our attention elsewhere: at Epiphany our attention is thrown to the presence of God.
The Book of Common Prayer title of the Epiphany of the Lord is, ‘The Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles’. The root of the word ‘manifestation’ is manus, the Latin word for hand. Manifestation is a gesture of the hand pointing something out.
It is this that is going on with John the Baptist in the opening chapters of St John’s gospel. John the Baptist ‘shows out’ and ‘points out’: as we read, ‘The next day John [the Baptist] saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”… “And I myself have seen and testified that this is the Son of God”’ (John 1.29, 34.)
The feast of the Epiphany of the Lord reminds us that Jesus Christ is, ‘the light to lighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of God’s people Israel’ (Luke 2.32); Jesus Christ ‘a light [that] shines in the darkness, and the darkness [has] not overcome it’ (John 1.5).
This ‘showing out’ and ‘pointing out’ is a recurrent theme through Epiphanytide, as will be revealed over the coming weeks: we will celebrate the Baptism of the Lord, the ‘showing out’ of Jesus’ sonship and anointing by the Holy Spirit as declared by the Father; and the ‘showing out’ of Jesus’ transforming divine-human power in the Wedding Feast at Cana.
Today’s ‘showing out’ is the visitation of the Magi.
The stories and legends of the Magi are enchanting, and the gospel material compelling.
Quite possibly they were Zoroastrians, or some such religion, that tracked the stars and looked for signs within them. Wherever they came from, the Magi came from a region outside that which is usually thought of as the ‘known world’ to the Romans and they are certainly from outside Jesus’ own people of Israel.
They are almost literally other worldly, and their mystique is shown by the legends that have grown up around them.
But what has that got to do with ‘showing out’ and ‘pointing out’?
In primary schools in recent years there has been an exercise that takes place to encourage children’s confidence. It is called ‘show and tell’. The child brings something to school to show his or her classmates, and then to tell them about it.
Epiphany is a divine ‘show and tell’. For the Magi, seekers after truth, wisdom and divinity, the star ‘pointed out’ the way, and Blessed Mary ‘showed out’ her Son to them, such that they fell down and worshipped and walked new paths afterwards.
I wonder what they told as they returned home by another route. Were they like the shepherds who simply could not restrain themselves on their way back to their flocks (Luke 2.20)?
John the Baptist is shower and teller, as John’s gospel tells us, ‘There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light’ (John 1.6-9).
The Epiphany promise is that as God ‘shows and tells’ of his incarnate presence in the Eternal Word, Jesus Christ.
The Epiphany challenge is to join John the Baptist in showing and telling: showing Jesus in our faces and lives, and telling: ‘And I myself have seen and testified that this is the Lamb of God’ (John 1.34).
© Andrew Bishop, 2016