Today we begin the mystical season of Epiphany. Epiphany comes from the Greek word επιθανεια, meaning manifestation, shining forth, or striking appearance. In the Greek churches the Feast of the Epiphany is also known as Theophany, which means Vision of God. Both titles point us to the luminary and enlightening qualities of the season, as our souls lovingly pursue the manifestation of God the Father’s will in the life of His only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ. In this season we are called to wonderment, discovery, and amazement at the Divine Light which will reveal the life, wisdom, and love of God in His Son.
So today we turn to the supernatural revelation or manifestation of God’s life in the birth of Jesus Christ. The paradigm that affords its discovery is found in the spiritual journey made by the Wise Men who came from the East, chronicled by St. Matthew in his Gospel. Their spiritual search began with a scientific study of nature. The Magi, or Wise Men, were astronomers who studied the movements of the planets and stars to discern and glean those permanent principles that define created existence. Following what we might call the God-given natural light, they discovered the truths and laws of nature. But in the midst of their celestial contemplations their vision was distracted, their reason disturbed, and their hearts pierced by the beams of a brighter Light shining from a greater star, the likes of which they had never seen before. To be sure it was a star, but its presence and power captivated them so inwardly and spiritually that they were drawn externally and visibly to follow it. In fact, by the time we learn of them in St. Matthew’s Gospel, we see that it had moved them to travel… from the East… to Jerusalem. (St. Matthew ii. 1) Moved above and beyond their stationary study of the laws of matter, motion, and gravity, these Wise Men were moved to find God’s spiritual reformation of all earthly existence in the birth of the promised King of the Jews.
Following this Divine Light, their search swept through Jerusalem and
And yet this Light which they followed did not lead them directly to the birthplace of the King of the Jews. Revelation demands a real effort from those who would rightly interpret it. (The Christian Year in the Times, p. 34) The journey made by the Wise Men was no easy task. They had traveled from afar and as aliens into foreign territory. These were Gentiles who came from Persia or beyond into Roman-occupied Palestine, the children of those who in olden times had held all Israel captive, and now were so captivated by the newborn King of the Jews that they sought to worship Him! Thus the Wise Men might have feared that Herod and the Jews would take opportunity to settle an old historical score. So too, they came as barbarians from beyond the borders of Octavian Caesar’s civilized Empire, and so had no assurance of Roman protection. Yet more than these threats from without, there were threats from within on the ground of their souls. They were walking by faith with no absolute knowledge of the where, when, why, or how of their unusual spiritual odyssey. Their faith would be tried and imperiled by doubts and uncertainty. And what of the natural exhaustion bound to impede the progress of such a long journey? Truly, these Wise Men must have been possessed of a courageous faith that enabled them to persevere and persist in their search for this new King. And so, as Bishop Andrewes has written: They were neither afraid of Herod, nor ashamed of Christ; but professed their errand, and cared not who knew it. (Idem) So they confessed and denied not, believed and proclaimed that the promised King of the Jews had been born and that, come what may, they were determined to find Him. For, as the Bishop suggests, they were so desirous to… be there as soon… as they possibly might… that they broke through all these difficulties. (Ibid)
Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. (Hebr. xi. 1) The supernatural Light in the sky not only generated their faith but inspired them to seek out and find the reward of their belief. The Wise Men’s astronomical learning led them beyond nature to find a supernatural truth. But in order to discover where the King of the Jews is, the Light that guided them needed to grow stronger and clearer through Jewish prophecy. Abraham was promised an heir in whom all the families of the earth [would] be blessed. (Gen. xii. 3). Isaiah had foretold that nations that knew not [Israel would] run unto [her] because of the Lord… [and to find] the Holy One of Israel. (Is. lv. 5) But when the Wise Men asked, Where is He that is born King of the Jews? they must have been astounded to learn that Herod and the Jews had not been watching and waiting for this coming King. That the Gentile scientists’ faith should reveal this birth to God’s own people seems extraordinary. And yet just as the star was no mere star, so these new believers were no commonplace believers. The supernatural Light was revealed to unexpected people, in an unexpected place, and took them on an unexpected journey to find an unexpected King in unexpected surroundings. None of this should surprise us. The supernatural Light gave birth to faith that moved an alien people out of an alien place to a King who would be treated as alien, who was hidden and concealed to His own people. For, He came unto His own, but His own received Him not. (St. John i. 11) When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. (Ibid, 3)
The chief priests and scribes had reminded Herod of Micah’s prophecy that Christ should be born in Bethlehem of Judah. Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found Him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship Him also. (Ibid, 7-9) Herod had no intention of worshiping a king who came from a world in which he did not believe. He enquired diligently about the timing of the star’s appearing so that he could kill off any potential usurpers of his earthly throne. But over and against the sinful incredulity of a selfish King, the faith of the alien Gentile Wise Men was growing with new knowledge of past Jewish prophesy. It turned out that the unusual and extraordinary star had brought them to an unusual and extraordinary king who was born in an unusual and extraordinary place, generating in them an unusual and extraordinary faith. So, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way. (Ibid, 9-12)
In the end their faith is rewarded because they have searched diligently for the child. (Idem) They have found Christ, the King of the Jews, and so they fall down and worship Him. They have been moved to bring gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. They have found this spiritual king, and so they must surrender their earthly treasure, gold. (Ye cannot serve God and Mammon. (St. Matthew vi. 24) To bear the earthly presence of this Heavenly Visitor, the air must be purified of the profane and perverse with frankincense. (Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of His glory. And the posts of the door moved at the voice of Him that cried, and the house was filled with incense. (Is. vi. 3,4) Finally, the King whom they come to worship is the One who is born to die, and so they bring myrrh, a burial ointment. (He hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows; yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities…and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Is. liii. 3-6)
The supernatural Light has led the Wise Men to the source of that Wisdom which alone can redeem and save humanity. If we, like they would find this Wisdom in the King of the Jews, we must follow His star in faith. Then we shall find that God’s own Word is made flesh only in the humblest, most inconspicuous and unlikely of places – the manger or cave beyond the earthly comfort of the King’s palace or even a local Inn. We shall find Him, as in today’s Gospel, not first and foremost with his natural mother and stepfather, but in the Temple and about His father’s business. (Idem) In this King we shall find that life which alone leads to salvation, where Divine truth rules and governs the human heart, and from there shines forth as a star of hope to the tired and perplexed in this sin-weary world. Then with all Wise Men, we shall sing with Robert Bridges the song of the star that leads all men to the place where God and man meet in one heart:
Mortal though I be, yea ephemeral, if but a moment
I gaze up to the night’s starry domain of heaven,
Then no longer on earth I stand; I touch the Creator,
And my lively spirit drinketh immortality.
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