The Feast of the Epiphany

The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean
Matthew 2:1-12

Today we celebrate the Epiphany of our Lord Jesus Christ: what used to be subtitled the “Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.” The Epiphany is one of the Church’s oldest feast days – even older than Christmas! – and it is possibly one of the least understood. There is some confusion, or at least disagreement about the event..

This misunderstanding probably goes back to its confused origins. Originally, in Egypt at least, January 6th was a day set aside for the festival of the pagan god Osiris. The early Egyptian Christians though, in an effort to replace, or at least compete with this pagan holiday, dedicated January 6th to the celebration of the Baptism of our Lord, –claiming that it was at his baptism that Jesus’ divine calling was first revealed.

But as the celebration moved north and eastward to Jerusalem, more orthodox Christians insisted that Christ’s vocation must be dated from his birth as the only begotten Son of God. So in the East, January 6th was kept as a celebration of both his nativity and his baptism. Meanwhile, a little later in the West, another pagan festival, that of Saturn, on December 25th, was taken over as the feast of Christ’s birth, and the Epiphany was used to celebrate the visit of the Magi. The Baptism of Jesus was moved to the following Sunday after the Epiphany.

Now, Because the Magi were Gentiles, not Jews, western Epiphany celebrates the manifestation or revelation of Christ to the whole world. It celebrates God’s “showing up among us” in the person of Jesus Christ. Epiphany is a day of celebration of how we have not been left in darkness.

The Epiphany, then, is a festival of light; it is a celebration of the manifestation of Jesus Christ – the light of Christ – in and into the darkness of the world. Light is the theme of the entire Epiphany season, because in Jesus Christ we see things in a whole new way. Light is what Epiphany is all about. And light is what the story of the Magi is all about. Star-gazers from the East follow a star – a light – and find a baby in whom, and through whom, God will light up the world.

It’s difficult for us in this age of electricity and artificial light to appreciate the symbolism of light, but for biblical people – light was the fullest expression of God’s work in the world. You remember some of those references to light in the Hebrew Scriptures, one from our Isaiah reading today: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” — “Your word is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my path.” — “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes of those who are blind.” –The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” — The people who walked in darkness, on them has light shined.”

Light was recognized as a sign of God’s presence, for without it, the people were threatened with the chaos of darkness and confusion. To say that God is light is to say that it is the nature of God to be manifest, just as it is the nature of light to shine. And just as light, by its very nature, cannot be self-contained, but is ever seeking to impart itself, pouring through every crack and crevice, so by God’s very nature, God is revealed as being God.

God is light, and as such is always seeking to shine on us who have been made in God’s image. God is transparent, and as such we can see right through God, and we can see that God loves us and the whole world. That’s what God’s “showing up among us” is all about.

But not only is God light, but that light which is life has been made manifest in Jesus of Nazareth, the one the Magi came to adore. And those who saw the Christ had seen the light and love of God, and knew that Christ came “through the tender mercy of our God, when the day shall dawn upon us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.” This God who is light is now permanently present in Jesus Christ. The coming of Jesus Christ announced the dawning of a new age, which will never be followed by night. With him, as the hymn says, “Morning has broken like the first morning.”

This Jesus is indeed the light of the world. But what does that mean precisely? It doesn’t mean some of the things we may have heard in the past. Surely it doesn’t mean that Jesus is the light at the end of the tunnel. Surely it doesn’t mean what the little song claims: “If everyone would light just one little candle, what a bright world this would be.” And surely it doesn’t mean what the little couplet says: “How far that little candle throws its beam, so shines a good deed in this naughty world.” Christ is not just a dim glow, or a signal, or a guide through darkness, or a ray of light in a dark world. He is the radiating, life-sustaining light who comes in power and glory like the sun bursting over the eastern horizon. He is the Sun of righteousness with healing in its wings.

Old Simeon knew who the Christ child was. Remember Simeon: The priest at the temple when Mary and Joseph brought Jesus for his dedication? He announced Jesus as light: “A light to enlighten the nations, and the glory of your people Israel.”

Jesus Christ is the light of the world because he reveals the very heart of God. He is the light of the world because in him we see no darkness at all, but instead, the brightness and fullness of the love of God. He is the light of the world because when we see him, we see the Father also. That’s what we’re proclaiming in the Nicene Creed when we confess Christ as “Light from Light, True God from True God”

During this Epiphany season, may we all earnestly pray for the grace to let that which was made manifest become our manifesto: Jesus Christ is Lord, the light of the world, and the glory of his people.

Happy Epiphany!
In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.