Abbey 2013 Epiphany
Ephesians 3:2–3a, 5–6
[This story of the magi coming to Bethlehem is so familiar to us that perhaps we don’t really hear it any more. When a story like this is so well known and it is repeated, year in and year out, it is easy to say , ‘I know it already.’ But there is more to the story than the characters and the story line. It is not just about some event that took place way back when in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The story is not flat description of facts. The story is a window that looks out and beyond to something wonderful. St. Paul gives us the key of how to read this charming Middle East story. His word for it is ‘mystery.’ He says the story reveals a mystery. And what is Important about this story, according to Paul, is that this story-mystery was not told until it was told in this story. God kept the mystery to himself until the time came for it to be revealed in this story. And so, the simple, charming story of magi from the east looking for the King of Jews, could only be told when the right moment had come. It could only be told when the star appeared. Then the mystery the star announces could be told. Indeed, it looks as though the mystery began to be told when the star appeared.]
Our feast is called the feast of the Epiphany. This is not an English word, or rather it is a word borrowed from the Greek and brought into English. The word itself has a rather generic meaning. It can be translated as ‘manifestation’ or ‘appearance’ ‘revelation’. The name indicates that the feast itself did not originate in the Roman world but rather in the Greek world. The question of course is what or, as we discover in hearing the story, who is appearing, who is being revealed and made manifest. Who is coming into the world? The word originally related to the appearance of a god, or the apparition of a god to a human being. Thus the mystery behind the story is the mystery of the appearance of our God. The mystery contains the response to Advent. Advent was waiting for God to come. Advent was simply the proclamation and the cry “Come, Lord”. Epiphany is simply “Your God has come”. The waiting is over and finished.
But stories like that of the magi have a wonderful way of bringing the mystery home, the mystery of God’s coming. It is not just a headline story: “God has come” “Go visit him!” No the mystery is overwhelming, beyond expectation and the story exposes us to this mysterious God. Yes, the mystery begins with the star; but the star will disappear from the story. Because the star is to get things moving. And if there is anything that holds us to this story it is all that movement that is generated, at least for some. The magi are seekers, they search for the truth. They are in reality looking for the truth. And they use the means they have, their knowledge about the sky and stars. They can recognize when something is happening in them. Today we could call it science and reason. There is truth in them that demands a response; it is that search for truth that pulls the magi out from home and starts them on a journey; the star is a pointer. They remain faithful to the mystery of the star. For the magi something new has been born, there is a new beginning. The star reveals to them truth not as an idea but as a person, an important person, a king of the Jews. And the star leads them to Jerusalem. And for a moment the movement stops. What next?
They seem to know that Herod, king of Jews thanks to the Romans, is not the King of the Jews. The palace of King Herod is not the palace where they will find a newborn king. The star can only bring them so far. They need something more. The journey toward the mystery that the star pointed to will now need another pointer as it were. The mystery being revealed has left another pointer. That pointer is found in the scriptures, in the prophets of Israel. The birth of the king they are looking for has been indicated by the Word given to Israel. In a bit of irony, Herod does not know what is in the scriptures and prophets, but the chief priests and scribes in Jerusalem, they know: Bethlehem is where your journey leads. There you will find what you are looking for. There you will see the face of the mystery revealed. And so it happens that the child is found in Bethlehem thanks to the star and thanks to the Word spoken by the prophet. Notice how after the audience with Herod the magi see the star again and rejoice. Word and star. In another language, reason and wisdom, science and the Word of God come together to reveal the God who has come in the humble child of Bethlehem.
So the magi move on to Bethlehem. And there gifts are given to the true ‘king of the Jews’ the one who has been the object of their search, the one hidden and yet revealed in the star. But the story is about movement. Some move, steadily and surely, following the signs of the mystery. But some who have the signs in front of them, do not move. We do not hear that Herod will come to Bethlehem. We do not hear that the scribes who know the birth place of the Messiah will come to Bethlehem, even when foreigners are moving there. They move at Herod’s summons only. A mystery? Yes. Not all move in the direction of what they know to be the truth. Perhaps they have no interest in searching anymore; perhaps the Word of God no longer excites them; perhaps they have lost the sense of mystery in that Word. Or maybe it is unthinkable that foreigners can be drawn to look for oure Messiah—how they teach us anything anyway. And Herod; oh yes, there cannot be two kings of the Jews. Either these magi are fools, caught up in their wisdom, or there really is a new power out there and that power is a threat—we know what course of action Herod takes so that there is no threat to his claim to power. When the Messiah comes, Herod’s true nature is revealed. It is not the Kingdom of God he serves. He cannot even imagine such a kingdom of justice and peace for all.
So what is the mystery we celebrate on Epiphany? Who is the only person in the story who does not move in any sense but causes movement? Who is really at the center of the story and everyone moves around him, moves with their feet or with their knowledge? It is the child. The child is the center. And all move toward and around the child. The star is centered on the child. The Word of the prophet is centered on the child. The child holds humanity in thrall. The mystery today is that those who at first know nothing of Jerusalem or Bethlehem are finding the answer to their longing. The mystery is that the child in Bethlehem draws to himself those from afar, those from the east, the stranger, the exotic people on earth. And the mystery is enhanced because those who come as strangers to the child do not come empty handed. They come with the best they have, things precious, things divine, things royal—they come with gifts. The child completes as it were what is already within them. The child is offered what they recognize now belonged to the child all along: the best of what is human, the best of the earth, the wisdom that crowns humanity.
Today’s mystery: Paul’s says it clearly: those who looked like they had no share in our communion with God have full share. What we are promised concerning eternal life, they are also promised. They are one body with us in the Messiah/Christ. The God who is revealed today: A God in action making one family, one body in his Child-Son.
This is the mystery of Christmas at its fullest: Not just a child but a child gathering together children made in his Father’s image so that all are both children of Abraham, children of God.
You and I? Will we be in the house with the child and his mother, humble enough to be on our knees with our head touching the floor in front of this Messiah, the center of the world and its people? Or will we be in Jerusalem, 6 miles away, reading the Word but not recognizing the Messiah next door?
The magi went back by another route. After we have prostrated ourselves before the mystery, our lives will never be the same. Let us at least head the words of the prophet today: rise and shine like Jerusalem for we know where our hearts longing will be satisfied and we know where our feet must always walk.