Readings: Is. 60:1–6, Eph. 3:1–12 & Mt. 2:1–12.
Today we celebrate the ‘Epiphany of Our Lord’. So exactly what does the word “epiphany” mean?
The Cambridge Dictionary gives it two meanings:
- a moment when you suddenly feel that you understand, or suddenly become conscious of, something that is very important to you,
- a powerful religious experience.
The Oxford Dictionary adds to these definitions by describing it as ‘a moment of sudden and great revelation or realisation’. We’ll come back to these definitions shortly, but let me ask you, have you ever had an ‘epiphany’?
I remember the day that I became certain, that God was calling me to be an ordained minister, and I would say that was an epiphany. It was Easter Day 2012, and I was sitting in the pews, with the rest of the congregation of Christ Church South Yarra, waiting for the 10am service to begin. I had been struggling for some time with the question: was God calling me to ordained ministry? And on that morning, probably 5-10 minutes prior to the start of the service, I found myself looking at the altar candle on the lef-thand side of the altar. I remember that I wasn’t thinking about anything in particular, but I suddenly became transfixed by the candle; I couldn’t take my eyes off it! All of a sudden the flame of the candle began to move and flicker. It appeared to become much larger, unusually large in fact, and it was almost dancing, as it moved to and from. And at that precise moment, I was overcome by a deep sense of knowing and clarity, that God was calling me to ordained ministry. And that was the moment that prompted me to go and begin conversations with people in the diocese about the process for ordination.
In today’s gospel reading, we encounter two different examples of an “epiphany”. The first is when the wise men from the East came to Herod in Jerusalem and said to him, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
Herod, suddenly became conscious of something that was very important to him. He became terrified, because the birth of this child, who was supposedly to be the king of the Jews, represented a threat to his own rule. Herod was technically not a king, but had been appointed by the Romans to be the ruler of the region of Galilee and Perea. He was only half-Jewish, and was not recognised by the Jewish people as being a legitimate descendant of King David. So to hear news of the birth of a legitimate Jewish king, from the House of David, would have posed a huge threat to him.
Matthew also told his readers that, “All Jerusalem” was frightened along with Herod. This didn’t mean that the people of Jerusalem were afraid of the birth of a potential Messiah King. What they were afraid of, was the cruel and horrible acts that Herod might carry out in order to protect his authority and power. He had already become quite mentally unstable at that time and, as a result of his growing paranoia, had ordered the murder of his favourite wife and two sons.
The second example of an epiphany in our gospel passage, is when the star, which the wise men from the East had been following, stopped over a particular house. The wise men, being overwhelmed with joy, entered the house and found the child Jesus with his mother Mary. They had followed a new star in the evening sky because they believed it was a sign of the birth of a Jewish king, and now this had truly been revealed to them when they arrived at the house where Mary and Joseph were with Jesus.
As I mentioned earlier, an epiphany can also be described as a “powerful religious experience”. And this is what the prophet Isaiah was alluding to in the opening verses of today’s Old Testament reading when he wrote, “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.”
This passage was written after the Jews who had been in exile in Babylon, were allowed to return home to Jerusalem by King Cyrus of Persia. Isaiah had made an announcement, at the close of chapter 59, that God would come to Jerusalem as the Redeemer.1 And in the chapters that immediately follow, he provided an elaborate description of the coming of the Redeemer, and of the transformation of Jerusalem that would result.2 He began chapter 60 with the announcement of light breaking forth in darkness, an image that suggested God’s saving entry into the brokenness of human bondage and suffering, which for many, had been the life of the exiles in Babylon.
The apostle Paul, had his own “powerful religious experience”, or epiphany, on the Road to Damascus when Jesus appeared to him in a vision, asking him why he was persecuting the early church. From that day forward, Paul began to preach and proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, which resulted in him being imprisoned on several occasions by the Roman authorities. One such occasion would seem to be that described in our passage today from the Letter to the Ephesians.
The early church believed that Paul himself had written this letter, but most modern scholars now attribute it to one of Paul’s students or disciples. In today’s passage Paul is referred to as a “prisoner of Christ”. He finds himself a prisoner because he preached salvation to Gentiles. As the letter tells us, he has been imprisoned for the “sake of the Gentiles”.
Jesus Christ himself appointed Paul to be an apostle to the Gentiles, so that all people might know the mystery of God’s plan; a plan which had been hidden for thousands of years, but which had now been revealed through the Epiphany of Jesus Christ. And perhaps that is what has happened for us if we have experienced an epiphany of our own. Perhaps in that moment, the mystery of God’s plan for us, or at least a glimpse of God’s plan, has been revealed to us.
The Lord be with you.
1 Hanson, Paul D.. Isaiah 40-66: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching,
Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition (p. 217).
2 Hanson, Paul D.. Isaiah 40-66: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching,
Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition (p. 220).