Welcome to the season of Epiphany, in which we try to work out what the birth of the Messiah means for us. This is a very ancient feast in the churches, predating the establishment of the feast of Jesus’ Incarnation on December 25. In the Eastern rites of the Catholic Church, Theophany – as Epiphany is known in the East – commemorates the manifestation of Jesus’ divinity at his Baptism in the River Jordan. The Epiphany – or the revelation – of the Messiah means that Jesus is the Savior for all people, a light illuminating a sinful world. If you are not a member of the tribe, one of the Chosen People, Epiphany is your day. Salvation came from the Jews and then was shared with the Gentiles. Theologically speaking, this is very important in both the ancient and contemporary contexts.
The Christmas story, especially as we tell it in church, has a joyous and warm theme. The angels sing, the music is beautiful, the pageant is charming. Services are infused with a sense of awe, and we may feel a surge of emotion. That is a good thing, because the innocence and beauty of the story of Jesus are supposed to touch our hearts. There is something very special about God’s choosing to be born as a vulnerable child.
At the same time, Epiphany has more of an edge. Epiphany demands that as we hear the good news of Messiah’s birth, we balance our awe with our discomfort. While we place the Epiphany story from Matthew’s Gospel at the conclusion of the narrative of Jesus’ birth as told in the Gospel of Luke, it really is the beginning of a whole new story, the story of what the life of Jesus means. Remember that Jesus and his family and followers were religious Jews living in a challenging era. The Gospel of Matthew was prepared for a largely Jewish audience. Matthew intentionally unsettles his listeners with his precise and systematic construction of a Gospel which reframes the Law of Moses in the context of Jesus’ teaching.
Today we hear lessons outlining the story of the place of Jesus as part of Jewish history: the prophetic promise of the servant King who brings about a reign of justice and mercy; the unexpected foreigners – the Magi – who welcome the Messiah; a psalm which echoes the angels message to the shepherds, honoring the Lord of glory and strength who brings people peace; the preaching by St Peter that God chooses to expand the Chosen People, favoring no singular group but inviting all people; the identification of Jesus as the Divine Son after his baptism; and the first sign of his power at a wedding in Cana.
Modern people may hear these stories and think about inclusion. In the first century, the largely Jewish audience who heard them would have noted that many of the beneficiaries of the blessing were Gentiles. Because of the religious self-understanding of the time, this sort of revelation could be quite a scandal. Who let these pagans in?
The whole story of Christmas reveals a surprising collection of people who are drawn to make a pilgrimage to encounter Jesus: hardscrabble shepherds, singing angels, mangy beasts, foreigners, fishermen, gentiles. Epiphany is the opening of God’s scandalous story of salvation: the Messiah is revealed and is followed by sinners, lepers, tax collectors, the impure, centurions, gentiles. And the Messiah, the Christ, in the middle of the group, leads us from the crèche to Heaven and to Golgotha at the same time. It is not what they expected. Surely it is better than anything we could have hoped for.
The good news is less pristine and more surprising than anyone expected. It is perfectly suited to a fractured creation, the complicated world into which God chose to be born. Born for the likes of us, trying to follow God in a complicated world.
Look at the crèche, and consider how you will journey there. We are the scandalous, holy hodgepodge. We are the sheep and the angels, the abandoned toys, the puzzled parents, the shepherds, the gentiles. We are the Magi.
When we go home today, by whatever path we take, know that we are invited to share the good news as they did. You may want to begin Epiphany singing Joy to the World once again!