AN EPIPHANY MYSTERY
Sermon preached on January 4th, 2004
By Fr Tony Noble
Ephesians 3:5 “The mystery of Christ has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.”
Mystery is one of the words that comes to mind as we celebrate the Epiphany. The word mystery has a number of forms. For instance, Lord of the Rings. There have been three movies based on Tolkein’s trilogy, and the third one just recently released has outranked all other movies in terms of people going to see it. And because of the recent release of these movies, based on Tolkein’s writings, JRR Tolkein has been much read and interpreted. He was a devout Roman Catholic, and his writing of The Lord of the Rings was influenced by his personal experience with the great loss of life in WWI, and he wanted to write something that would be – if you like – optimistic. Many people have given these books and movies a Christian interpretation, particularly of Good triumphing over Evil. But what gets all of us are the incredible sets and the fantastic images that are portrayed - the larger than life figures, the hobbits, and the wonderful heroes, etc. And mystery is one of the words we use to describe how those movies effect us and how the story effects us. The mystery not only of the stories, but of the figures and the characters.
And mystery, of course, is the word we associate with the Christmas Story. The Christmas event we have just celebrated is couched in the form of a mystery for us. But how much more today than Christmas Day do we sense mystery - with these three awesome figures of the Wise Men. With the touch of mystery they bring, coming from the east to worship The very search of those Men is mysterious, following the Star. The Star seems so mysterious - and who amongst us doesn’t relish the image of the Star in our Christmas Story? And there’s the interpretation of events that transpires in the gospel - and of course the three gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh, so symbolic - again adding a touch of mystery. And even the appearance of Herod in the story and the way he reacts with the slaughter of the children adds a touch of mystery and intrigue. There is a mystique about this event we celebrate today.
Indeed the word “Epiphany” is a bit mysterious. It is a word meaning manifestation, and in the Old English Prayer Book, the feast was called the Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles - the three Wise Men representing the Gentiles. Christ was manifest to the Jewish people on Christmas Day - now, twelve days later, he is manifest to the whole world. And of course, the feast day (which technically is Tuesday) is the twelfth night that is referred to in the Christmas carol. This event completes the Christmas Story - it not only completes it, it adds another dimension. By itself it is a special feast, and from now on they are called Sundays after Epiphany until Lent arrives.
This morning a new tradition - the carrying of the Kings to the Creche by our three new sub-deacons, all immaculately attired! And of course, having it on a Sunday gives us all a chance to sing those wonderful Epiphany hymns which can pass us by – because I can bet that if we had had it on Tuesday night, most of you would not have come!
The feast actually originated in the Eastern Churches - the Orthodox Churches of Greece and Russia and the Slavic nations. Tuesday in Russia and Greece is their Christmas Day. So if you have Greek or Russian friends be sure to wish them happy Christmas Day on Tuesday. It was the Western Church that originated the Feast of the Nativity on December 25th as the feast, and then introduced the Wise Men coming on the Feast of the Epiphany. In the Eastern Churches the Manifestation of Christ is not just about the Wise Men, but it’s also Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan by John, which we will commemorate next week, and the Wedding at Cana in Galilee. That is because each of those events were, in themselves, manifestations of Christ. The Wise Men, the Baptism when he was manifest as the Son of God, and the first miracle at Cana where St. John says he let his glory be seen.
So in the East the three are woven together. In Australia, where it’s the middle of Summer, next Sunday, when they are celebrating Epiphany, the Greek Orthodox Church has a wonderful ceremony at Port Philip Bay (which is where Melbourne is situated), during which the Greek priest throws a jeweled cross into the bay and young Greek Orthodox men jump in to try and retrieve the Cross. I was trying to imagine our three young sub-deacons going with me down to San Diego Bay - and I would throw a jeweled cross in, but the vestments would get wet wouldn’t they? (Wear you Speedos next time brothers!)
There is another tradition we’re having today which I am sure you’ve never heard of – the Blessing of the Epiphany Chalk. At the Offertory, after we have presented our gifts and the bread and wine have been offered, I am going to bless some pieces of chalk. I was hoping we could be the first to have this custom in America - but I have to tell you the Church of the Resurrection in Manhattan has been doing it for a couple of years since they got their new Rector, who is a Canadian!
Let me tell you about this tradition. It comes from Bavaria. Now you may know that in the Cathedral in Cologne there are supposed to be the relics of the Three Wise Men, the tradition being that they finished up in Cologne. You can take that or leave it, but the tradition is that they wandered through Bavaria on their way. So it became the tradition that on Christian houses in Bavaria people would mark with chalk the initials of the Three Wise Men, KMB, with the year and a cross. If the wise men happened to be passing by looking for Jesus they would know that in that house they would receive a welcome, a Christian welcome. The tradition became that chalk was blessed on the Feast of the Epiphany and people would take the chalk home and mark their houses. For our first year, I am going to mark the doors of my office, and the hall, and the school as a sign that those who come here are welcome. But perhaps next year I ought to get boxes of chalk and each of you can take home a piece and do it yourselves. In fact, Fr George is going to do it (he’s not going to be left out!) - maybe if you like the idea next year we’ll bless lots of chalk.
I took the chalk from the school supply didn’t I? And there’s a reason for that. On Wednesday when we have the first School Mass for the year I’m going to ask the children if they saw the chalk signs, and what they mean. You see there’s a little teaching there – and that’s the way Sunday Mass should interact with the children of our school.
If you put your thinking cap on, you will know that the marking of the doorways with chalk is also reminiscent of the Paschal Candle - when at Easter, on Holy Saturday, we mark the Candle with the year, and the symbols Alpha and Omega, and a cross. We do symbolise to mark the Resurrection of Jesus. So the marking of things is not a new thing. Indeed, we should also remember the most incredible marking of doors in Egypt - at the first Passover. Remember, when the Jews were instructed to mark their doors with the blood of a lamb, so that the angel of death might pass them by? And that gave the name to “pass over”. There is a hint of that event, with its blood and death, in the fact that Herod killed all those children as a result of the Wise Men. So as we mark doors with Epiphany chalk, we are recalling another marking, and also recalling what happened afterwards.
Primarily it is a symbol of welcoming the Three Wise Men to our homes, if they should pass by. In fact welcoming all who seek Jesus. And if we welcome all who seek Jesus, we also pray that they may be enlightened by Jesus - who is revealed today as the Light of the World. And that all who are enlightened by Him may be truly wise.
This leads, naturally, to the star, the other great mysterious thing in the Epiphany story. You know the Star has been a fascination for all of us ever since we were children, and we always put them on our trees and our Christmas Creches. They shouldn’t go there till today, because in the Gospel it said that the Star didn’t get there until the Wise Men arrived, and they saw it stop over the place where the child lay.
The Star is interesting isn’t it? I don’t know about you, but I was very afraid of the dark when I was a little child. We lived in a country town and we had a rather big yard. We used to play a game in which we would go down to the back where there was a big tree and in the tree lived, of course, the boogie man! When the sun was setting we would go down there and someone would try and frighten us. It was pretty scary as a little child, and indeed I remember having to go out at night and get things in that same place and being a little scared. We’ve all been through that I’m sure.
Earlier this year - in fact just after my appointment as Rector was announced - there was a power failure on the east coast. All the lights went out. And as you can imagine, all the people in Australia said “What sort of country are you going to?”. I pointed out that it was only on the east coast, and that the west coast lights were still on! But power failures are more than just a nuisance. Don’t they remind us of our vulnerability? When the lights go out, we realize that we need that light on? And when they go off we fumble, looking for that torch. You know you put it somewhere where you could find it when the lights go off! And we say that next year we’ll put it somewhere where we won’t forget!
When we find the torch we have light under our control. With the torch, we can see again, so the darkness is taken away. But the sense of relief is tempered by the fact that it’s not really good enough. We want more than just to be able to see where the fuse box is, or where the door is - we want the whole house to be light again. We need light that lights up everything, light that eliminates the darkness and gives us total vision. When that happens, after all the lights come on, we are happy and we respond to the full light.
That experience is a parable of the Epiphany. The Magi followed the Star like a torch. It was shining through the dark, leading them on. And when they found Jesus their whole lives were lit up! They were completely effected, they came into full light. Their arrival in Bethlehem teaches us that the Lord of the universe - whom we worship in the manger at Bethlehem - is the light of the world. And that’s why we have candles in Church, and why we light lamps. The Magi remind us that every person needs that light, the light of Christ, which is eternal light. In Jesus we see light every soul needs. A light from outside shining within us. and dwelling within us. We all need to search for that external light - Jesus - and submit to it. The Magi found the King in the form of a baby. A king of God’s making – not man’s. And that is how the mystery of God is revealed.