Cathedral News, January 8, 2017
Last Thursday marked the end of the Christmas season. “Twelfth Night,” the evening of January 5, is traditionally the time to take down all one’s Christmas decorations and to burn the greens that have adorned your home. When I was Rector of Trinity Church in Hamilton, Ohio, we would have a great parish party every Twelfth Night, when we would invite parishioners to bring their Christmas trees, wreaths, and any other greens and make an enormous bonfire to see out the season. For all of us to stand around, sometimes in snow and deep cold, faces aglow from the light of the flames, with the welcome warmth in the dark, was a wonderful experience.
The day after Twelfth Night, January 6, is the Feast of the Epiphany. On it we celebrate the arrival of the Magi at the scene of Jesus’ birth, the manger in Bethlehem. The longer name for this feast is “The Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.” That title reminds me always of the line from the Song of Simeon, the Nunc dimittis, “…a light to lighten the Gentiles, and to be the glory of thy people, Israel.” This is an image taken from the words of the Prophet Isaiah: “…I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (49: 6) The Magi were following a light in the sky, “the star in the East,” and what they found as a result was the Light of the World.
Up to the point of the Visitation of the Magi, all who witnessed the scene in Bethlehem were Jews: Mary and Joseph, the innkeeper, the shepherds, and any other folks the scriptures don’t include in the story. The Magi, however, came from far off places, we are told. According to Christian tradition and pious legend, the three kings were Balthasar of Arabia, Melchoir of Persia, and Gaspar of India. Regardless of their country of origin, they were outside the house of Israel, and therefore were Gentiles, from the constellation of nations. Their arrival at Bethlehem, and even more so their returning home, to share the news of what they had seen and heard, constituted “The Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles” and fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah.
On the First Sunday after the Epiphany, today, we remember another moment of manifestation. This Sunday is also known as “The Baptism of Christ,” recalling the event of Jesus’ baptism by his cousin, John the Baptist, in the Jordan River. You will recall, from the account of the baptism in the Gospels, that the Holy Spirit was present in the form of a dove and that a voice came from heaven, “This is my beloved Son.” For all who witnessed the moment it was a revelation of something profoundly earth-changing. The manifestation of Jesus as the Messiah continued.
The manifestation of Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah and God’s Son continues today. He is made known to the world in many ways. This morning, at the 9:00 liturgy, two children are being baptized. The Sunday after the Epiphany is one of the five Sundays in the Church calendar most appropriate for baptisms, and this one, in my view, most of all. By bringing their children to be made members of the Body of Christ today, the parents are manifesting their faith to the gathered assembly. As they grow in the love of God and the knowledge of Christ, these little children will help reveal God’s transforming love through Jesus to the world around them, through their actions and words.
The Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles involves all of us. As the Epiphany season begins, let the Light of Christ so burn in our hearts that others, in a world that can be all too dark and cold, gather round so that their hearts, too, are illumined by God’s love and their lives are warmed by his grace and blessing.
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