Sermons That Work

Two Celebrations, Epiphany 1 (C) – 2001

January 07, 2001

[This year, the First Sunday after Epiphany (Epiphany 1) falls on the day after the official feast of the Epiphany (Saturday, January 6). Many parishes will choose to celebrate Epiphany on Sunday. Lessons cited here are those specified for Sunday, Epiphany 1.]

The meaning, in Greek, of Epiphany is a showing forth. You might also say it is an explanation of what the birth of Jesus means to humankind. We humans are a stubborn lot. It takes a lot to convince us of anything, even if we see the evidence right in front of us. Needless to say, recognizing the appearance of the divine and the miraculous among us took–and takes–a great deal of explanation, a number of ways of looking at an amazing truth.

If you have ever walked into a brightly-lit room from the darkness of a winter night, you will remember your difficulty, for the first seconds, of identifying anything or anyone you are seeing. What you are most aware of is the glowing, transforming light, not necessarily what it “means” or, at first, what it is helping you to see.

Christmas is no problem for most people. The message of Christmas, the images that are part of Christmas, are imprinted forever on our minds from our earliest years. And the images and impressions we carry with us are not just Santa Claus and reindeer and Christmas presents under Christmas trees; not just Christmas cookies and gingerbread men. There is a central, deeper image we carry with us, the image of birth, the birth of a child in a stable; the image of a real baby in a real place. And we know about babies; we have held them; we were babies once, too. And we understand to our very bones that all babies are, in some sense, a miracle.

The images of the Epiphany, the meaning of Epiphany, are another matter entirely. Two traditions have come down to us in the Christian Church. By a happy accident we can honor both of these traditions today.

The official feast of the Epiphany, January 6, falls on a Saturday this year. Therefore, many of us are celebrating Epiphany on the next day, the first Sunday of Epiphany, called on the church calendar, “Baptism of Our Lord.” January 6 was all about the familiar story of the journey of the Magi, the Wise Men from the East, who followed a bright star to a stable in Bethlehem where they found a newborn child. And they saw in this very human infant the king, the Messiah, for whom they had brought their royal gifts. This recognition, for centuries, dominated the understanding of the Epiphany in the Christian Church in the West. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Eastern Christianity put the emphasis on the next great moment of recognition or understanding: the Baptism of the adult Jesus by his cousin, John, at the end of a mass baptism of new believers and the revelation of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God. This is the story we hear in today’s Gospel: …and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

This year, whether we celebrate these great events on January 6 or January 7, we are able to see them side by side, the two traditions informing and explaining each other. The whole idea of the Epiphany season is one of joyful explanation, of enlightenment. The wonderful birth in Bethlehem contained such a great mystery that the people of Earth could not be expected to absorb it all at once. There had to be assurances; there had to be proof beyond doubt. The Three Kings, the Magi–who were indeed wise–would not have worshipped any child. They knew when they had found Divinity. Years later, when John the Baptist, a prophet and traveling preacher, welcomed new Christians with water and the Word, he first had to make clear to them that he was not himself the promised Messiah. Then, when he baptized Jesus, everyone saw who the Messiah really was; they realized the endless promise–and light–they had been granted.

We must, each of us, open the window into the Infinite that allows us to understand the miracle of this season. Whatever Christian tradition we embrace, whatever window we chose to open, the result is illumination; the result is light. The imagery of the Epiphany is full of light.

In the Western tradition, one of the most striking images of knowledge, of enlightenment is found in the Collect for the Epiphany: …Lead us, who know you now by faith, to your presence, where we may see your glory face to face….

In the tradition of Eastern Orthodoxy, the spirit of the season is summed up in these lines from the Great Blessing of Water for baptism:

All the spiritual powers tremble before you;
the sun praises you; the moon glorifies you;
the stars in their courses meet with you;
the light hearkens unto you;
the depths shudder at your presence;
the springs of water serve you.

The Book of Common Prayer, in its liturgies for the Epiphany and for many other occasions as well, uses images of light, of glory bursting forth, to explain the effect of the coming of the Messiah on his people. There are literally countless reasons for this language, some of them buried deep in the traditions of earlier beliefs. However, Christianity’s use of images of brilliant light overcoming darkness to express the presence of divinity among us is very simple and logical. It is based on the image with which we began this discussion, that of walking from a dark winter night into a brightly-lit room, walking from the everyday world into something amazing.

This imagery of darkness into light begins in Christmastide with the birth of Jesus and reaches to the end of his life on Earth and beyond to his Resurrection. Have you ever seen a church in total darkness on Easter Eve emerge from the dark bit by bit as the candles held by the people are lit from the new fire?

Here are two special prayers that seem to carry the message of this season of awakened belief.

First of all, let us say together one of the most familiar passages from the Prayer Book, The Song of Simeon (also called, in Latin, Nunc dimittis):

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace,
according to thy word;
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
which thou has prepared before the face of all people,
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles,
and to be the glory of thy people Israel.

The second prayer, called Fire of the Spirit, may be new to you. It was written by the 12th century German religious and mystic, Hildegarde of Bingen:

Fire of the Spirit, life of the lives of creatures,
spiral of sanctity, bond of all natures,
glow of charity, lights of clarity, taste
of sweetness to sinners, be with us and hear us…
Composer of all things, light of all the risen,
key of salvation, release from the dark prison,
hope of all unions, scope of chastities, joy
in the glory, strong honor, be with us and hear us.


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Christopher Sikkema


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