In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “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.” (Matthew 2:1-2)
“Someone in your life is about to burst out of his or her shell – make sure you’re there to cheer them on! … This is your chance to be someone’s personal hero and personal cheerleader. Get out there and lend a helping hand”
As is my habit this time of year, I’ve checked in on my daily horoscope. That was the advice offered me today – Sunday, January 6th, 2019 – from astrology.com, which I thought sounded like the authoritative place to hear what my stars had to tell me.
I only check my horoscope once per year, largely because I can still hear the voice of my father in the back of my head, saying “don’t you believe any of that rubbish!”
That was the stance I was brought up with – that it was all a load of rubbish – and then, while I was at seminary, someone pointed out to me – ‘well … there must be something to it. The wise men followed their stars and it led them to Jesus!’
Yes, today is Epiphany – the Feast of the Epiphany – and we are blest indeed that this year Epiphany does fall on a Sunday!
Today is the day when we remember the visit of those wise men to the infant Jesus, as recorded in the Gospel according to St Matthew, chapter two – and if ever there was a day to consult your stars, I figure that today is the day!
The Feast of the Epiphany is much more than a day for star-gazing though, and over the last 2,000+ years of the existence of the church a lot of fascinating traditions have become associated with this day.
Epiphany is the Twelfth Day of Christmas, as celebrated in the song that I’m sure none of us have ever been able to forget, even if we can’t remember exactly whether the gift for day twelve was lords a leaping or ladies dancing or drummers drumming.
Either way, the song is a good reminder that the Twelve Days of Christmas have a history in the church, as does the Twelfth Night, remembered in the famous Shakespearean play of the same name.
In some sections of the church, this Twelfth Day of Christmas is considered to be as significant as Christmas itself, and in Spain and in some Latin American countries it is still a public holiday. Traditionally, it was the day when you opened your Christmas presents, and it was the day when you took down your Christmas decorations.
In Siberia today – this Epiphany as every Epiphany – a goodly number of our Russian Orthodox sisters and brothers will take a dip in water as cold as fifteen degrees below zero, jumping in through a whole cut in the ice by the priest who first blesses the freezing water so that they might wash away their sins.
As if we needed more reasons to remain Anglican!
In some areas of England and France, a far more tame Epiphany tradition is to have a communal celebration with an Epiphany cake which has had a pea and a bean baked into it. According to the tradition, whichever man finds the bean in his slice of cake becomes king for the night and whichever woman finds a pea becomes queen! I couldn’t find any explanation as to what is supposed to happen if a man finds the pea or a woman finds the bean.
How any of these traditions grew out of the story of the visit of the wise men to the infant Jesus is anybody’s guess. I can’t see any obvious connection, beyond the general theme of celebration, as Epiphany event does indeed proclaim a truth that is worth celebrating. That truth, I believe, is simply that Jesus belongs to everybody.
“Wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “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.” (Matthew 2:1b-2)
We use this term, ‘wise men’, but the original Greek word is ‘magi’, from which we get our word ‘magic’. These visitors are magicians of sorts, though not of the conjuror variety, such as we see on stage. They are court magicians, such as might act as advisors to the king, as members of the royal court.
If you’re familiar with the book of Daniel, where Daniel and his three friends became part of the Persian royal court, their position in the court would have been as magi. Hence, they played a special role in all matters requiring spiritual wisdom, such as the interpreting of dreams and predicting the future, so that they might help prosper the king and the kingdom, both economically and militarily.
These magi at the heart of the Epiphany story are likewise understood to be court officials, and, if we are to take this story literally as history, religiously speaking, they would almost certainly have been Zoroastrians.
I learned a little about Zoroastrianism, reading the Reverend Dr Niveen Sarras’ commentary on this text. She’s a Lutheran pastor in the USA.
According to Dr Sarras, Zoroaster himself (the main prophet in Zoroastrianism) was also believed to have been miraculously conceived in the womb of a virgin (a 15- year-old Persian girl in his case). Like Jesus, Zoroaster started his ministry at age of 30, after defeating all of Satan’s temptations, and he predicted that “other virgins would conceive additional divinely appointed prophets as history unfolded.”
Zoroastrian priests believed that they could foretell these miraculous births by reading the stars and, like the Jews, the Zoroastrian were, at the time, anticipating the birth of a universal savior.
What this means is that these magi come to Jesus, not on the basis of any prophecy in the Hebrew Scriptures, but on the basis of the Zoroastrian virgin-birth prophecies. Dr Sarras believes that this was certainly the understanding of Matthew, the Gospel writer, who is proclaiming that religions unrelated to Hebrew monotheism, and other sacred texts, outside of the Hebrew Scriptures, did indeed also point to Jesus.
All this reminds me very much of our own Epiphany experience that we had here in Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, on Christmas Day, when we were visited by our own magi.
If you missed it, I’m referring to the visit paid us by Sheikh Shoaib Naqvi and his colleagues of the Muhammadi Welfare Association in Granville.
Sheikh Shoaib isn’t a Zoroastrian, of course, and he might not appreciate the comparison. He’s a Shia Muslim cleric, of course. Even so, if you were here, you’ll know that he read to us from his own Scriptures some words of prophecy regarding both Mary and Jesus, and he and his colleagues came here to honour Jesus!
If you missed it, it’s on the church’s Facebook page, as Sheikh Shoaib had his brief speech videod, and he posted it to his Facebook page, and I then shared it on ours.
Interestingly, I spent some time with Sheikh Shoaib the weekend after that visit, and he told me that he’d received quite a bit of negative feedback on his Facebook page.
He said that while he’d been 100% supported by how own faith community, the video had been shared and re-shared around the world, and he’d been criticized by some of his old associates back in Pakistan and elsewhere.
It seems that a lot of people in Pakistan think that if you turn up at a church, you have to drink the wine we serve. Shoaib assured them that this was not the case – that the consumption of alcohol here is entirely voluntary.
I note with some pride that we received zero negative feedback from the Christian community (at least as far as I know). Having said that, I suspect that a number of our less-regular visitors that day might have assumed that Sheikh Shoaib was just part of the Nativity scene.
And why wouldn’t’ they? It’s the season! The week before we had half of the Sunday School children dressed up like Bedouin Arabs, roaming around the building. Additionally, we’ve got models of saints dressed in plush, red winter garb alongside woolly sheep and other stable animals. Why would a wise man in a turban look out of place?
In truth, I love this time of year, and I love the pageantry, and the way we dress up, and I love our special visitors, as it’s all a part of the central Epiphany proclamation – that Jesus belongs to everybody.
It’s interesting that the word ‘epiphany’ has another use in our language, entirely independent of this Gospel story. According to the dictionary, it can also mean “a moment of sudden and great revelation or realisation.”
I suppose the two epiphanies are not really unrelated, as they are both tied to the Greek word, “epiphainein”, meaning, ‘manifestation’ or ‘appearance’. The star suddenly appeared as a revelation to the magi and, in similar ways, things suddenly occur to us when we have our own ‘epiphanies’.
I’ve had a few epiphanies in my life.
I think the first was when I was eighteen and one night I had a life-changing epiphany when I realised that God was really ‘out there’, or, to be more precise, that God was really close to me, and was deeply interested in what I was doing with my life! That was the most life-changing epiphany I have ever had.
Many years later (and I’m embarrassed to admit that it was many years later) I had another epiphany – that same-sex orientated people were probably no worse sinners than I was (and, in many cases, were far less so). As I say, I’m embarrassed to admit that it took a number of years before I had that particular epiphany but, again, it proved to be life-changing.
A few years after that I had yet another epiphany, when I realised that the Spirit of God was as actively at work in the heart of my friend, Mansour – a Muslim Sheikh – as He was in mine! That epiphany would also prove to be life-changing!
I may have more epiphanies to come, but I note that all my more recent epiphanies have been what I would call ‘Epiphanal epiphanies’. In other words, they have been situation-specific realisations of the greater truth that Epiphany teaches us – that Jesus belongs to everybody, and that ‘everybody’ really does mean ‘everybody’.
“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)
So says St Paul in his letter to the Galatians, for indeed that is where the New Testament is taking us. It ends there – in the affirmation of our oneness in Christ, where all the divisions between rich and poor and slave and free and gay and straight and orthodox and heretic and us and them are broken down and resolved and all are one in Christ Jesus.
It ends there, but it begins here, in the opening chapters of the first book in the New Testament, with this odd story of these unfamiliar men in turbans who come to stand alongside us and pay their respects to Jesus.
I started my sermon today by sharing with you some of my horoscope reading for today. In case you’ve forgotten, it mentioned that someone was going to “burst out of his or her shell” and that my role was to be there to “cheer them on!
“Get out there and lend a helping hand”, was the closing exhortation of that prophecy and I really don’t know if this sermon has been that helping hand for anyone today. If that’s you, and this sermon has helped you burst out of your shell, do let me know.
That, at any rate, was the extract from my daily horoscope on astrology.com. What I found even more interesting though, from the same site, was my weekly horoscope, which gave specific recommendations for each day of the week, concluding with, “express yourself eccentrically on Sunday.”
I thought about that for quite a while, and wondered whether concluding this sermon with an ‘ice-bucket challenge’ might help bring the Epiphany message home. I decided though that most of our church thought I was already eccentric enough.
It did occur to me though that if ‘eccentric’ means being ‘out of step’ and ‘non-conformist’, then there is probably nothing more eccentric that we can do than simply proclaim the message of Epiphany – that despite all our differences (of gender and class and race and education and religion, and all the other factors that distinguish and divide us), we are one, and that the Lord Jesus belongs as much to the Sudanese Muslim woman on the other side of the globe as He does to us.
First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on Sunday 6th January, 2019.