The Feast of the Epiphany
6 January 2012
My dear sisters,
On Christmas Eve each year, a Service of Nine Lessons and Carols is held in King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, England. This Service was first celebrated in 1918, just after the Great War ended. The Dean of the College, a man called Eric Milner-White, had been an army chaplain during the terrible slaughter in the trenches. He came home with a firm conviction that Church worship should bring home to people the message of Christ.
The service he arranged, in reading and song, tells the story of the human race’s journey from the loss of paradise, and the promise of a saviour, to the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. The story of our creation, our wanderings and our rescue is vividly told in the alternating carols and lessons. The service begins with the single voice of a boy chorister singing, “Once in Royal David’s City.” It ends with the massed voices of choir and congregation joining the angels to celebrate “the newborn king.”
On the east wall of the chapel, behind the altar, there hangs a well-known painting by Peter Paul Rubens. It is titled, “The Adoration of the Magi.” These travellers from the east have journeyed far to look for “the infant king of the Jews.” The Christmas story, as told by Matthew, gives us this great feast that we celebrate today – the Epiphany, that is, the revealing of Christ to the peoples of the whole world.
In Matthew’s story, we meet the powerful political figure of King Herod. He displays all the force and fallibility of any human leader. Once in power, his main objective seems to be to remain in power. Power, that could be used to help mankind, can easily become corrupted into a force for destroying mankind. Herod’s wrongdoing has made him so self-obsessed that he even fears the birth of a child as a threat to his throne.
In Jerusalem, Herod’s advisors, the religious and political elite, gather together to discuss the political situation. They are experts at managing things, without rocking the boat. They seem to know what they are talking about. They know where the Messiah will be born. They don’t seem to be very interested in when, as long as it does not upset their routines of control. These people enjoy their position of privilege, but are not as interested in the wider world.
The travellers are different. They are seekers after wisdom. They are looking for the meaning of things. They do not settle down in the comfort of the here and now. Their life is a journey, and they seek answers to life’s great questions. When they find him, they fall on their knees in homage to a child. All their searching and all their studying have brought them to this place, and to this newborn king.
Today’s feast invites us to join the magi and to become wise travellers through this world. It is a great temptation in our lives to become like Herod, little demagogues in our own world, ruling our lives according to our desires. We can also be tempted to pose as political and religious experts, like Herod’s advisors, putting the world to rights according to our own theories of who’s right and who’s wrong.
Alternatively, we can go on the journey, like the wise men of old and look for the child and, when we find him, go on our knees. When we accept this challenge then, for as long as we are on this earth, we are on the journey. St. Peter himself was never finished with learning. There is always so much more to discover. “The truth I have now comes to realise,” Peter admitted on one famous occasion, “is that God does not have favourites, but that anyone of any nationality who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to him.”
Another great traveller, Blessed John Henry Newman, the English convert and later Cardinal, in an Anglican sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany in 1839 said, “When people understand what each other mean, they see, for the most part, that controversy is either superfluous or hopeless.” Newman believed in the unity of mankind and in the unity of Christians. This is the challenge of today’s feast, that we go out and embrace the world, gracing it in sharing God’s love.
+Liam S. MacDaid
6 January 2012