St Aldhelm, Vulcan

Eternal God, who by a star led wise men to the worship of your Son. Guide by your light the nations of the earth, that the whole world may know your glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.

May the words of my lips, and the thoughts and meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

Introduction

Today is the feast of the Epiphany of the Lord. Many people might think first and foremost of the idea of having an epiphany, coming to a sudden realisation, but the meaning of Epiphany in this feast is the manifestation of the incarnate Christ in Bethlehem to the gentile Magi of the East, which we heard proclaimed in our Gospel today. In the Book of Common Prayer, the day is also known as The Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.

Okay, it’s a story we all know, but what’s the big deal with it?

This feast day is a reminder of the promises of God and their fulfilment, something we see in our Old Testament lesson from the Prophet Isaiah.

Prophesy and Fulfilment

In the Old Testament, God had revealed himself to his chosen people, Israel, first and foremost through his formation of Israel with his Covenant with Abraham.[1] What is sometimes ignored here is that while Israel had a special relationship with God that was to some degree exclusive, from the beginning there was always a part of the covenant this idea that God would bless all people of the world through Israel. In his commentary on Genesis, The Venerable Bede, the Anglo-Saxon saint and church historian, writes that this was a reference to Jesus coming from Israel and bringing the blessing of God to all people.[2]

In reading from the Prophet Isaiah, we hear a prophesy of how the Covenant of Abraham is to be fulfilled. “For darkness shall cover the earth… but the Lord will arise upon you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings the brightness of your dawn.”[3]

This prophesy was viewed as having multiple meanings, just as all prophesies were. You see, there was an understanding in Israel that God might fulfil a prophesy once immediately, but there would be a future fulfilment of an even greater capacity. In this specific case there are three fulfilments of the prophesy I want to talk about.

First and foremost, the prophesy was understood to represent something related to the rebuilding of Jerusalem that took place under the Persian kings Cyrus and Darius.[4] Israel had been in exile and much of Isaiah’s prophesy deals with the immediate question of the restoration of the people following the exile.

A second and fuller meaning is found in the writings of the Gospels and St Paul where this prophesy and the language of the light of God is attributed to Christ.[5] We can see this even in our Gospel reading today to come back to the Magi.

When the Magi first come to Jerusalem they say to Herod, “we observed his star and its rising.”[6] In other words, they observed the dawning of the light of the star, recalling that language of light and dawn from Isaiah’s prophesy.

It was in this fulfilment that Jesus was revealed to the Gentiles and the prophesy of that light and blessing going to all people was made a reality.

This is something Christians have proclaimed fully through the Song of Simeon, more commonly known as the Nunc Dimittis, one of the traditional canticles sung at Evensong in the BCP. “For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, / which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; / To be a light to lighten the Gentiles, / and to be the glory of thy people Israel.”[7] Simeon was a Jew, but he confirms that Jesus is both the Christ and the one who will fulfil the covenantal promise of being a blessing to all peoples, the light to the Gentiles and the glory of Israel.

Now that’s all quite interesting, but the practical benefit is quite important when you consider for one moment that most Christians today are gentiles. The epiphany is a celebration of the fact that we now participate in God’s plan of salvation through Jesus Christ who has been revealed to us.

Fulfilment Today

Now, the observant among you might have noticed that I had previously said there were three important ways of interpreting the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophesy. I then went on to list two ways: the restoration of Jerusalem following the Babylonian exile, and then the Epiphany of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles. What is the third?

This ties into the epiphany and its continuing fulfilment today.

It was the dawning of the star of Bethlehem that guided the Magi to the light of Christ and by which he was revealed, and later in his incarnate ministry, Jesus had many notable interactions with Gentiles who were healed, had their faith commended, or had their sins forgiven. Yet today, Christ is risen and ascended, and there is no star.

How is Christ revealed to the world today? Where is the light of Christ?

That is where we come to perhaps the more important meaning of the Epiphany. Many of you might be able to guess what I’m going to say: every Christian carries within them the light of Christ. Jesus himself said, “You are the light of the world… let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”[8]

Conclusion

The feast of the Epiphany is not just about saying we’re thankful we get to be Christians because Christ was revealed to all people and not just God’s chosen nation in history. The feast of the Epiphany is a reminder of our task of being the light of Christ in the world, and through our own acts and deeds, continuously revealing Christ to the world today.

Especially when someone knows we are Christian, everything we do or say proclaims something about Christ. We proclaim his truth and that he makes a difference in our lives, allowing his light to shine forth, or we cover him up, and proclaim that he makes no difference in our lives.

We are the instruments of the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophesy today. Indeed, we are the fulfilment of God’s covenant with Abraham. We have a calling and responsibility to be revealing Christ in the world today. A responsibility to demonstrate that he makes a difference in our lives.

While we think of the Epiphany in terms of celebration and fulfilment of prophesy historically, it might be better to think of it in terms of the commencement of Christ’s earthly mission to the Gentiles, a mission which was then given to the Apostles, all the disciples and to all Christians who have followed.

May we who have been enlightened by Christ, ourselves through word and deed be a light to the world, revealing always and to all people, our saviour Jesus Christ, and the difference he makes in our lives.

Amen.

[1] Genesis xii. 1-3

[2] S. Bede, On Genesis 3

[3] Isaiah lx. 2a, c, 3

[4] S. Theodoret of Cyr, Commentary on Isaiah 19.60.1

[5] S. John of Damascus, Canon of Pascha, Ninth Ode; S. Cyril of Alexandria, On the Unity of Christ, etc.

[6] S. Matthew ii. 2b

[7] Book of Common Prayer, 22; see also S. Luke ii. 25-32

[8] S. Matthew v. 14a, 16

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