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"The shining forth"  

By Dr. Robert Crouse
When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea, in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. (Matthew 2.1)
The Festival of the Epiphany, which we celebrate today, and the season of Epiphany, which begins today, commemorate many different things. First, there is the coming of the wise men from the east to worship at the cradle of the Infant Christ. Next, there is the Baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan by John the Baptist, with the voice from heaven declaring that this Jesus is the beloved Son of God. Then we have the visit of Jesus, at twelve years old, to the temple of Jerusalem, where the learned doctors were astonished by his understanding and his answers. Finally, there is a series of Jesus' miracles: the changing of water into wine at the marriage feast at Cana of Galilee; the healing of a leper and the Centurion's palsied servant; and the calming of the troubled sea. 

All these diverse commemorations are tied together by a common theme: they are all aspects of the showing forth, or shining forth, the "Epiphany" of the divine glory of Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God. Thus they make up a continuing meditation upon the meaning of the Christmas miracle: the miracle of God with us, God in our flesh, Emmanuel; the miracle of God visible to human eyes, God audible to human ears, God tangible to human touch; the miracle of God manifest in human life, restoring and transforming it by the grace and truth he brings. 

The Gospel lesson we have read - the story of the coming of the wise men from the east has been the Gospel lesson for this day since at least as early as the fourth century. We join with the ancient Church of saints and martyrs, with countless generations of great and humble Christian people, as we turn our thoughts, today, to the meaning of this story. 

"When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea, in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.", 

The learned travellers had come to Jerusalem, the Royal City, but they were directed further on, to Bethlehem. It was a strange sort of king they found there: they found a little child with Mary, his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him. There, at the manger, they offered their gifts: gold, acknowledging a king; incense, the symbol of God's presence; and myrrh, the ancient funeral spice, recognizing the mortal human nature of the Son of God, destined to suffer and to die in sacrifice for all mankind. 

Isn't this a remarkable performance? What was there, after all, about the humble manger scene to suggest the divinity, the kingship, and the sacrificial offering of the Son of God? As St. Augustine, a great fifth-century Christian preacher in North Africa, remarks: "He was not clad in purple, nor did a diadem shine upon his brow. Neither did the splendour of a court, nor the fear of a great army, nor the renown of victories, bring these men from remote lands in such fervour of supplication. He lay in a manger, a child newly born: tiny in body, abject in poverty. But in this child something great lay hidden, of which these, the first-fruits of the Gentiles, had learned, not from earthly rumours, but from heavenly revelation. Hence they say, we have seen His star in the East. They announce, yet they ask; they believe, and yet they seek to know: as though prefiguring those who walk by faith, yet still desire to see." 

They walk by faith, and what a faith it is: they see in a helpless infant, who cannot even stutter, the almighty Word of God. They see the King of kings and Lord of all the worlds in a swaddled infant who cries for mother's milk. They see in the baby Jesus the very Son of God "God, from God; Light, from Light" - in all the ordinariness and poverty of a cattle-stall, exposed to all the winds of human indifference. But that is faith's proper work; that is the pattern of faith for all of us. "Where is he that is born King of the Jews?" Where is the Son of God, who comes to save? For we would worship him. Faith bids us find him in the common and the ordinary. Faith bids us to find the Word of God in human words; faith bids us taste the very life of God in bread and wine; and faith bids us find the Son of God in one another. 

Our human inclination is to lust for the spectacular, the novel, the entertaining, the compelling. Faith calls us back to work out our salvation in the common, ordinary, everyday life of the Christian fellowship, in the disciplined routines of Christian worship and Christian charity. As Francis Thompson puts it: 

Not where the wheeling systems darken, 
And our benumbed conceiving soars!- 
The drift of pinions, would we hearken, 
Beats at our own clay-shuttered doors. 
The angels keep their ancient places;- 
Turn but a stone, and start a wing! 
'Tis ye, 'tis your estranged faces, 
That miss the many-splendoured thing. 
In Epiphany we celebrate the showing forth, the shining forth of the grace and truth of God the Son, and we begin in Bethlehem at the manger-bed of the Infant Jesus, with the wise men from the East. We come to worship him in Bethlehem, his "house of bread," for that is what "Bethlehem" means. We, too, may see his glory shining forth, as long as we have a faith like theirs, which sees beyond our worldly expectations, and rejoices with exceeding joy in his obscure and humble presence. This presence is God with us in bread, and wine, God with us in one another, here and now in Bethlehem. Here is Bethlehem; here we fall down and worship him; and here we offer him our gifts. Perhaps we have no gold to bring, but we have a gift which he will treasure more than gold - the gift of our obedient love. 

Remember the final verse of that lovely Christmas hymn by Christina Rosetti: 

What can I give him 
Poor as I am? 
If I were a shepherd 
I would bring a lamb 
If I were a wise man, 
I would do my part, 
But what I can I give him. 
Give my heart. 
                                                                    Amen. +
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