Dr. Wayne J Hankey
A sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany
at King's College Chapel Halifax in 1991.
"They saw the young child with Mary his mother,
and fell down and worshipped him."
St. Matthew 2.11
Wise men from the East, priest - kings arrive at a humble house in the least of the cities of Judah and, surely to the surprise of all, fall down and worship the child. There is nothing about his outward trappings or circumstances to compel or explain this worship. There is nothing they can see which will show him to be worthy of the worship of sage rulers. Yet, seeing him, they worship. Why?
Why? Well, this is Epiphany, the divinity hidden under the veil of flesh begins to appear. Epiphany is God in man made manifest. But this begs the question how does it appear? How does it become known to us that this is God, that God is in the midst of us?
An obvious way to begin answering this question is to consider what knowledge is or rather what the forms of knowledge are. The Collect for our feast distinguishes three. There are faith, manifestation and vision. Since the highest is the standard of judgment, we start there.
The goal of life is vision: “vision of thy heavenly glory” (Book of Common Prayer, p.117). In the end, we shall see, “know”, St Paul says, “as we are known” (1 Corinthians 13.12). Jesus testifies what he has seen and known in the Father. When we are wholly in Jesus and with him fully, we too shall know ourselves in the knowledge by which we are known, created and sustained. As John says: “when he shall appear, we shall be like him for we shall see him as he is.” (1 John 3.2)
We shall have bodies and minds suited to the resurrected life in which all things will be known in their divine reasons, all things loved in the good from which they spring. But knowing and loving in the Good and the True is not yet. We are being led onward in pilgrimage to that vision and life, we must fix our minds and hearts on that consummation of inquiry and desire, but that good estate cannot be ours yet.
What defines our present state is faith. As the Collect says, “we know thee now by faith”. What kind of knowledge is faith? The Epistle to the Hebrews defines it thus: “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11.1) Faith is not the vision we seek in the state for which we long. But it presupposes the desire and longing and hope for that vision and consummation. It involves living as if the invisible world in which we shall know as we are known is the substance and true reality of what presently appears. And faith is possible, indeed, faith is actual, because sometimes, by God's special grace the invisible breaks through, the substance of what is hoped for gives evidence of itself in what is seen. That breaking through is Epiphany: God in man made manifest. This state of knowledge we celebrate tonight. We rejoice in God “who by the leading of a star didst manifest thy only begotten Son to the Gentiles”. What is the nature of this manifestation. How do we know so as to travel onward by faith until we see heavenly glory?
Epiphany, manifestation, here involves wonderful coincidence: nature and prophecy, sacrifice and selfish evil. These wise men are astronomers, and given the significance they attach to the phenomena of the heavens, we might call them also astrologers. They have seen something so extraordinary in the skies that they set out to follow it, to discover what is born under such a sign. Coinciding with the leading of their science, there is the prophecy in the holy books: “And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, Art not the least among the princes of Judah: For out of thee shall come a Governor That shall rule my people Israel.”
Science and prophecy come and stand over where the young child was. Devotion to the truth which their science shows and devotion in the good to which it leads draws the wise men, Herod's wicked fear sends them to Bethlehem. Nature and prophesy, sacrifice and selfish evil coincide miraculously and so, seeing the young child, they fall down and worship. In this coincidence, Epiphany occurs, manifestation happens.
Is this not also true for us? We walk by faith: hoping for what we do not see. But, in the midst of our walking sometimes, graciously, wonderfully, happily our longing is satisfied we know that what we have discovered about life coincides with what Scripture reveals.
Sometimes experience, desire and revelation meet. And at that moment we cannot doubt. What we believe explains what we know and so we are led onward to further vision.
The role of evil here is important. St Paul says of himself: “Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given that I should ... make all men see what is the dispensation of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God.” (Ephesians 3.9)
Paul is less than the least of all saints because he persecuted the Church, searching out Christians, leading them to prison and death. But it is given to him also to make men see. He cannot make them see the vision, that is God's work in the end of all things, but he can make them see the mystery: the mystery that God has broken down the wall of division between us, has brought the outsider in and made the servant an heir. It is his gift to make men see what the cross of Jesus has accomplished, conveying and showing the infinity of God's gracious love.
Herod sends the wise men, Paul, the persecutor makes men see: “We have this treasure in earthen vessels that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us.” (2 Cor 4.7)
Epiphany happens in the miraculous coincidence of experience and revelation, of longing for God and our refusal of him. Hold fast to what you have been shown. Do not let the circumstances and occasions of it shake you from it. Let the Epiphany strengthen you for the journey. Listen to Dr. DuBose:
If it be true that we do live, if only in our supreme moments, is not every such Epiphany in which we have so lived a new and sufficient proof to us of the eternal and infinite reality of the True Life - and a new and compelling motive for us to live it, though it take forever, and we have to pass through deaths and resurrections to do so? How much longer and greater a thing is life than we know or think! In the meantime, the fact that even our Lord, in the needful and inevitable infirmity of our present humanity, had moments in which He needed to know anew that He was the Son of God, that He had to learn afresh upon the very cross that there is no such thing as a divine forsaking, though so often there so seems to be, ought to teach us how to have faith in even our darkest hours, and hope when we are faintest and farthest off.
(William Porcher DuBose, "Sermon, Preached in the University Chapel, Sewanee, on the Feast of the Transfiguration, 1911, Turning Points in My Life, Longmans, Green, New York, 1912, pp.119-121).
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