The Purpose of Epiphany

Week of Sunday January 6 - Epiphany
Gospel: Matthew 2:1-12
Epistle: Ephesians 3:1-12

Matthew 2:1 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, ‘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.’ 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 
6 “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
   are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
   who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ’

7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ 9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Rest on the Flight to Egypt Luc Oliver MersonThe Remainder of Chapter 2.  Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ 14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’

16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: 
18 ‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
   wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
   she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’

19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.’ 21Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He will be called a Nazorean.’ 

Ephesians 3 This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles— 2for surely you have already heard of the commission of God’s grace that was given to me for you, 3and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words, 4a reading of which will enable you to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ. 5In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: 6that is, the Gentiles have become fellow-heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

7 Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace that was given to me by the working of his power. 8Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, 9and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; 10so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. 11This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, 12in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him. 13I pray therefore that you may not lose heart over my sufferings for you; they are your glory.


Banksy BethlehemThe street artist Banksy was lying under a train hiding from the police, when he observed serial numbers stencilled on the sump of the engine. Suddenly he saw a new technique for his art. Returning home, he climbed into bed in the early hours of the morning, and told his girlfriend, “I’ve had an epiphany.”

Half asleep, she mumbled “You shouldn’t take those things. They’re bad for you.”

Banksy’s story introduces us to two things about epiphanies. Firstly, an epiphany is not necessarily good. “Woe is me,” said Isaiah, “I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Isa 6:5

Secondly, we use the word epiphany in two slightly different ways. The popular usage, is that of Banksy’s story: we have a startling insight. This usage is often related to technical innovations and insights.

The word also means a showing or revealing of God. It is a divine in-sight; an insight into the Divine, but given by the Divine.

The Epiphany refers to the event of the Magi giving homage to Jesus, and is traditionally celebrated on January 6.   Epiphaneia, is the New Testament Greek word for manifestation.  (Wikipedia)

When we come to the reading set for Ephesians this week, we see the writer describing a divine in-sight given to Paul. “2for surely you have already heard of the commission of God’s grace that was given to me for you, 3and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation...” (Eph 3)

This in-sight given to Paul is God-given and Paul-perceived; that is, our two uses of the word bleed into each other.  They are distinct. Ephesians prevents us from thinking Matthew’s story of Jesus and the Magi is merely a story to communicate our human insight into the significance of Jesus. Ephesians claims Jesus is part of the divine purpose, that he has cosmic significance, and that this understanding is given to us; we did not stumble upon it in our own inspiration.

The final background to remember is that Luke, the gospel for this year, does not have the story of the magi, and there are no shepherds present in Matthew’s birth narrative. We conflate the two. In this conflating, the Magi necessarily worship the new born infant. Matthew 2:16 suggests Jesus is probably already walking!

Epiphany in Matthew
From Herod’s perspective, The Epiphany is bad; and all Jerusalem, the establishment, agree. Banksy ImageJesus will upset the status quo. King of the Jews is an unavoidably political title. The story uses Herod to make it clear that Messiah in some sense equals King. (2:5-6)

In other words, Jesus is not somehow operating in parallel to the status quo; he is a challenge and a replacement. This is why he and his parents flee to Egypt and Herod massacres the children. We will see in Ephesians that this political nature of the church cannot be avoided; it is part of our nature.

Matthew is known for his frequent quoting of the Hebrew Scriptures. We see an example of this in the prophecy from Micah 5. He is already subverting the meaning of the word King; this king is to shepherd his people Israel. He is part of the Hebrew prophetic tradition of King for the people as opposed to King of the people.

The story owes much more to the Hebrew Scriptures than this one quotation. I understood the motif of the family fleeing into Egypt; this is where Joseph will find refuge, like another Joseph. And then another Joshua = Jesus = Saviour will return from Egypt. In the context of Matthew’s gospel he will be a new Moses, sitting on a mountain teaching a new Law, in the Sermon on the Mount.

But Loader notes much more than I had seen.

Isaiah 60:6 speaks of gifts of gold and frankincense being brought to Zion. Psalm 72 speaks of kings coming bearing gifts of gold. ...

We are in the tradition of the Gentiles coming to Israel, which is a light to the nations.

The more immediate allusion, however, is to the prophecy of Balaam, who refused to cower to the murderous intentions of the evil king Balak towards Israel, prophesying instead that a star would arise from Jacob, a sceptre from Israel (Numbers 24:17....).

Matthew incorporates more than the star from the story. Herod is the evil king. Jesus is Israel. Another band of threads flows from the wider story of Israel’s exodus from Egypt and especially of Moses. Like Israel this child and his family would go down into Egypt and return again to the promised land. The angel’s advice to Joseph to return (2:13-14, 19-20) echoes the words of God to Moses in Exodus 4:19-20. Herod’s slaughter of the innocents recalls Pharaoh’s slaughter of the Hebrew children. Jesus is like a new Israel, a new Moses. Such allusions incorporate a claim that God’s initiative in Christ bears the same tell-tale fingerprints of God’s action found in sacred writ and so have a claim to similar authority. They ‘fulfil’ – a favourite term for Matthew – God’s intention.

Bill concludes:

Those who stand in Israel’s tradition are to kneel alongside the Gentile magi in acknowledging that something recognisably divine meets us here. We need to find our ways of saying this, too.

The Magi are a sign in Matthew’s story that, via the Divine signs in the heavens,  the wise ones of the world recognise who Jesus is. The star itself is part of the expected biography of a famous person. “Such legends were told of famous people... Astral phenomena are recorded at the births of Abraham, Pliny, Alexander the Great, Mithras and many others.”

We can see in Matthew’s story of the Magi, and its echoes of Isaiah 60, that the Gentiles coming to Jesus reflected common Hebrew ideas and hopes. Paul’s insight that Jesus was not only for the Jews, was not unique, despite common suggestions that he is the one who “invents” Christianity. Clearly, Paul takes the idea much further than nationalist slant of Isaiah 60.

Epiphany in Ephesians
In the Pauline tradition, Ephesians 3:1-12 is also an Epiphany. A mystery is made known.

At a very mundane level the text could be seen as an effort to justify Paul’s ministry to those who were outside Judaism. Although it does this, it goes on to describe the role of the church in God’s purpose.

What I find fascinating about the Ephesians reading is the challenge of the text to the prejudices in my own  theological method.

From my perspective, it is clear that Matthew is not literal history. He tells a story using the methodology and custom of his time, which is designed to communicate the truth of who Jesus is. He uses the commonly understood tropes of his people: astral signs, and scripture quotations and allusions.

As Bill said in an earlier quotation, the story was designed to allow its readers to “[acknowledge that something recognisably divine meets us here. We need to find our ways of saying this, too.”

To do this we have to distinguish between the content of the message, and what is an artefact of Matthew’s culture. For example, we need to communicate Matthew’s insight of the “recognisably divine” without stars which act like the cursor on a GPS, because such stars do not exist.

The idea of such stars does not act as a metaphor which communicates to most people in our culture. Such stars obscure the truth they once communicated, and if we foolishly argue for their existence, we hide, rather than make known, (Epiphany) what we seek to communicate We also distract ourselves from the message by focussing on the medium.  (Blinding ourselves to the very truth we seek to make known is one of the major danger of in defending a pre-modern interpretation of scripture stories. )

In my methodology there are two dangers. I can be so involved in seeking non-traditional words that I too can become distracted from the message! Secondly, if I am not careful, my seeking to find clarity without using ancient artefacts of language and storytelling, I can begin to reduce the Divine to some first principle that has little or no power, or is almost only a projection of our own best hopes and aspirations for humanity. I can make the story just a story.

Ephesians drags me back from this.

Banksy BethlehemEphesians says that we, the church, are to be an epiphany of God. There is a purpose to things, and we are part of that purpose.

... to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; 10so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. 11This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord... (3:9-11)

Loader says the “case in point being celebrated is the inclusion of the Gentiles.” (My emphasis.)

The message begins with inclusion of those who were excluded. He goes on to say

 If we imagine ourselves back into the ministry of Jesus we would be noting his meals with the marginalised, rich and poor. When we turn to our own age, we can extend the list. It would include many who because of their culture, religious background, skin colour, language, sexuality, gender, age, ability or disability, are despised or treated as of lesser worth. If it took effort to produce the heaped phraseology of the author to celebrate this truth, it also takes much effort to celebrate it and enact it in our own age.

He outlines our purpose:

The church is constituted to embody in its life the inclusion of diversity. That is what the church is for. [10so that through the church... (3:10)]

In his gently way, Bill asks, “Does anyone care? The author suggests that it does or should matter to 'the powers'...” I would use a much stronger word that suggest!

He helps us understand “the powers.”

 Imagined as demonic forces lurking behind the evils of the day or themselves embodied in the instrumentalities of governmental and private power, the authorities and rulers everywhere need to know and experience that this is what this community is about (3:10). It is not there to play chaplain to established order, but to embody the God who breaks down barriers and challenges vested interests which give advantage to some against others or builds on forms of elitism and supremacy at the expense of others.

He has “demythologised” the powers, removing some of the artefacts of the culture of Girl attacked by ATMEphesians and Matthew. We need to do this so we truly see where the powers lie and how they work and move, otherwise they become magical.

Not “demythologising the powers does not only make them magical. It gives them more power, because it makes us blind to their nature. It refuses to explore what we know of them, and places them into the realm of the un-conscious where we do not understand what is pushing us.

I find I must retain the use of the world powers. It is naive to think I can fully describe what is going on in the machinations of all the systems in which we live; Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy was over optimistic. Politics and human behaviour are not simply a matter of doing right policy and getting more knowledge; the systems have a certain autonomy. We are a part of them, partially understanding from within. We do not stand over them.

Ephesians tells me that it is in our nature as a church to be political, to confront the powers, and to act in the faith that they are not God.

The final challenge of Ephesians, for me, is its teleological claim. There is a purpose. The universe is not some evolving thing in which we are making a place, and where God is ultimately a linguistic hook on which we hang all our hopes, aspirations and pretentions.

We are but little things. And the language of the powers, reminds us that for all our technical prowess, we have very little power. This statement of our given purpose, which puts a boundary on our autonomy, puts me in my place.

Yet we ‘little things’ called to be an epiphany. We are not only put in our place, but we have a place. We have a purpose. We are working at a planetary and cosmic level. We are not nothings.

 So I too pay homage to the Christ child, for this something which is “recognisably divine” has shown itself to me. I cannot paint graffiti on the wall of Bethlehem, but am called to be equally activist, and more. This is my God given purpose.

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!



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