Why are you here? Why are you here sitting in this pew, in this church, on a Friday night in January? You’ve come to church when you didn’t “have to”—it’s not Christmas anymore. What are you looking for?
It is easy to think of Epiphany a season of “life as usual” between Christmastide and Lent. As Episcopalians, this feast marks the end of the season of Christmas. When we can finally take the tree down, when we can stop singing Christmas carols, when we can detox from all the calories and try to begin our New Year’s Resolutions. Go back to school, go back to work. Life as usual. But looking at the reading for today’s feast, that’s not exactly how Epiphany works in the church year.
So if Epiphany isn’t life as usual, then what is it?
The Christmas season is joyful. But it is also characterized by a certain sense of surprise. Mary trusting God even though she was just told by an angel that she would be carrying the Son of God, Joseph taking an-already pregnant girl as his wife just because an angel told him to, the shepherds leaving their flocks because of news heralded by the sudden appearance of an angel chorus. There are a lot of joyful, somewhat unnerving surprises during Christmas. That, however, is not true of Epiphany. If Christmas is a season of surprises, then Epiphany is characterized by clarity. This is certainly epitomized by the Magi, or the three wise men in their search.
The other lessons are also very clear about this season. Isaiah writes—“Arise, shine, for your light has come”. There is no ambiguity-no “will come” or “might come”. No. “Your Light HAS come”. Isaiah goes on to tell of the joy of Zion when Christ comes. And just as Isaiah joyously celebrates what Christ’s coming means for Zion, St. Paul celebrates the fact that we Gentiles can also share in Christ’s kingship.
The Magi are completely clear about their purpose: they tell Herod that “we saw His star when it rose and have come to worship him”. They are not surprised by Christ’s coming. On the contrary—they know the signs ahead of time. They knew that this star was a herald of Jesus’ birth, and knowing this, they set on their way. It is telling, I think, that the Gospel writers leave out the part where the Magi first see the star. Their initial reaction to this event isn’t as important as the fact that they made a long journey to worship the young Savior. The Magi are so confident that Jesus is the king they have been waiting for, that they immediately set out to search for Him when they see the star. This journey could have taken months, or years, even.
That’s a lot of time and effort.
Today is about pilgrimage, the act of searching for something, or even someone. That is true for the Magi, who take an extensive journey simply to worship the one they believe is King.
It is true for us as well. Some of us have also taken extensive journeys to get here. Some of us have just started. Some of us are sitting here, not sure of where we are, or if we’re even on a journey. If you’ve been going to the same church for decades, does it count as a journey? If you’ve never been to church, does it count? If you don’t read the Bible every day, does it count? If praying daily, or weekly, or monthly, or even just on Christmas and Easter is really difficult, does it count? If you have doubts, or have days where you wake up wondering why you’re doing all of this, does it count as a journey?
Paul writes that “although I am less than the least of all the Lord’s people, this grace was given me”. And although you may also feel that you are less than the least of all the Lord’s people, grace has been given to you too. Grace has been given to you, so that “through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence”. Grace has been given to you so that you too, may journey to the manger.
It’s about pilgrimage, yes. For us, and for the Magi. But Epiphany is absolutely essential not because it celebrates the completion of a historic pilgrimage, or the end of the Christmas season. It matters less that the Magi make it to the stable, to the Christ Child, then it does that the Christ Child is there for the Magi journey to.
The Christ Child is there for the Magi journey to. Christ must first come to us, before we can journey to Him. Christ came to give grace to you, so that you too, may journey to the manger.
Eucharistic Prayer D tells the story of salvation like this: “When our disobedience took us far from you, you did not abandon us to the power of death. In your mercy you came to our help, so that in seeking you we might find you.” Christ came to us, to search for us, so that we CAN find Him.
That, my friends, is the Christmas message. One that we still celebrate here, today, during this feast.
But today is about taking that next step. He has come to search for us… so what are we going to do about it? Epiphany is about our response to Christ’s coming. Isaiah announces the joyous news with a call to action, saying “arise, shine, for your light has come!” Arise! Shine! These are verbs. Epiphany is a call to action, a declaration of Christ’s kingship that invokes, and requires our response.
Why are you here? What are you looking for? Hope? Something different? Something to resolve for New Year’s? Something or someone to follow?
The Magi knew that the star was the sign of Christ’s coming. And two thousand years later, you followed the star to this place, on this night.
What if tonight is the night when you begin, or renew your search?
Christ has come searching for you. “Arise! Shine! For your light has come!”
On this day of Epiphany, you are invited to respond, to search for the Savior who has come to find you. May you do so with the absolute clarity of the Magi, the confidence of St. Paul, and the joy of the prophet Isaiah. “Arise! Shine! For your light has come.”
Preached 1/6/17 at Ware Episcopal Church.