Sermon for the Epiphany, 6th January 2010

Dec 31st, 2009 | By | Category: Sermons

“ . . . they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was”.  Matthew 2:9

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For the journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’

The opening lines of ‘The Journey of the Magi’ by the poet T.S.Eliot, lines he took from the English bishop Lancelot Andrewes, who lived three centuries previously.

The wise men, the Magi, have fascinated people for centuries. We need to put away our traditional Christmas card pictures of the Magi, we need to forget the gorgeous silken robes and the elegant appearance, because if you were like that you’d get robbed no sooner than you were outside the city walls. Instead, when we think about the Magi we need to think of men who were very wise to the ways of the world, strong, tough, resilient characters.

These men are in many ways troublesome figures because in reality they are much stronger than our Christmas card pictures, they are dangerous for the times they live in because no-one knows who they were, where they were from, or what dangers they might pose.

Centuries later the tradition developed that there were three of them, (the number comes fro the description of their gifts as gold, frankincense and myrrh), the names given to them were Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar.

To this day they are popular figures in Germany and Austria. Go to towns in the Catholic areas of either country and you will see chalked above the doors of the houses and the shops ‘’C+M+B’ and the year. The inscription is a mark that carol singers have called on the Epiphany, singing the Good News of Jesus’ birth, just as the wise men, Caspar plus Melchior plus Balathazar, carried with them the Good News all those centuries before. The initials of the wise men CMB are also the initials for ‘Christus mansionem benedicat’, the Latin for ‘Christ bless this house’. The chalk inscriptions are a reminder of the Good News received by the wise men and also a prayer that the house that remembers the wise men will be a place of blessedness.

The wise men come on the Epiphany, a word meaning ‘light upon’ because it was seen as the day when the light of Christ came to be upon all people. In the old black Book of Common Prayer the day has an alternative name, it is called ‘The Epiphany or the Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles’. This is the key to their part in the story.

The Magi are remembered today not because T.S. Eliot wrote a wonderful poem in which he captures some of the mystery of these strangers, but because the Magi represent us, ourselves, you and me. The Bible up to this point has been about God’s relationship with a particular people, with the people of Abraham, the people of Israel, the Jews. Then this child in Bethlehem is born and the whole story is opened up. The Magi are Gentiles, they are foreigners, they are not part of God’s people, they do not share in God’s promises. But now all this changes, Jesus welcomes all who believe in him, whether Jews or Gentiles. We become one of God’s people not by being born as one but by believing in this Jesus.

The Epiphany is a great day for us because it is the day when we are reminded that we too can be part of God’s plans. The Magi were very far from being God’s people, yet if they are included, then we can be as well. Once meeting with Jesus the Magi were never the same again, the stories that grew up around them presumably came from them telling their story of meeting with Jesus. When we meet with Jesus we are never the same again.

It is a pity that we don’t have the tradition of the Epiphany carol singers here. It would be good to be able to write ‘C+M+B 2010’ above the doors of our houses. It would be a reminder that we in 2010 can meet with the Jesus who was visited by Caspar Melchior and Balthazar, that we can share in the awe and wonder of those who saw Christ. It would be a reminder to us that the past can be present with us. It would be a prayer that the Christ who blessed the lives of the Magi would also bless us.

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  1. Thankyou for this information …its helping me with my sermon next sunday (10th).
    Why and how was 6th Jan fixed as the Epiphany feast day ?

  2. I had never thought about why it was 6th January! In primary school we were told that the gap was to emphasise the fact that Jesus was about two before the Magi arrived, but why 6th and not some other date?

    I dug out my 1930s copy of ‘Liturgy and Worship’ by Lowther-Clarke et al, and got the following:

    “Christmas and Epiphany. These are the two characteristic feasts of the Incarnation, in West and East. The dates go back to immemorial antiquity. Dec. 25 was significant as the winter solstice. It was celebrated as the birthday of Mithras and of Sol Invictus. In the form of the feast Kikellia it can be traced at Alexandria back to 239 B.C. A parallel festival at Alexandria on January 6 celebrated the birthday of Osiris. Two thousand years before Christ a reformed Calendar was introduced; at chat time the winter solstice fell on January 6 of the Julian Calendar. By the fourth century B.C., owing to the inaccuracy of the Calendar, the solstice was on December 25. It is thought that a Hellenistic festival may have been introduced soon after the founding of Alexandria, by the side of the national Egyptian festival which adhered to the traditional date. The feast of the Dedication (I Macc. iv. 56; John x. 22) was on Chislev (approx­imately December 25). The winter solstice was therefore marked out by immemorial usage as appropriate for a religious feast.

    The earliest evidence for Epiphany is in Clement of Alexandria, who tells us (Strom., i. 2 I) that the followers of Basilides spent the night of January 5/6 as a vigil and the day itself as a festival of our Lord’s baptism. This fits in with the conception of Baptism as illumination, and with the pagan celebration of the day as the birthday of a god. By about 300 Epiphany had established itself among the orthodox of the East. It was the festival both of the birth and of the baptism of our Lord, as Cassian tells us. The traditional association of the day with the marriage feast at Cana may be connected with the feast of Dionysus, identified with Osiris and also with Aeon, on January 5/6, our Lord being thought of as giving the true wine in contrast with the falsehoods of paganism.

    Epiphany reached the West in the second half of the fourth century, perhaps appearing in Gaul first. Augustine at the beginning of the fifth century says it is observed throughout the world, except by the Donatists. For a time at Rome it seems to have competed with December 25 for the place of honour. The difficulty was solved by making January 6 pre-eminently a commemoration of the visit of the Magi, a peculiarly Western meaning of the feast”.

    So 6th January seems to be about supplanting Osiris!

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