28th January 2022

The language normally associated with the season of Epiphany is of something becoming manifest – not common language but meaning something being made abundantly clear – so each verse of Bishop Wordsworth’s Epiphany hymn ends with the words, ‘God in Man made manifest’. At Christmas the Son of God is born incognito – a baby born amongst  the animals because there was no place for him in the living quarters of a country inn.

The western church finds Epiphany best exemplified in the visit of the wise men from the East, bringing gifts to the baby Jesus. Taking the text seriously we do not know that they were kings, nor that they were three in number, only that they offered three kinds of gifts – gold representing kingship, frankincense a symbol of a priestly function, and myrrh prefiguring the Son of God’s death and burial. This is one of the many incidents in scripture that underline the broadcast nature of God’s love for all. Here are men living way outside the traditions of Israel and its prophetic literature, using their God-given wisdom to discover the meaning of a bright new star set in the dark skies overhead. Were they gambling their reputations of being wise to follow this star? Certainly as long as they did so, they were on the right track, but when they allowed human consideration to take over from stellar guidance, there were disastrous consequences, for this provoked Herod’s vicious attack on Bethlehem’s sons.

By contrast, for my orthodox friends, Epiphany is found particularly in Jesus’ baptism, both in word and action. Here is the only man who committed no sin identifying himself with sinful humanity by undergoing a baptism of repentance, for it is to be his life’s work to liberate all who put their trust in him from the barren cycle of sin and judgment, a truth confirmed by words from heaven: ‘This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased’.

John Briggs