Homily for the First Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Richmond, VA
O God, by the leading of a star you manifested your only Son to the Peoples of the earth: Lead us, who know you now by faith, to your presence, where we may see your glory face to face.
Epiphany blessings to you all! Those of us who gathered for Compline Thursday evening had the opportunity to hear that collect as we celebrated the visit of the magi to the infant Jesus on the Feast of the Epiphany. We even sang “We Three Kings” in glorious harmony…or maybe cacophony…in our own homes. I’ve always loved singing the verses with their rich imagery and symbolic gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh offered to the infant Jesus by those who traveled over “field and fountain, moor and mountain” to offer tidings to one whose birth resonated through heaven and earth. The story of the magi following the star is only conveyed in Matthew’s Gospel; there have been explanations astronomical and astrological; literal and literary for the radiant Star of Bethlehem. Whether you source this portion of the Christmas and Epiphany narrative as literal truth or holy symbolism, it adds richness to our understanding of the infant Jesus not only as Messiah of the Jewish people, but as Savior of the whole world.
I admit, I’m not a skeptic on this issue. I am totally drawn in by the Epiphany star.
The lavish images of the Magi arriving come after what I can only envision as a miracle of heavenly proportions. This astronomical event drew in wise and educated people across culture and context. There was a disruption in the cosmos; and from this disruption, people who had no connection to the lineage of the house of David took notice. This star signaled so much hope for these learned leaders that they set out on a journey of months and potentially, years, using the directionality of the star as their guide to reach an unknown child in an unknown place. They also outwitted the nefarious King Herod after leaving their richly symbolic gifts, the meaning and significance of which which Mary also pondered deeply in her heart while the magi went home by another road.
The Epiphany star emerged first as a disruption; it compelled people to set out on a long journey into the unknown; and it led, ultimately, to rest over the infant Jesus whom they worshiped with rejoicing. The brilliance of that star may have been their inspiration and their guide but it wasn’t their destination. Disruption and journey led them to the place where eventually they rejoiced and worshiped the savior of the world.
On this First Sunday after the Epiphany, our lectionary lessons through the Gospel according to Luke move us on past the visit of the magi and beyond the story of young Jesus at the Temple in Jerusalem as we heard last week. The narrative guides us from the temple to the banks of the River Jordan. The story of the Baptism of Christ is another rich with imagery: we re-encounter John the fiery preacher and baptizer, the one who has been preparing the way for one who is to come, calling out the Brood of Vipers, and preaching a baptism of repentance. The story begins as if we’re in Advent again.
The people gathered around John at the opening of our Gospel lesson have been traveling in the wilderness together for a while. It’s left them wondering to each other whether maybe this was the destination: perhaps John was the Messiah. John tells them that he is not the messiah; that the messiah is coming after him. Like children asking “are we there yet?” on a long road trip, I think they likely realized the answer was no. Often it is our restlessness, not our wisdom, that leads us to wonder whether we’ve reached our destination. And then, suddenly, more disruption. This time, it becomes evident that the messiah is with them there: not in gold and finery, but among all the others approaching John for the baptism of repentance. John baptizes Jesus, along with all the others who have followed. And it is at that point in Luke’s Gospel that we hear the Baptism of Jesus described: when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.
Again, the heavens are disrupted to show the world what we might fail to recognize on our own: this person of Jesus is also known, beloved and of one being with God. God is present in the voice of the Father. God is present in Jesus, the savior and redeemer of the world. God is present in the Spirit who is seen in the form of a Dove. God’s own self is made manifest to our human ears, and eyes and tangible revelation in the person of Jesus. Our siblings in the Greek Orthodox tradition mark this day and this season by this moment: the Theophany, the revelation of God made human. And on the Feast of the Theophany, this prayer is offered:
Lord, when You were baptized in the Jordan, the worship of the Trinity was made manifest. For the voice of the Father gave witness to You, calling You Beloved; and the Spirit, in the form of a dove, confirmed the certainty of those words. Glory to You, Christ our God, who appeared and enlightened the world. (Apolytikion for the Feast of the Theophany)
In this season of the Epiphany, Jesus the Christ is made manifest: the Light of Salvation for the whole world is proclaimed. The star shines light on our journey to worship the beloved, and the heavenly dove rests upon the recognized, claimed and beloved God-made-human.
These Epiphany events are for us, all of us. They disrupt our status quo and upset the order of how we think things should be. They challenge us with signs, wonders and miracles that our logical brains want to minimize or reject. They enlighten and inspire us to wonder. They make us aware and then invite us to explore the mystery, not just about events that unfolded long ago but of God who is with us, one of us. Human, Savior and Beloved in the person of Christ. Human, Savior and Beloved with whom we are reunited in our sacrament of Holy Eucharist.
The Star and The Dove: these symbols of our Epiphany season are doorways to hope.
While the message of the Epiphany is transcendent and universal, the presence of Christ in our midst is also immanent and contextual: God with us. The star and dove are also symbols for us, as we walk together through this Epiphany season as well. I’m not going to ignore how bittersweet it is for me to have responded to a beautiful new opportunity on another coast that disrupts my ability to be present here at St. Mark’s. I’m on a journey and you, the people of St. Mark’s, are also on a journey through our own times of transition. But we’re also part of something larger because God is With Us. Whether we have recognized it or not, we’ve been preparing one another for this journey. We have been strengthened and fortified because we have been journeying together and learning from each other. Our relationship with each other has helped us know who we are. More importantly, we know more deeply whose we are. We have journeyed through Zoom church and regathering, and we have been woven together in worship and through the sacrament of Holy Eucharist, fed and nourished with the Body of Christ to be the presence of Christ in this world. And we have good work that God has called us to do.
The Star reminds us of the guiding light that leads us on the journey. That light is sourced in God and leads us to God. We need the star to brighten our path, to help us follow the course that leads us to worship the savior who is in our midst and who invites us to share in being the Love of Christ in the world. And the Dove: that dove lands on us as the Body of Christ and reminds us that we are the Beloved, united with God and each other through Christ in the waters of Holy Baptism. The dove is our reminder of our own belovedness to God and each other, no matter where our journey may lead.
So, beloveds, this is the journey that we are making, step by step. The star and the dove with us as reminders that God is in our midst, even as we come to see our own belovedness time and time again in the face of each other.