One of the most attractive of our annual church festivals is Epiphany, with the Wise Men seeking the infant Jesus and offering their gifts. Often, Epiphany is tacked on to the end of the nativity story or play as an afterthought, but it is an important moment in its own right.
Worthy of a separate time in the calendar, Epiphany goes beyond the story of the human birth in a domestic and local scene; it is the story of the manifestation of Christ to the nations. In this story, we recognize what Eastern Christians refer to as “Theophany,” the manifestation of God.
The startling charm of the profound mystery should not obscure the extreme conditions that surround this showing forth of God to the world. In this moment, the Roman Empire does not menace, but Herod-the national king and the empire’s representative-does. His presence is threatening, to say the least. He fears a challenge to his power, even if it is from an infant who speaks truth to power, and he takes out his fear in a massacre of the helpless next generation. The religious authorities provide advice to assist him.
The context is not entirely bleak, for the Wise Men, the exotic foreigners of the story, rely on good dreams and not presenting evidence, and return home another way, declining to enable Herod’s addictions to suspicion and violence.
We, too, may be reminded at this Theophany that we can go home by another way, a way other than that of security first and caring second, and know that we have been changed for the better, that virtue can replace vice, goodness can be chosen rather than evil, and good news can take precedence over news of fresh disasters.
The Gospel of Matthew in which this story is found will later present the man who was delivered as the consummate teacher of peace-making, who renews the message of the prophets of transformation through encounter, and will add that this transformative ethic is present to all and is to be announced to all the nations.
At Epiphany, we are reminded about the use of our gifts-and we have them, although ours are perhaps not as special as gold and frankincense and myrrh. We must not forget that our gifts count, in the biggest of stories of transformation, and that we can offer our gifts-our strengths, our wealth, our future capacities and the acknowledgments of our weaknesses-to our neighbours and to God, whose kingdom will not end, and who shows forth to all as a vulnerable and glorious child. And that offering will make a difference.
THE REV. CANON DR. DAVID NEELANDS is dean of divinity at Trinity College, University of Toronto.