In the west, we think of the Epiphany as being mostly about the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus. But there are other associations which we are invited to make during the season of Epiphany – including the Baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan and his first miracle, turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana of Galilee.
The word ‘epiphany’ means a manifestation or revelation. It’s sometimes used to mean a moment of inspiration: you’ve been thinking about something for days and getting nowhere. Suddenly, the thing that was hiding from you pops into your head. You’ve had an epiphany. Something that was hidden becomes clear, that’s what an epiphany is. In the Christian church we think of the mysteries of God – things long hidden – being revealed to us. Starting with the birth of Jesus where God shows himself definitively to us in the poverty and humility of the manger. Outside of the Holy Family, the first revelation is to the shepherds.
The first nowell the angels did say was to certain poor shepherds in fields where they lay…
The shepherds were humble folk, Jewish but not particularly religious. Then come the magi, the wise men. They are exotic rather than humble, and religious but not Jewish. The shepherds are familiar local figures, down from the hills. The magi are mysterious foreigners who have travelled far. Matthew (2:1-11) tells us that they follow a star to find the place where the new king has been born. First of all, in Jerusalem, they face another king, Herod, who is afraid when he hears that a new king has been born. They outwit him – well, they were wise men! – and pay homage to the new-born King in Bethlehem. These strangers are drawn in to the story of God’s dealing with his people. Right at the start of Matthew’s gospel we hear that the one who is born to be Messiah, in fulfilment of (Jewish) prophecy, is also King to the gentiles, the foreigners, strangers, outsiders. The Gospel is not just for us and people like us. It is Good News for all.
And that is the note of Epiphany: like dropping a pebble in a pond, the ripples move ever outward. From the narrow confines of the manger, the news of the birth of Jesus spreads, to Jewish shepherds, to gentile wise men. At his baptism, Jesus is revealed as God’s Son:
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on 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.’
Luke 3:21, 22
In John (2:1-11) we hear of the first miracle of Jesus, turning water into wine – not just any old plonk, but good wine – and are told that ‘his disciples believed in him’. In John, miracles are ‘signs’ which point to something. They are epiphanies, moments of revelation. John will tell us of healings, feeding the 5,000, walking on water, and the raising of Lazarus. At these moments, the veil is drawn back and we see the truth about who Jesus is, and how he reveals God to us. And we are invited, like the first disciples, to respond with faith.
The pebble is dropped into the pool and the ripples reach out, from the manger, to us. We are here because the Good News has reached us. But what if the ripples stop with us? What if this is as far as they go? We are the last to be reached. The Good News comes to us, but stops with us. The season of Epiphany is a reminder to us that the revelation of God’s love to the world is not just for us. We are charged with allowing the ripples to go beyond us, into the wider world, where our families, friends and neighbours are.
At the start of this year, we might well think of how we can share the Good News of Jesus with those beyond the church. Where shall we start?