The Epiphany of the Lord
Isaiah 60.1-6 – Psalm 72.1-7, 10-14 – Eph 3.1-12 – Matt 2.1-12
It is good to be here and celebrate the feast of the Epiphany, and especially to welcome Bishop Mary back at the Cathedral after her sabbatical period. It is also a real privilege to rejoice with Skyla and her family as they bring her to baptism, with Esther – coming forward for confirmation – and with Leonard and Jeanine, taking the step to be formally received into the Anglican Church.
And of course to rejoice with all of you, who have come here before God with your own gifts and the offerings of your life, as we remember the important visit of the wise men to Jesus, and the gifts they themselves brought to him before returning home, transformed by the experience.
Whilst for many, Christmas feels already a long way away, in some countries, this feast which marks the end of the Christmas season is still a big part of the celebrations – gifts are exchanged on that day in Spain and in many Latin American countries.
The whole story of the birth of Jesus, with the events that accompanied it, is of course full of wonder and colour and mystery.
An encounter between Mary and an Angel, a marriage promise saved by a dream, and a virgin birth after a long journey – not in a maternity ward but in a stable. The warming breath of the ox and the donkey, the joyful proclamation by the angels, the visit by the shepherds and today – even more mysteriously – the arrival of three men from the East, guided by a star no less, and bearing exotic gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Our imaginations run riot with the images that come to us every time we hear this story, with the smells that are conjured up, and the thoughts of this awe-inspiring cosmic coming together in a small town just south of Jerusalem, during a time of foreign occupation and oppression.
The Epiphany, a further recognition of the divinity of the Christ, brings with it deep theological truths about God’s relationship with humanity, and our own relationship with God.
There have throughout the ages been many representations of the Adoration of the Magi by artists all over the world, and you might think about those that you may remember, whether in your children’s bibles or in the art galleries or website you might have visited.
While the three wise men have traditionally been believed to have come one from Asia, one from Africa and one from Europe, those with an eye for detail will have perhaps noticed the change that happened in the representation of Balthazar, who after centuries of being depicted as a white man until the late medieval period, started to be painted as a black man by artists in the late medieval and early renaissance period – marking an important change of the theology of the Church of the time.
According to academic Dontay Givens in his essay on the Blackening of Balthazar [i], focusing on Epiphany and Race in the Middle Ages, ‘the process of the actual magus being blackened is gradual. His first appearance as an African wasn’t until the first quarter of the fifteenth century’.
He adds that after centuries of racial theorizing in the European Middle Ages which associated the colour black, and thus the black body, with sin, and the colour white with the fair, unblemished soul, the blackness of the African Balthazar was no longer a symbol of sin but marked how far Jesus’s promise of salvation reached.
And of course, that is the point of the incarnation of Jesus, culminating in the Epiphany – that people of all shapes and sizes, all genders, all hues, all socio-economic backgrounds, were called out of their ordinary lives in order to go and see what was happening in Bethlehem, what God had done out of love for us in being born as a tiny human being, and the implication that this had for them, for all of us.
Because even for all those taking part in the original event, there was a significant amount of life disruption and transformation, and a wide range of emotions – from fear to fulfilment, from awe to joy, at this encounter with the living God.
It is also significant that it is in their study of the sky that the wise men became aware of the imminent birth of this divine child who would be a king, a realisation which prompted them to leave their books and go on a long and perilous journey to find him.
This reminds us that we can learn a great deal about God as we study nature around us, and as we consider our place in the divinely created universe. Science, as well as theology, does help us to understand God better as we learn to understand the world better.
Guy Consolmagno, the director of the Vatican Observatory, said in an online seminar this week that, instead of being in opposition, ‘when you lose science, you are losing an important way of knowing God’. For him, science and religion are not in opposition, but instead two different books of facts that complement one another, and it is faith which gives us the reason to study science.
Today, in a world that continues to seem more uncertain, we have come together – with the wise men, but also the rustic shepherds, the busy innkeeper and the casual bystanders – to worship and witness again to the one who makes us whole – in our communities and individually.
The one who did grow to remind the world that love – love of God, love of neighbour, and love of ourself – love is everything, and that when we live by the values of love, we have a roadmap for our own lives, that as we are transformed by the guiding of the stars in our lives that take us towards God, we may in turn be the guiding stars for others and lead lives that are fruitful for the world.
As the Wise men unpacked their gifts – Gold, a symbol of Jesus’ kingship, Frankincense, a symbol of Jesus’ divinity, and Myrrh, a symbol foreshadowing Jesus’ death – today we too bring the gifts of our lives, symbols of the perennial living word made flesh even in the world today.
In baptism, Skyla, through the promises made by her parents and godparents on her behalf, will promise today to be formed by the life and teaching of Jesus, to grow into a close relationship with him so that she will be able to discern her place and role in God’s world.
In confirmation, Esther will make a personal public commitment of the promises that were made for her at her baptism, as she now seeks to follow God’s call into her life ever closer, and thereby shine as a light in the world.
And Leonard and Jeanine, as they are welcomed into the Anglican Church, affirm their ongoing faith in God and the wonders God has brought to their lives, commit to seeking God in community with all of us, as we strive to embody God’s love as we have received it, here in downtown Montreal and wherever we are.
We too of course are also called to renew our commitment to Jesus who drew all to himself, in the crib of Bethlehem and also on the Cross, that as we look ahead to the new year, we may discern where God is calling us to be and how Jesus is encouraging us to act in a world which continues to need compassion and love.
At the Epiphany mass at St Peter’s in Rome on Saturday, Pope Francis reminded us that “If we want to find Jesus, we have to overcome our fear of taking risks, our self-satisfaction and our indolent refusal to ask anything more of life. We need to take risks simply to meet a child.
“Those risks are immensely worth the effort, since in finding that child, in discovering his tenderness and love, we rediscover ourselves,” he said.
[i] The Blackening of Balthazar
Epiphany and Race in the European Middle Ages. In https://comment.org/the-blackening-of-balthazar/, accessed 2022-01-06.