The Epiphany or Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles
For the First Nocturn
The First Reading
(from the Gospel of St. Mathew 2:1-2)
WHEN Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judæa, in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem. saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.
The Second Reading
(from John Wesley's notes on the Gospel: Matthew 2:1-12)
1 Bethlehem of Judea - There was another Bethlehem in the tribe of Zebulon. In the days of Herod - commonly called Herod the Great, born at Ascalon. The sceptre was now on the point of departing from Judah. Among his sons were Archelaus, mentioned Mt 2:22; Herod Antipas, mentioned Mt 14:1; &c., and Philip, mentioned Luke 3:19. Herod Agrippa, mentioned Acts 12:1; &c., was his grandson. Wise men - The first fruits of the Gentiles. Probably they were Gentile philosophers, who, through the Divine assistance, had improved their knowledge of nature, as a means of leading to the knowledge of the one true God. Nor is it unreasonable to suppose, that God had favoured them with some extraordinary revelations of himself, as he did Melchisedec, Job, and several others, who were not of the family of Abraham; to which he never intended absolutely to confine his favours. The title given them in the original was anciently given to all philosophers, or men of learning; those particularly who were curious in examining the works of nature, and observing the motions of the heavenly bodies. From the east - So Arabia is frequently called in Scripture. It lay to the east of Judea, and was famous for gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We have seen his star - Undoubtedly they had before heard Balaam's prophecy. And probably when they saw this unusual star, it was revealed to them that this prophecy was fulfilled. In the east - That is, while we were in the east.
2 To do him homage - To pay him that honour, by bowing to the earth before him, which the eastern nations used to pay to their monarchs.
The Third Reading
(From St. Leo the Great, Bishop Sermon XXXI. On the Feast of the Epiphany, I.)
I. The Epiphany a Necessary Sequel to the Nativity.
After celebrating but lately the day on which immaculate virginity brought forth the Saviour of mankind, the venerable feast of the Epiphany, dearly beloved, gives us continuance of joy, that the force of our exultation and the fervour of our faith may not grow cool, in the midst of neighbouring and kindred mysteries1 . For it concerns all men's salvation, that the infancy of the Mediator between God and men was already manifested to the whole world, while He was still detained in the tiny town. For although He had chosen the Israelitish nation, and one family out of that nation, from whom to assume the nature of all mankind, yet He was unwilling that the early days of His birth should be concealed within the narrow limits of His mother's home: but desired to be soon recognized by all, seeing that He deigned to be born for all. To three2 wise men, therefore, appeared a star of new splendour in the region of the East, which, being brighter and fairer than the other stars, might easily attract the eyes and minds of those that looked on it, so that at once that might be observed not to be meaningless, which had so unusual an appearance. He therefore who gave the sign, gave to the beholders understanding of it, and caused inquiry to be made about that, of which He had thus caused understanding, and after inquiry made, offered Himself to be found.
II. Herod's Evil Designs Were Fruitless. The Wise Men's Gifts Were Consciously Symbolical.
These three men follow the leading of the light above, and with stedfast gaze obeying the indications of the guiding splendour, are led to the recognition of the Truth by the brilliance of Grace, for they supposed that a king's birth was notified in a human sense3 , and that it must be sought in a royal city. Yet He who had taken a slave's form, and had come not to judge, but to be judged, chose Bethlehem for His nativity, Jerusalem for His passion. But Herod, hearing that a prince of the Jews was born, suspected a successor, and was in great terror: and to compass the death of the Author of Salvation, pledged himself to a false homage. How happy had he been, if he had imitated the wise men's faith, and turned to a pious use what he designed for deceit. What blind wickedness of foolish jealousy, to think thou canst overthrow the Divine plan by thy frenzy. The Lord of the works, who offers an eternal Kingdom, seeks not a temporal. Why dost thou attempt to change the unchangeable order of things ordained, and to forestall others in their crime? The death of Christ belongs not to thy time. The Gospel must be first set on foot, the Kingdom of God first preached, healings first given to the sick, wondrous acts first performed. Why dost thou wish thyself to have the blame of what will belong to another's work, and why without being able to effect thy wicked design, dost thou bring on thyself alone the charge of wishing the evil? Thou gainest nothing and cattiest out nothing by this intriguing. He that was born voluntarily shall die of His own free will. The Wise men, therefore, fulfil their desire, and come to the child, the Lord Jesus Christ, the same star going before them. They adore the Word in flesh, the Wisdom in infancy, the Power in weakness, the Lord of majesty in the reality of man: and by their gifts make open acknowledgment of what they believe in their hearts, that they may show forth the mystery of their faith and understanding4 . The incense they offer to God, the myrrh to Man, the gold to the King, consciously paying honour to the Divine and human Nature in union: because while each substance had its own properties, there was no difference in the power5 of either.
III. The Massacre of the Innocents is in Harmony with the Virgin's Conception, Which Again Teaches Us Purity of Life.
And when the wise men had returned to their own land, and Jesus had been carried into Egypt at the Divine suggestion, Herod's madness blazes out into fruitless schemes. He orders all the little ones in Bethlehem to be slain, and since he knows not which infant to fear, extends a general sentence against the age he suspects. But that which the wicked king removes from the world, Christ admits to heaven: and on those for whom He had not yet spent His redeeming blood, He already bestows the dignity of martyrdom. Lift your faithful hearts then, dearly-beloved, to the gracious blaze of eternal light, and in adoration of the mysteries dispensed for man's salvation6 give your diligent heed to the things which have been wrought on your behalf. Love the purity of a chaste life, because Christ is the Son of a virgin. "Abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul7 ," as the blessed Apostle, present in his words as we read, exhorts us, "In malice be ye children8 ," because the Lord of glory conformed Himself to the infancy of mortals. Follow after humility which the Son of God deigned to teach His disciples. Put on the power of patience, in which ye may be able to gain9 your souls; seeing that He who is the Redemption of all, is also the Strength of all. "Set your minds on the things which are above, not on the things which are on the earth10 ." Walk firmly along the path of truth and life: let not earthly things hinder you for whom are prepared heavenly things through our Lord Jesus Christ, who with the Father and the Holy Ghost liveth and reigneth for ever and ever. Amen.
For the Second Nocturn
The Fourth Reading
(from the Gospel of St. Mathew 2:3-8)
When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judæa: for thus it is written by the prophet, And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel. Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.
The Fifth Reading
(from John Wesley's notes on the Gospel: Matthew 2:3-8)
4 The chief priests - That is, not only the high priest and his deputy, with those who formerly had borne that office: but also the chief man in each of those twenty - four courses, into which the body of priests were divided, 1Chron 24:6 - 19. The scribes were those whose peculiar business it was to explain the Scriptures to the people. They were the public preachers, or expounders of the law of Moses. Whence the chief of them were called doctors of the law.
6 Thou art in nowise the least among the princes of Judah - That is, among the cities belonging to the princes or heads of thousands in Judah. When this and several other quotations from the Old Testament are compared with the original, it plainly appears, the apostles did not always think it necessary exactly to transcribe the passages they cited, but contented themselves with giving the general sense, though with some diversity of language. The words of Micah, which we render, Though thou be little, may be rendered, Art thou little? And then the difference which seems to be here between the prophet and the evangelist vanishes away. Micah 5:2.
8 And if ye find him, bring me word - Probably Herod did not believe he was born; otherwise would not so suspicious a prince have tried to make sure work at once?
The Sixth Reading
(From the 39 Articles of Religion)
XXVII. Of Baptism. Baptism is not only a sign of profession, and mark of difference, whereby Christian men are discerned from others that be not christened, but it is also a sign of Regeneration or New-Birth, whereby, as by an instrument, they that receive Baptism rightly are grafted into the Church; the promises of the forgiveness of sin, and of our adoption to be the sons of God by the Holy Ghost, are visibly signed and sealed, Faith is confirmed, and Grace increased by virtue of prayer unto God.
The Baptism of young Children is in any wise to be retained in the Church, as most agreeable with the institution of Christ.
For the Third Nocturn
The Seventh Reading
(from the Gospel of St. Mathew 2:8-12)
When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.
(from John Wesley's notes on the Gospel: Matthew 2:1-12)
10 Seeing the star - Standing over where the child was.
11 They presented to him gifts - It was customary to offer some present to any eminent person whom they visited. And so it is, as travellers observe, in the eastern countries to this day. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh - Probably these were the best things their country afforded; and the presents ordinarily made to great persons. This was a most seasonable, providential assistance for a long and expensive journey into Egypt, a country where they were entirely strangers, and were to stay for a considerable time.
(from Bl. Lancelot Andrewes from a sermon given on Christmas Day, 1620)
There came wise men from the East
These that came from the East were Gentiles, and that concerns us, for so are we. We may then look out, if we can see this star. It is ours, it is the Gentiles’ star. We may set our course by it, to seek and find, and worship him as well as they. So we come in, for ‘God hath also to the Gentiles set open a door of faith,’ and that he would do this, and call us in, there was some small star-light from the beginning. This he promised by the patriarchs, shadowed forth in the figures of the Law, the Temple and the Tabernacle, the Prophets and the Psalms, and it is this day fulfilled. These wise men are come who not only in their own names but in ours make here their entry; came and sought after, and found and worshipped, their Saviour and ours, the Saviour of the whole world. A little wicket there was left open before, whereat divers Gentiles did come in; now the great gate set wide opens this day for all—for these here with their camels and dromedaries to enter and all their carriage. Christ is not only for russet cloaks, shepherds and such; but even grandees, great states such as these came, and when they came they were welcome to him—for they were sent for and invited by this star, their star properly.
They came a long journey, and they came an uneasy journey; they came a dangerous journey and they came now, at the worst season of the year. They stayed not their coming till the opening of the year, till they might have better weather and way, and have longer days and so more seasonable and fit to travel in. So desirous were they to come with the first, and to be there as soon as they possibly might; broke through all these difficulties, and behold, come they did.
And we, what excuse shall we have if we come not? If so short and easy a way we come not, as from our chambers hither? And these wise men were never a whit less wise for so coming; nay, to come to Christ is one of the wisest parts that ever these wise men did. And if they and we be wise in one Spirit, we will follow the same star, tread the same way, and so come at last wither they are happily gone before us.
And how shall we do that? In the old ritual of the church we find that on the cover of the canister wherein was the sacrament of His body, there was a star engraven, to shew us that now the star leads us thither, to His body there. So what shall I say now, but according as St. John saith, and the star, and the wise men say ‘Come’ and let whosoever will take of the Bread of life which came down from heaven to Bethlehem, the house of bread. Of which Bread the Church is this day the house, the true Bethlehem, and all the Bethlehem we have now left to come to for the Bread of Life—of that life which we hope for in heaven. And this our nearest coming that here we can come, till we shall by another coming ‘Come’ unto him in his heavenly kingdom. To which He grant we may come, that came to us in earth that we thereby might come to him and remain with him forever, Jesus Christ the Righteous.