A Homily for the Epiphany of Our Lord
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who comes into the midst of us as a radiant and lowborn King. Amen.
As formal as royal events are today, they have nothing on the status of kings in ages past. The further back in history you go, the more power kings and emperors claimed for themselves. We may know a little about folks like Richard the Lionheart or Charlemagne (whose Latin name, Karlus Magnus, means Charles the Great. But of course his full title for use in documents was “Charles, most serene Augustus crowned by God, the great, peaceful emperor ruling the Roman Empire.”)
And these medieval kings have nothing on their ancient counterparts.
Consider the heirs of Alexander the Great. When his empire wad divided among five ruling families, they set themselves up as kings and were constantly at war with each other. One such ruler, Antiochus IV, ruled over territory stretching from Judaea to Persia. He claimed the titles Nicator (“the Bringer of Victory”) and Epiphanes (“the Manifestation of God”). He also brought his kingdom to the brink of war, persecuted the people of Judaea, and rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem to the pagan god Zeus, ultimately setting up the successful Jewish rebellion now observed as Hanukkah – so perhaps he was not so manifestly awesome as he claimed.
Antiochus’ nephew Demetrius I was given the title Soter – Savior.
But even these Greek kings who fancied themselves divine manifestations had nothing on the Roman emperors. Julius Caesar’s adopted son, Octavian, is often known by the name Augustus, which means “Majestic,” but over his career, he took on more and more titles claiming both human and divine authority. By the end of his life, he was Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus – Commander Caesar, Son of the Divine, the Majestic. This in addition to his role as the Pontifex Maximus (“Chief Priest”) and Princeps (“the First Citizen”). And the arrival of his reign was heralded in conquered nations as euangelion – good news, or in modern English, gospel.
Meanwhile, the Herods – the rulers of Judea – claimed no divine titles, but they were willing to literally stab each other in the back to maintain their grip on power. Herod the Great had a tendency to murder his own children to secure his throne.
By comparison, today we celebrate the Epiphany – the Manifestation – of our Lord. The eternal Logos, the Eternally-Begotten Son of the Most High God, is made flesh – truly and fully human. Not in a palace, not as an earthly king nor a Pontifex Maxiumus. He’s not born as the First Citizen nor as a citizen of Rome at all.
No, he is born in occupied territory under brutal oppression to a nation that has been ravaged by multiple empires over the centuries. He is born not in the capital but a small town in the hill country. He is born among the animals and placed in a feed trough. His parents are not nobles or priests or wealthy merchants but ordinary, working class people. Rather than princes, he is greeted by shepherds.
Today also marks Three Kings Day (which is not the most accurate title, given that the visitors were neither a trio nor royalty) when the magi arrived. Following a star, some Persian astrologers show up at Herod’s door – only to find that the bloodthirsty tyrant is poised to murder all the newborn males to protect his throne.
Only a fool would call herald this low-born King as the Manifest One, as God’s Messiah (literally the anointed one), as the Savior, would consider his birth Good News for all humanity. So much of this story is something we’ve all seen in everyday life. In Christ, God comes to us as a baby – miraculously conceived and heralded by angels, but fully human. Born of a woman, nursed by a woman, cleaned by human hands. So normal that he even wanders off on a family trip. He comes to us as one who is threatened by angry mobs, arrested by human authorities, tried by earthly governors and kings, and executed for treason.
This is the Christmas story. Today, as we move from Christmastide into a new, ordinary season, let this sink in. This is the beginning of the euangelion, the Good News, the Gospel of our Lord.
There are some who would tell you that the Gospel is about bloodshed and God’s righteous wrath – that God, like a human tyrant, has a violent temper that must be satisfied. You may have heard it said that the Gospel is only about what happened on the cross, that the Good News is only about the Father pouring out his anger against humanity upon the Son – the same way that Herod poured out his jealous rage upon his children or the Caesars afflicted those who rebelled against Rome.
But God is no earthly tyrant! This is not the God revealed in the person of Jesus. The Gospel, the full Gospel our Lord Christ, is about God’s divine love being revealed to us through the Son of God’s miraculous birth, his life, his death as one of us, and the glory of his resurrection. It is the Good news of God joining us in the grave that we might join God in life everlasting.
This euangelion, this Gospel, is so completely different from that of earthly kings. It’s what Saint Paul, in his letter to the Church in Ephesus, calls “the mystery of Christ.” In former generations, he says, it was not known – until it became manifest through the Incarnation. Consider the words of the Eucharistic prayer during Christmas: the visible God reveals to us the God we cannot see. Christ our Immanuel – God with us – reveals to us the God who created Heaven and Earth. God the Son redeems us through and to the Father’s love and both receives and sends the Holy Spirit. In the single person of Jesus Christ, God the Son, all three persons of the Blessed Trinity are revealed to us through our salvation.
Our Lord came to us not as a lofty king but as a lowly child that we might behold God’s radiant glory. God’s might does not look like earthly might, not like that of Herod or Augustus. Instead, Christ’s majesty is made manifest in his nearness to us.
In this Gospel, we are set free – free from the vainglorious and brutal powers of this world. We are set free from earthly kingdoms for the Good News of the coming Kingdom of God. We are set free to be servants of all, to be imitators of the mystery of Christ. We are set free like the shepherds from Bethlehem to proclaim this Gospel to the ends of the earth. We are free like the magi to bring offerings of praise and thanksgiving to our lowborn King. When human rulers tell us that we must seek greatness, by pursuing wealth, fame, and fortune, that we must seek security through violence and oppression, we are free to point to a human infant born to a lowly family as the ultimate example of God’s greatness. We are set free to empty ourselves out for the sake of the world just as Christ poured himself out. Instead of riches or noble titles, we are set free to serve those crushed under Caesar’s heel, to care for those children targeted by modern Herods, to proclaim liberation to the oppressed and recovery of sight to the blind. We are set free to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and visit the sick and the imprisoned. We are free to let Christ’s radiant glory shine through us into a world wallowing in sinful sadness.
I tend to print out my sermons and manually edit the text before the Divine Service. On occasion, though, a homily needs a more thorough edit; this is one of those. Presented here is a more heavily edited version of what I took into the pulpit this morning.