An Epitaph for Epiphany


When you hear epitaph you think of an inscription on a tombstone, but it also is any brief statement concerning a past event. I think Epiphany could use an epitaph. After all in the catacombs where the early Christians buried their dead the scene from the Christmas story that is always inscribed there is the visit from the wise men (The Catacombs, Stevenson, 87). So it's fitting that we should come up with an epitaph for Epiphany.

How about "Festival of Fools?" If we're to believe Victor Hugo, Epiphany was "united from time immemorial" with the Festival of Fools (Hunchback of Notre Dame, 3). The Festival of Fools was a festival celebrated throughout Europe in the middle ages but particularly in France. It was celebrated around Christmas. Crowds would "elect" some unlikely sort to be king or bishop. For a few hours the social order was thrown on its head. The buffoonery and license taken was often condemned by the church ( In Hugo's Hunchback, Quasimodo is first introduced to us on Epiphany as the King of Fools.

I say "Festival of Fools" would be a fitting epitaph for Epiphany because of the wise men. Notice the translation I read didn't have wise men, but Magi. Magi just transliterates the Greek word it doesn't translate it. If we let Scripture interpret Scripture, we don't see Magi revealed to be wise men. The word magos shows up in Daniel 2 in the Greek Old Testament. There they are shown to be unable with their wisdom and arts to do what Daniel says the Lord can easily do and then does through Daniel. Magos also shows up in Acts 13: 6 and 8. Nobody translates it wise men there but sorcerer, magician, astrologer.

This translation fits with how early Christian writers saw the Magi. Ignatius, Justin, Tertullian, and Origen saw them as sinister forces and Epiphany shows the power of astrology was broken (Davies and Allison, 228-229). Modern commentators tend to see them as representatives of the best wisdom of the gentile world, their spiritual elite (Ibid. 228). This was not how Jewish literature saw them. They were never regarded as wise in the sense of "learned in matters of significance." Philo, a Jewish contemporary of Jesus, thought Magi were fools (Gibbs, 125).

Well what others say about them, except the Old Testament, really shouldn't determine our view. Look at the text. It is foolish to ask an aged, ailing, king well known for his vengeance, having murdered a wife and two sons, where is your successor? Also, see how helpless they are without the star to find the Christ? The star of Bethlehem needed to point like a neon sign to the place where Jesus is. The text says the star "went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the Child was." And the Magi were not wise enough to see the plotting of Herod. Had they not been warned by God in a dream they would have led the murderous Herod right back to Jesus.

"Festival of Fools" seems like a fitting thing to inscribe over this day. Even our own experience supports this epitaph. Who looks into a two-year-old's crib and says, "My Lord and My God?" Who looks at the one held in a mother's hands and says, "He will save me from sin, from death, from the power of the devil?" Who bow, worships, praises a Boy created in the womb of His mother as if He were the creator of all? Is not that foolish?

I think we could go with the epitaph "Festival of Fools," but I also think we could go with the Latin Ex Oriente Lux. That's "out of the East, light." Arthur Schopenhauer, philosopher and mystic, used this phrase in 1851 in stating his belief that the pantheistic religions of India would sooner or later become the faith of all people (The Serpent and the Cross, 368). In our text we have those from the east coming to Jesus as the Light of the world. So from out of what these Magi from the east do does come light. They regard Jesus as their King, and God, and Sacrifice and this too sheds the light of the Gospel into all the world.

We call their coming Epiphany. The verb shows up four times in the NT. Luke 1:79 is Zechariah saying that the Christ comes "to shine [epiphaino] onthose living in darkness and in the shadow of death." Acts 27 uses the word saying that neither sun nor stars "appeared" [epiphaino] for many days. Titus 2:11 says the "grace of God that brings salvation has appeared [epiphaino] to all men." And Titus 3:4 speaks of "when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared [epiphaino]." The noun epiphaneia is found 6 times in the N.T. Sometimes it refers to Jesus' Epiphany we celebrate today; sometimes it refers to His second Epiphany on the Last Day.

Both the noun and verb are used more often in the Greek Old Testament. Epiphany was well-known among the pagan Greeks. It was used as religious technical term to mean a visible manifestation of a hidden divinity either in the form of a personal appearance or by some powerful deed by which his presence is made known. It was used of Apollo appearing to help men (B.A.G., 304).

One of the most important ceremonies which a Roman emperor used was the imperial epiphany.' The emperor and his family would dress in their most exquisite finery and assemble behind a curtain. His court would be assembled waiting. The curtain was suddenly opened revealing the emperor. The entire court fell to their knees when they saw him (Heresy of Formlessness, 126). The finery, the jewels, the robes all indicated who the emperor was to be to them. He was the visible manifestation of deity on earth.

Can you see light coming from these Magi from the east? Jesus didn't have jewels, or finery, or flowing robes when they arrived. He was in twosies. We know from the sacrifice Mary offered at her purification that they were very poor. There is nothing about the Baby other than the star to indicate there is Deity here. But what do they do? They "bowed down and worshipped Him. Then they opened their treasures and presented Him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh."

Ex Oriente Lux - "out of the East, light" - is to me a very fitting epitaph for Epiphany; follow the tracks to it from the Old Testament. We start out with theophanies. The appearance of God Almighty in a vision, in a dream, in a cloud. Then we have Christophanies where God the Son appears in flesh and blood as the Angel of God or even as a man. But that was temporary. Then Jesus takes on flesh and blood in the Virgin's womb never to put them off again. God Almighty becomes Man; the invisible God becomes visible in the Person of Jesus. And the Magi show us how to regard Him: as One to be worshipped.

I think there is one more epitaph for Epiphany. It too is Latin in Deo Vivas, May you live in God. Now we're back to the catacombs. The tomb of a woman named Severa who was buried in the 200's has inscribed on one side the visit of the Magi. Severa is depicted on the other side and next to her are the words in Deo Vivas. "May you live in God" (Oxford History of Christian Worship, 65).

Epiphany is the celebration of fallen men and women being able to live in God. Fallen man was cast out of the garden forbidden access to the Tree of Life which would enable him to live forever. Fallen man was under a curse by God Himself. And every day of his life, with every breath he took, he was only digging a deeper hole farther and farther away from God. He couldn't live in God; he could only live apart from the holy God, and to live apart from God is to live apart from true life, and that is death.

On one of the last days of Luther's life, he wrote in a Bible that the Father was not angry "for he let Himself be perceived in the sweet words of His Son: Who then can be against us, if the Son is for us" (Brecht, Luther, III, 372). There is life for you in God in the Person of Jesus because God was in Jesus reconciling the world to Himself. Jesus is the point where True God meets True Man and the two natures are joined in friendship, in fellowship, for life.

Epiphany means there is life for you in God. Jesus took our humanity and joined it to divinity. That's what Epiphany shows us. It also shows us that God is here in flesh and blood for us. He brought Magi from far away to His cradle to show them He was there for them. How do you know He is here for you? How do you know there is life in God for you this Epiphany?

Are you a sinner? Do you confess that you have sinned against God in thought, word and deed? Do you want to be freed of those sins? Do you want to never have to return to them, defend them, or claim them? Jesus appeared to rescue sinners, deliver sinners, to make room in the Godhead for sinners like you. How did He do that? First by keeping all the laws of God perfectly. All the laws that by their broken state identified us as sinners, Jesus kept. There is not one law that the Devil, the World, or your own conscience can point to that Jesus didn't keep in your place. In Jesus, God sees you as having kept all His laws.

Of course not only unkept laws kept us out of heaven, so did unpunished broken Laws. I can tell you God is not angry with you because God took out all His wrath against His only, beloved Son. He sent Him into the world as the Lamb of God to carry away the sins of the world. Do you think your sins fell off? Do you think your sins didn't make it to the cross and somehow weren't punished there? Weren't paid for there?

Why do you suppose a woman 19 centuries ago had the Epiphany scene for an epitaph? Because she was foolish enough to see the Light of world in the visit of the Magi from the east and she saw that this Light was neither unapproachable nor a consuming fire. Here was a God she could approach; here was a God who would warm her not consume here. Here was a God she could live in. In Deo Vivas this Epiphany. Amen.

Rev. Paul R. Harris

Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas

The Epiphany of our Lord (20120106); Matthew 2: 1-12