Epiphany: The Church Goes Public

O God, by the leading of a star you manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth:  Lead us, who know you now by faith, to your presence, where we may see your glory face to face; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.  (Collect for Epiphany, Book of Common Prayer according to the use ofThe Episcopal Church 1979, p. 214)

Yesterday, I said Epiphany deserved better than the churches usually give it.  I can’t do it justice either, but I need to attempt (at least for myself) to think about this rich source for reflection on my own, and not be corrected (I was corrected in a comment on the previous post) by standard-brands church people.  One thing Epiphany must be about, for me at least, is an encouragement for learned people to think through meaning and interpretation for themselves.  And I am a moderately learned person.

The Collect for Epiphany, which clergy across the Episcopal Church will say at some point today (and a distressingly small number of lay people will hear) gets Epiphany less than half-right. Possibly, the only “right” in the collect is the star.  But the rest of it seems wrong.

God signaled (not manifested) the birth of his only Son, not to “the peoples of the earth”.  Rather, it was a small group–traditionally depicted as three–men who were learned and wise enough to read the meaning of the sign.  They, in turn, followed the star’s guiding light to where the infant Jesus was tended by his family.

There’s no indication that the wise men all came from the same place, or knew each other prior to setting out on what was almost certainly an expensive, dangerous, and inconvenient journey.  They may have met for the first time on the road, joining together (as travelers must have done) for reasons of safety, and found that they had a common destination and purpose. I can imagine that there was a lot of quiet-but-excited discussion and argument about the meaning of the star, how each had interpreted the message, why he had chosen to give up the comforts of home to make such an arduous journey.  After arriving, doing homage to the newborn king, and offering gifts, the men returned to their homes–and probably the discussions went on until there were only two left.  Perhaps they found ways of keeping in touch, sharing insights they arrived at after returning to their homes.

That is what was necessary to “manifest” God’s Son to the peoples of the earth. The collect’s emphasis on the star–notice there is no mention of the wise men–and the direct move to us, is an indication that we like the flashy and supernatural way too much, and we like to take credit that we are doing the knowing and seeing.  The assistance of wise people throughout the ages has nothing to do with our faith, according to the collect.  And that is completely wrong.  (If it was not wrong, there would be no need for church, congregation, ordained ministry.)

Epiphany is the day the church goes public in thoughtful, reasonable, articulate ways that help the widest possible variety of human experience access the meaning of God’s reign on earth.  God might have used a star to guide the wise men to Jesus (and their dreams to protect the holy family), but it was the gifts of wisdom and intelligence that made it possible for them to return to their homelands and tell others what this chain of events might mean for human life on earth.

The wise men were the churches’ first public intellectuals and public theologians. And they weren’t even the people who were  waiting for their own Messiah. Their minds were open to God’s illumination (even if they did not recognize God as “their god”), and were obedient to the divine prompt to think and act.  The collect’s failure to mention the wise men is distressing:  it dismisses the role of human wisdom (and we do call wisdom a gift of the Holy Spirit, don’t we?) in the life of faith.

The church needs more public intellectuals and public theologians, and less infatuation with supernatural signs and wonders. We need to claim our right to public attention and esteem, and it seems to me the best way to go about that is through wise reflection and intelligent articulation of what we believe and why it matters–not by claiming nonsense like “traditional values” that we can’t back up, or “personal revelations” (which the best of Christian thought has always subjected to the test of wise reflection).

It’s harder work to do thorough, careful, well-informed discernment than it is to wait for God to send a star and expect that we will automatically know what is meant by that star–that is the problem with the collect for Epiphany.  We want the magic, and we’d rather not do the work.  We don’t mind if someone else does the work, but like the absence of the wise men in the collect, we’re not willing to give them any credit for their part in our journey of faith or understanding of God.

 So, perhaps we need something other than this stinking awful collect to really appreciate what Epiphany is about.  I’m not a professional liturgist, and I don’t compose prayers for public use on any regular basis, but I want to propose the following:

O God, you sent a star to enlighten the minds of wise men and women, whose work has helped us to know your presence clearly in the cradle of the infant Jesus.  Open our minds to see your work in the least likely places on earth, and close our mouths until we are able to speak wisely about your action in the world you love; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

 Amen?

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