Joseph Wiesenfarth’s Homily from Epiphany, January 8, 2017

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Joseph Wiesenfarth

Epiphany:  8 January 2017

Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12


There are two kinds of epiphany:  one beginning with a capital letter and one beginning with a small letter.  The one beginning with the capital E is what we are celebrating today.  Dictionaries tell us it is “A Christian feast celebrating the manifestation of the divine nature of Jesus to the Gentiles as represented by the Magi.”  In Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language of 1755 we get the additional information of the “commemoration of our Saviour’s [birth] being manifested to the world, by the appearance of a miraculous star.”   The word epiphany beginning with a small e is defined as “a sudden insight or intuitive understanding.”

These two definitions in a sense combine when the Magi—Wise Men from the East—follow the star that leads them first to Jerusalem and then to Bethlehem, where they not only accept Jesus as the King of the Jews but bring him extraordinary gifts.  But they get to Bethlehem by way of Jerusalem to ask Herod where they can find the King of the Jews.  Now this is a small case epiphany for Herod because he’s under the impression that he is the King of the Jews.  Indeed, he is that.  Jesus never sought or wanted such a title.  It is used in the gospels simply to indicate his spiritual majesty as God’s son, the last of the prophets, as the Messiah. But Herod, just to make sure he has no rival, asks scholars at court what they know about a King of the Jews being born.  The answer comes back:  Bethlehem.  So instead of incarcerating the Magi, who undoubtedly are traveling with a substantial retinue, he asks them to report their findings back to him.  But he’s certainly had a small-case epiphany with their showing up and asking their question in what we might think of as a rather unmannerly fashion.  They ask the King of the Jews where they can find the King of the Jews.

Now the small case epiphany became a literary phenomenon with James Joyce, who first defined it in his attempt at a novel in Stephen Hero, for which he could not find a publisher and consequently threw it into a fire from which his wife Nora quickly rescued it.  There Stephen Dedalus tells us that “By an epiphany he meant a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself” (p. 211).  And Joyce demonstrates this in his collection of short stories Dubliners, which ends with the longest of the stories, “The Dead”.  It is set either on the day of the Epiphany itself or just before it.  The setting is a dinner party at which Gabriel Conroy gives a speech and carves a goose—the traditional meat for celebrating the Epiphany in many European countries.  He went there with his wife Gretta, who as a girl once innocently loved and was loved by a boy named Michael Furey, who sang the very song she just heard sung as the dinner party ended.  He was deadly sick, but nonetheless came out into the rain and bitter cold, “shivering,” to bid her goodbye the night before she left Galway for her convent education in Dublin.  Gabriel’s epiphany is that although Gretta is his wife, she had someone who loved her more than he possibly can.  Gabriel  knows that he could not die for her as Michael Furey did.  The story then ends with one of the great passages in modern English literature:


Yes, the newspapers were right:  snow was general all over Ireland.  It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves.  It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried.  It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns.   His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.


Gabriel has this epiphany on the feast of the Epiphany itself.  The whole of his life is changed as the whole of Ireland is changed by the snow that gives it a decidedly different look.  Gabriel is as stunned as Herod was to learn that he has a rival to contend with.

Now this brief literary excursion brings us back to Lancelot Andrewes’ Christmas sermon (one of twelve that he gave at the Court of James VI) that I mentioned briefly on the first Sunday of Advent.  Now reading a 17th century sermon by Andrewes may take as long as to read “The Dead” by Joyce:  it took me about an hour and a half.  There were no brief homilies at the court of James VI!  Indeed, there were no homilies at all.  There were sermons.  Long as it is,  Andrewes’ sermon does not ramble.  It is held altogether by four Latin words:  vidimus, venimus, and adorare eum.  The Magi saw the star (vidimus), they followed it and came to Bethlehem (venimus), and seeing Jesus they adored him (adorare eum).  At the end of his sermon, Andrewes adds an APPLICATION, which is basically this:  Go and do likewise.

More recently Garry Wills has given us another reason to follow this advice.  In his stunningly insightful book Why Priests?, he offers us this epiphany:  Salvation comes to us not by way of Jesus dying on the cross but by way of Jesus being born into this world.  “The Incarnation,” Wills writes “is God’s way of harmonizing the universe.”   Wills draws on St. Augustine to come to this conclusion, saying, “Augustine presents the Incarnation as a second (and better) Creation, by which God not only restores fallen man but exalts him to a higher state by incorporation of the whole body of believers into the Son” (p. 193).  What Wills is telling us is that our idea of God cannot be that of one who demands a life for a favor:  Jesus’ saving all who preceded and succeeded him doesn’t demand his death.  Salvation has already happened with his birth.  We have a God who doesn’t take Jesus from us but a God who gives a Messiah to us.  In Mary’s words:  “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (Luke 1:46).  Consequently, today we are celebrating our salvation.  This is our epiphany (small case e) on this happy feast of the Epiphany (capital E) or perhaps even better—EPIPHANY: all capital letters:.


Definitions of Epiphany and epiphany from The American Heritage Dictionary, 5th Edition, 2011.  The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition (1991), vol. 5, reads much the same:  “The festival commemorating the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles in the persons of the Magi” (p. 333).  Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language, 1755, is the first dictionary of the English language.  It is available on CDRom from Cambridge University Press, which also includes the 4th edition of 1773.

James Joyce.  Stephen Hero, ed. Theodore Spencer.  Binghamton, New York” Vail-Ballou Press, 1944, p. 211.

Garry Wills.  Why Priests?  A Failed Tradition.  New York: Viking, 2013.


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