This Sunday we kept the feast of Epiphany, transferring it from the 6th, as we are allowed to do in the Church of England. This meant that the feast of the Baptism of Christ, which it displaced, was itself transferred to Monday and celebrated with a mass. One of the things we do every year at Epiphany is bless chalk which is then taken home and used to mark the doorways to our homes. There is a very good explanation of this old European tradition here.
How many of you have taken down your Christmas decorations? Most of you, I suspect! (At this point I got people to put their hands up – only one person other than my wife and I still had them up – an Orthodox Christian who was, of course, celebrating Christmas according to the Orthodox calendar).
Well, we still have them up in the vicarage! Let my explain why! If you follow tradition you’ll at least have kept them up for twelfth night which was on Thursday, and then have taken them down on Friday, the feast of Epiphany. However, we are allowed to keep the feast of Epiphany on the nearest Sunday, so this year you can keep them up an extra two days and take them down today. Apart from the crib scene, of course – our knitted crib figures will stay up in the vicarage until Candlemas.
There’s an old superstition that if you don’t take your decorations down the day after twelfth night it will bring bad luck – apparently, the gods of the greenery might escape and take up residence in your house. It was okay to bring them into the house over Christmas when you put up the holly and the ivy, but then they needed to be released back outside or the crops might not grow properly. And the only way, apparently, to escape the bad luck that they might bring if you forget to remove the decorations, is to leave any decorations you’ve not taken down until the feast of Candelmas, the Presentation of the baby Jesus in the Temple at Jerusalem, on the 2nd February. If you really believe in such things do come and talk to me afterwards!
Well – people are sometimes surprised to come to church when they think Christmas is over and find us with the crib scene still up – and it will stay there until Candlemas. Jesus is still there of course, lying in the manger surrounded by Mary and Joseph and the ox and the ass. But the shepherds have gone back to their fields – or, in church-speak, to the back pew where they are waiting to be put back in their boxes ready for next Christmas – and their places have been taken by the three wise men. And our gospel reading is about the wise men going on a long journey, guided by a star, and coming to worship Jesus.
In fact, I think that this is the most important part of the whole Christmas story. And interestingly it’s the oldest feast relating to Jesus after Easter, celebrated long before the 25th December became the feast of the birth of Jesus.
And this is why it’s so important. Until now the coming of God’s son has been very much a Jewish thing – Mary and Joseph going to Bethlehem, Jesus being born and the shepherds hearing the good news and going to see Jesus. God had been promising the Jews, his people, a Messiah. And at Christmas we hear how God’s promise was finally fulfilled in the birth of Jesus.
But Epiphany is different. Epiphany is when the story becomes not a Jewish thing but a story for the whole world – a story for everyone. The word ‘Epiphany’ means a manifestation or a showing. And the whole period from Epiphany to Candlemas is about Jesus being shown to the whole world – a theme that continues on Monday as we keep the feast of the Baptism of Jesus. And the baptism of Jesus has been a key part of the Epiphany celebration since at least as early as 215AD.
And it is the arrival of the wise men described for us by Matthew – not Jews like the shepherds but Gentiles – that shows that God is offering salvation not just for the Jews but for everyone, everywhere. Wise men from the East arrive to visit Mary and Joseph and Jesus, bringing with them gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh.
And this morning, as we think about this story, I’d like us to think about three words that relate to the story of the wise men and consider their significance for us: journey, light, home.
Journey: The wise men have undertaken a long journey. And it’s not a straightforward one either. On the way they get lost and end up in Jerusalem rather than in Bethlehem. Only after seeing Herod do they then head off for the correct destination. And then – having paid homage to the king they have been seeking they head off, but only after having had to change their plans and take a different route for their journey home.
And our journey through life is much like that. Sometimes – like the wise men – we get lost. And sometimes – through no fault of our own – we have to change our plans.
Light: And that brings us to our second word – light! The wise men didn’t simply get out a map and find their own way. They had, in a sense, heavenly sat-nav! They were guided by the light of a star. They observed its rising, realised its significance, and set off to follow where it led them. They don’t seem to have seen it all the time. But in the end it led them to where Jesus was.
And I’m using the word ‘light’ rather than ‘star’ deliberately. ‘Light’ is a word we use a great deal at this time of year. All through Advent we think of light shining in the darkness and showing us the way to go. We celebrate Christmas with lights. And we think of the light of the star that guided the wise men. It’s thought by some that the reason Epiphany was first celebrated on January 6th is because in some ancient calendar reckonings that was the day that people thought the days started to get longer, that light started to overcome the darkness. It is the light of Jesus that guides us along the journey of life – without that light we get lost, but with that light we can come to our journey’s end – which, like the wise men, is Jesus, except for us it’s not a little child but a Saviour.
Home: And that brings me to our third word, ‘home’. Because that’s where Jesus was. At home. He is no longer in the stable. And I know that we’ve got the wise men visiting Jesus in the stable in our Christmas crib, but you can blame Saint Francis of Assisi for that! Matthew tells us that they entered the house where Jesus was. This is a family home, and Jesus is probably growing up a bit by now. It’s a home that is at the end of the wise men’s journey – and it’s an eternal home that is at the end of our life’s journey. Jesus welcomes the wise men to his home, just as one day he will welcome us. Only – unlike the wise men – we will never have to leave.
Which brings me to this – a load of chalk! And this is something we’ve done for several years now at St John’s!
It’s an old tradition originating in central Europe to bless chalk on the feast of the Epiphany. The chalk is then taken home and the year and the initials of the names of the three wise men are then chalked on or above the main door. The names of the wise men are, of course, Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar. And their initials also stand for the Latin phrase Christus Mansionem Benedicat which translates as Christ bless this house. But if you are one of those people who reads the end of your service sheet first you’ll already know that.
And this is a tradition which asks that just as the wise men were guided on their journey by the light of the star to the home where Jesus was being cared for by Mary and Joseph, so Jesus will guide us by his light on our journey through the coming year, and that our homes may be a place where everyone who visits finds Jesus.
Full instructions as to what to do, along with a prayer for you to say as you do it, are on the back of the service sheet, so remember to take it home with you. And we’ll have the pieces of chalk at the back of church after the service, so please remember to take one for each home.
May God, who provided a safe dwelling place for his Son when he came to earth, bless this chalk, bless our homes, and the people who live and the people who visit there. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.