EPIPHANY I – In excelso throno
Introit: On a throne exalted I beheld, and lo, a Man sitting, whom a legion of angels worship, singing together: behold, his rule and governance endureth to all ages. Ps. (100) O be joyful in God, all ye lands: serve the Lord with gladness. Glory be … On a throne exalted …
Collect: O Lord, we beseech thee mercifully to receive the prayers of thy people which call upon thee: and grant that they may both perceive and know what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to fulfil the same; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
O God, who by the leading of a star didst manifest thy only-begotten Son to the Gentiles: Mercifully grant, that we, who know thee now by faith, may after this life have the fruition of thy glorious Godhead; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
OT Lesson: The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old. I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was. When there were no depths, I was brought forth; when there were no fountains abounding with water. Before the mountains were settled, before the hills was I brought forth: while as yet he had not made the earth, nor the fields, nor the highest part of the dust of the world. When he prepared the heavens, I was there: when he set a compass upon the face of the depth: when he established the clouds above: when he strengthened the fountains of the deep: when he gave to the sea his decree, that the waters should not pass his commandment: when he appointed the foundations of the earth: then I was by him, as one brought up with him: and I was daily his delight, rejoicing always before him; rejoicing in the habitable part of his earth; and my delights were with the sons of men. Now therefore hearken unto me, O ye children: for blessed are they that keep my ways. Hear instruction, and be wise, and refuse it not. Blessed is the man that heareth me, watching daily at my gates, waiting at the posts of my doors. For whoso findeth me findeth life, and shall obtain favour of the Lord. But he that sinneth against me wrongeth his own soul: all they that hate me love death. (Proverbs 8.22-36)
Gradual: (Ps. 72) Blessed be the Lord God, even the God of Israel: which only doeth wondrous things. V. The mountains also shall bring peace, and the little hills righteousness unto the people.
Epistle: Brethren: I beseech you, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God. For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith. For as we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office: so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another: in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 12.1-5)
Alleluia. O be joyful in the Lord, all ye lands: serve the Lord with gladness. Alleluia.
The Holy Gospel: Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the passover. And when Jesus was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem after the custom of the feast. And when they had fulfilled the days, as they returned, the child Jesus tarried behind in Jerusalem; and Joseph and his mother knew not of it. But they, supposing him to have been in the company, went a day’s journey; and they sought him among their kinsfolk and acquaintance. And when they found him not, they turned back again to Jerusalem, seeking him. And it came to pass, that after three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions. And all that heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers. And when they saw him, they were amazed: and his mother said unto him, Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing. And he said unto them, How is it that ye sought me? wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business? And they understood not the saying which he spake unto them. And he went down with them, and came to Nazareth, and was subject unto them: but his mother kept all these sayings in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man. (St Luke 2.41-52)
“And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.”
17th-century Anglican divine John Cosin wrote: “[Christmas] has been indeed a feast of joy to us all this while … but our fullness of joy comes not [until] now, for the Angelic tidings of joy came first to the shepherds, to Israel, to those near at hand, but upon this feast it is omni populo (to all people), news which the star brought to all the world, and to us too, that now salvation was come unto the Gentiles.” The Light of Christ shines forth in the darkness, and we have seen His glory. He has filled us with His light, and now sends us out into the darkness to shine for Him. Epiphany is more than just Christmas’s final blaze of glory; it ushers in a season of teaching, as we move from meditating upon “His coming in the flesh that was God” to “His being God that was come in the flesh;… to turn ourselves from his humanity below to his divinity above [Cosin],”and the season abounds with stories of Christ’s miracles as teachings about His divinity. God is revealed through the words and deeds of Jesus. This First Sunday manifests Christ as the Wisdom of God, the true source of all human teaching and learning, as St Paul says, that it “might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God, according to the eternal purpose which he purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Eph 3.10-11).
This day has, for many years, been observed as the Feast of the Holy Family. Nestled between the visit of the Magi to the Christ-child and the Baptism of Christ at the age of 30 marking the beginning of His public ministry, we are given this glimpse into the otherwise hidden childhood years of our Lord’s earthly life. It is easy to think of the Incarnation as simply meaning that God took on a human body, like we would put on a suit or a costume, but there is much more to it than that. In Jesus, God unites Himself completely to our human nature, entering fully into human experience, with all its peaks and valleys. And a part of that human experience, with more than its share of peaks and valleys, is family life. In fact, Jesus spent over 90% of His time on earth in the obscure ordinariness of domesticity. Though only a few verses in the Gospels are devoted to this lengthy period, what they reveal is significant. First of all, despite the cuddly images of our nativity scenes, that first Christmas was anything but serene and cozy. A woman nine months pregnant travels some 80 miles over bumpy, dusty roads so she can give birth far away from home, in an open stable full of dirty, smelly animals and all that goes with them. Before the baby is two years old, they have to pick up and flee for their lives, seeking asylum in a foreign land because the paranoid tyrant Herod sought to destroy anyone whom he suspected as a threat to his throne.
Today’s Gospel recounts a visit by the Holy Family to a festival in Jerusalem. It was required of every Israelite male to go up to Jerusalem three times a year for the major feasts (Deut. 16.16). One of these was Passover, and it was the custom of this family to make the journey from Nazareth to Jerusalem, a distance of about 90 miles, every year, walking all the way. While children were allowed to remain at home, Jesus was not exactly a boy any more – at the age of twelve, He was considered a man, which made this Passover celebration a particularly significant one. Joseph and Mary had presumably been taking Him with them every year, but this time, when they went to the Temple, Jesus for the first time was able to accompany Joseph out of the Court of the Women and into the Court of Israel, where only the men could go. And quite likely, this time it was Jesus Himself who carried in His arms, on behalf of His family, the lamb for the Passover sacrifice. So there is a certain irony here. This same Jesus, whom John the Baptist would some twenty years hence identify as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, who would by the shedding of His own blood save us all from sin and death, presenting the Passover lamb for sacrifice.
But even at the age of twelve, Jesus took a keen interest in those who were teaching in the Temple, and remained there, oblivious to time. The city was teeming with people, with caravans arriving and leaving all the time. Mary and Joseph fulfilled the prescriptions of the Law, and began the journey back home, travelling in a large group, with the women and children, since they travelled more slowly, ahead of the men. So Mary thought Jesus was with Joseph, and Joseph thought He was with Mary. They had travelled a whole day’s journey before they realised that Jesus was not with them. They quickly retrace their steps, and search the streets of Jerusalem frantically looking for Him. After three anxious days, they find Him still in the Temple, sitting amongst the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Mary in her distress exclaimed: “Son, your father and I have been looking everywhere for you! What are you doing here?” And Jesus innocently replied: “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house (literally, in the things of my Father)?” Here we see the mystery of the Incarnation—fully human, and fully divine. Jesus calls the Temple His Father’s house. If you know the Christmas story, that should come as no surprise to you. The surprise in the story is that Joseph and Mary, as St Luke puts it, “understood not the saying that he spake unto them.” Now, who could possibly have been in a better position to understand this than Joseph and Mary? They knew the extraordinary circumstances of His birth. They had heard the messages of angels, shepherds, wise men, and prophets, about who this Child really was, but now they don’t get it? But then, it is easy to lose perspective after you have changed hundreds of nappies, watched your baby crawl, then take his first faltering steps; after you have schooled him in his letters and numbers, and chuckled over his first feeble attempts to build something with hammer and saw; who else could he be but your son? Twelve years had gone by since He was born. And over time, the eyes of faith can grow dim and blurry.
There is no indication that Jesus was being rebellious by hanging back in Jerusalem; He had simply been so consumed with the desire to learn the things of God that He lost track of time. But it is also evident that He was now beginning to awaken to His true identity as the second Person of the Holy Trinity—a fact that necessarily had lain dormant during His childhood. Now, on the verge of adulthood, Jesus knew in some sense that He was God’s Son, and that He was here on a divine mission. He realised that His first priority in life was His heavenly Father, and so, at His first opportunity to sit at the feet of the teachers and rabbis and learn about His Father and His own mission as the Messiah, He immersed Himself in their wisdom and teaching. Does it not make sense that He would be here? Where else would He be? He was in His Father’s house, doing His Father’s business—a fact that had, at least momentarily, escaped His mother Mary. Jesus may look just like any other twelve-year-old, but when the rabbis question this ordinary-looking lad, they are amazed by His wisdom and understanding. Like Mary and Joseph, we can easily forget who Jesus really is, and trip over the seeming weakness of His humanity. The mystery of the Incarnation, the reason for the season of Christmas, truly does fill the mind with wonder. How can God become Man? How can the infinite and holy become the finite and lowly? And whether we ponder the baby in the manger, the twelve-year-old in the Temple among the teachers, or the man on the cross bearing the sin of the world, we are confronted with this same wondrous mystery – the eternal Son of God has taken on our human flesh in order to save us.
After this, St Luke tells us, “he went down with them, and came to Nazareth, and was subject unto them.” Jesus knew His duty to His heavenly Father, but He also knew His duty to His earthly parents. He truly lived as one of us. In every way He submitted Himself to obey Joseph and Mary. But He also submitted Himself to God’s law, and consecrated His life to His heavenly Father. Thus, we are told, “Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.” St Luke shows us how Jesus manifested Himself in the ordinary things of life, and St Paul reminds us in the Epistle that we need to do the same: “I beseech you, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service [or as the RSV and other translations have it, your spiritual worship].” That is our Christian duty at its most basic: to present ourselves—our souls and bodies—as living sacrifices to God. This is not just our “duty,” Paul says, this is our “worship.” We are so used to thinking that coming to a particular building on a particular day and singing and hearing the Scriptures and receiving the Sacraments is worship, but those things are only one small part of worship. The most basic and essential act of worship is the continual offering of ourselves to God. Long before He offered Himself on the Cross as the once-for-all and perfect sacrifice for sins, Jesus had offered Himself to His heavenly Father. The service we offer to God on Sundays is the result of our offering God our whole selves the rest of the week as an act of real-life worship.
Joseph and Mary regularly fulfilled the obligations of the law—worshipping—submitting to the things they knew were pleasing to God, and being faithful in doing them. And they were faithful in teaching Jesus to do the same. The Scriptures lay out for us the things that are pleasing to God, but it is easy to fall into the trap of doing right things for the wrong reasons. We live in an age where many Christians have abandoned God’s law (the technical term is “antinomianism”), and look on any attempt by the Church to hold her members accountable as “legalism.” But that is not what legalism means. Christians have always struggled with legalism—the belief that we are saved by doing or not doing certain things. But the Church’s discipline and teaching and exhortation is not for the purpose of telling people how to earn favour, justification, and salvation, but to give us a clear picture of what it looks like to offer ourselves as living sacrifices to God. Our obedience to God is the evidence of a true faith, because the one who has experienced the loving grace of God will always have an overwhelming desire to love God in return—to give Him our worship. St Paul tells us here that the real motive for offering ourselves to God is a sense of “the mercies of God.” Melville Scott put it this way: “We are to act from the motive of love; not our love which is so weak, but from the realisation of God’s great love towards us. Duty is not the price to purchase love, but a thank-offering for love received; not a thing of dreary necessity, but of gladness, its only sorrow being its own imperfection.” Jesus humbled Himself and submitted, not only to Mary and Joseph, but to the will of His heavenly Father, out of love for Him. We ought likewise to submit ourselves humbly to God, as we follow the example of Jesus.
“And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.” Being conformed to the world is the very opposite of being a living sacrifice to God. Thus St Paul calls us to active renewal of our minds. The indwelling Holy Spirit regenerates our hearts, turning our desires away from the things of the world and focussing them on the things of God, making us more holy and Christ-like. The better we know the Word, the better we will be able to submit ourselves to His will. And yet, as human beings, we are also prone to twisting our submission into something in which to take pride: “Look at me! I’m such a good living sacrifice!” or “My offering to God is better than yours!” And so Paul continues: “For I say, through the grace given unto me, to everyone that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith. For as we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office: so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another.” The Christian life is a life of humility. There is no “Look at me!” in the Church; only “Look at Christ!” Jesus gave up everything. He humbled Himself to become one of us, and He who knew no sin took our sins upon Himself and died for our salvation. As living sacrifices, we know that any righteousness is based solely on the merit of Jesus, through the grace of God, and so we can but offer ourselves in humility and thanksgiving.
The feast of the Holy Family reminds us that all human beings are called to the heights of holiness; that all states in life, including child, teenager, and parent, offer abundant opportunities to grow in faith, hope, and love. The Creator of the universe spent most of His human life as a humble craftsman working in the family business. Mary, the holiest of all creatures, spent most of her time washing, cooking, and cleaning. The secret to holiness is not to do extraordinary things, but to do ordinary things with extraordinary love and gratitude (as St Paul teaches us in Col 3.15-17). So family, in God’s plan, is a community where everyone has growing to do. Perhaps that is why Colossians 3 talks so much about forgiveness and forbearance! But if Mary and Joseph can take Jesus for granted, there is every reason to suppose that we can too. We can drift away from Him as we go off on our own business. How far would you have travelled before you realised that you had lost Jesus? Do we give Jesus any thought throughout the week? Or are we so consumed with the hustle and bustle of life that we ignore Him? Do we pray and read the Bible regularly? Have doubts crept into our faith? Do we think more like the world than like a Christian? The bottom line is, we don’t become holy despite the ups and downs of life, but in and through them. Life sometimes gets the better of us, and it is so easy to lose our grip on God. Our faith is tested and tried. We look around us and cannot help but notice that there is not a whole lot of that “peace on earth and good will amongst men” the Christmas angels sang about. Families fall apart. People we love get sick and die. And what do we do when this happens to us? When we realise that we have lost Jesus, when we sense the lack of His presence with us, where will we find Him? The Good News of Christmas is that when we thought we had lost God, God Himself came down and took on the weakness of human flesh to find us.
Mary and Joseph are upset because Jesus is not where they thought He should be. We can identify with the worried parents in the story, but maybe there is something more here. Could this vignette act as a parable about us? In many ways, we all try to keep Jesus in His place: maybe in the Christmas manger, or in a particular building, or only on Sundays, or … there are all kinds of limits we create, but we do it. But Jesus doesn’t care much about our restrictions. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, St John says. That means that Christ is where we are—whether we want Him to be or not, whether we recognise Him or not. He is not the swaddled child, arms and legs wrapped, imprisoned in a manger or in a stone-hewn tomb. He is going about fulfilling His mission, and that means leaving the manger, leaving the parental home, leaving the church building, and walking into everyday life. His desire is that we might see Him, recognise Him, serve Him, where we are. There are places that none of us wants to be. But there are no places that Jesus doesn’t want to be! He wants to be with us, wherever we are, whether someplace exalted and beautiful and holy, or someplace humble and humdrum and ordinary. “No palace too great, no cottage too small.” What would it mean for us really to understand that Christ is in our home, teaching us and asking us questions, wanting to open our eyes and our hearts, seeking to make our family a place where He is known and served? We are not sure we like Him there, where our everyday stuff happens. Often Jesus is the last person we want hanging around where reality hits. But what difference would it make if we really understood and remembered that Christ is there, wanting us to offer what we do and what we are to Him?
Teresa Hooley wrote a striking little poem called “Christ in Woolworth’s”:
I did not think to find You there—
Crucifixes, large and small,
Sixpence and threepence, on a tray,
Among the artificial pearls,
Paste rings, tin watches, beads of glass.
It seemed so strange to find You there
Fingered by people coarse and crass,
Who had no reverence at all.
Yet—what is it that You would say:
‘For these I hang upon my cross,
For these the agony and loss,
Though heedlessly they pass me by.’
Dear Lord, forgive such fools as I,
Who thought it strange to find You there,
When you are with us everywhere.
Jesus is always with us, even though at times we may think we have lost Him. Let us be actively aware of His presence everywhere, every day, in every circumstance of this coming year. Let us be attentive to His teaching, and submit ourselves to His authority, that we may increase in wisdom and stature in our Christian lives. And may everything we say and do be a conscious and intentional act of worship, an occasion to be an epiphany, a manifestation of Christ to the world.
“Blessed is the man that heareth me, watching daily at my gates, waiting at the posts of my doors. For whoso findeth me findeth life, and shall obtain favour of the Lord.”
Collect: O God, whose only-begotten Son hath been made manifest in the substance of our flesh: grant, we beseech thee, that, like as we have known him after the fashion of our outward likeness, so we may inwardly be made regenerate in him; who liveth and reigneth, world without end. Amen.
May Christ, the Son of God, be manifest in you, pour upon you the riches of his grace, and perfect in you the image of his glory; And the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be amongst you, and remain with you always. Amen.