The star of Christmas becomes the star of Epiphany as the Magi arrive in Bethlehem. The Greek word behind our English “epiphany” means literally a “showing forth.” What is shown to these Oriental travelers is not simply the presence of God in human form, but — what they were seeking — the “King of the Jews.” And their coming to honor him is a sign that the King of the Jews is in truth the King of all kings. During Advent, we sang “Savor of the nations, come,” Epiphany is the season in which the universality of Christ’s rule is celebrated.
It seems that this aspect of Christ’s birth is notably absent from contemporary celebration of Christmas. The Magi seemed to understand — as modern merchants and sentimental invokers of “the Christmas spirit” do not — that the Nativity wasn’t simply a symbol of “love and brotherhood,” but was in fact the commencement of a new era of divine power and glory displayed on the earth.
The readings and texts for this day all focus on this theme announced by blessed Simeon when he held Jesus in his arms: this child is a light to lighten the Gentiles (that is, all peoples of the earth).
Our opening hymn declares this very clearly:
What star is this with beams so bright,
More beauteous than the noonday light?
It shines to herald forth the King,
And Gentiles to his crib to bring.
The text to this hymn is from a Latin poem written by Charles Coffin (1676-1749). Rector of the University of Paris, Coffin was also the author of a hymn we sang on the third Sunday of Advent, “The Advent of our King,” and of the Advent hymn, “On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry.” We’ll sing that hymn again on the second Sunday after Epiphany when our Gospel reading narrates the account of the baptism of Jesus.
The tune to “What star is this with beams so bright” is PUER NOBIS, a tune which is also present (with a different rhythm) in the Christmas hymn “Unto us a boy is born” (#34).
The Introit for Epiphany connects a verse from the prophet Malachi with one from Psalm 72 in a powerful declaration of the identity of Jesus as King: “Behold, he appeareth, the Lord and Ruler: and in his hand the kingdom, and power, and dominion. Give the King thy judgments, O God: and thy righteousness unto the King’s Son.”
Likewise, the Gradual and Alleluia connect the arrival of the Magi with a prophecy of the Messiah’s universal rule from the prophet Isaiah (chapter 60): “All they from Saba shall come, bringing gold and incense, and shall show forth the praises of the Lord. Arise and shine, O Jerusalem: for the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee. Alleluia, alleluia. We have seen his star in the East, and are come with offerings to worship the Lord. Alleluia.”
Our sermon hymn, “Christ, whose glory fills the skies,” is one of the thousands of hymns written by Charles Wesley (1707-1788). It is officially a “Morning Hymn,” but the text — based on a Messianic prophecy in Malachi 4:2 — makes it suitable for focusing our attention at Epiphany. The Malachi text reads: “Unto you that fear my name shall the Son of Righteousness arise.”
The Offertory Proper contains another verse from Psalm 72: “The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall give presents: the kings of Arabia and Saba shall bring gifts: all kings shall fall down before him, all nations shall do him service.”
The choir’s Offertory anthem is “Brightest and Best,” an Epiphany hymn that appears in our Hymnal with three different tunes. The text is by Reginald Heber (1783-1826), a scholar (fellow of All Souls, Oxford), priest (rector of a parish in Shropshire for sixteen years), then bishop of Calcutta from 1823 until his death. As bishop of Calcutta, all of India was his diocese. Heber’s other hymns in our Hymnal include “Holy, Holy, Holy,” “Hosanna to the living Lord,” and “Bread of the world.”
The tune the choir is using (STAR IN THE EAST) is included as one of the supplementary tunes in the back of the Hymnal (#762). It is from the shape-note hymn and tune book Southern Harmony, compiled by William “Singing Billy” Walker and first published in 1835.
Our Communion motet is another Epiphany hymn, this time from the Scandinavian Lutheran tradition. “Bright and glorious is the sky” is one of many hymns by the Danish scholar and pastor Nikolai F. S. Grundtvig (1783-1872). This hymn (set to an anonymous Danish melody) details the visit of the Magi to Bethlehem. While these sages were led to Christ by a celestial body,
We too have a star to guide us
Which forever will provide us
With the light to find our Lord.
That light, the hymn reminds us, is Holy Scripture, which serves as our bright star to guide us to the Lord,
Our closing hymn, “Earth has many a noble city,” is by Marcus Aurelius Clemens Prudentius (348-413), whom life and work I examined briefly last week. The hymn’s fourth verse interprets the symbolism of the gifts of the Magi:
Sacred gifts of mystic meaning:
Incense doth their God disclose,
Gold the King of kings proclaimeth,
Myrrh his sepulcher foreshows.
The tune to which we sing this hymn is STUTTGART. And so our Epiphany service ends with the same melody which we sang our very first hymn on the first Sunday of Advent, “Come, thou long expected Jesus.” Remember what we sang that day: that Jesus was “born a child and yet a King.”