SOLEMNITY OF THE EPIPHANY – YEAR C
When Dale Dickerson of Olive Branch, Mississippi, thought about this year’s Christmas gift for his wife, Sherry, he came up with the idea of presenting her with a diamond tennis bracelet. Priced at $2,000by a jewelry dealer in Atlanta, it was a bit of an extravagance. When the package arrived at his home, Dale had the surprise of his life. Not one but forty-eight diamond bracelets came spilling out onto the table without any invoice or packing slip. “I just stood there and just stared at it for several seconds ’cause I didn’t know what to do,” Dickerson told a television reporter. “I mean I just literally stared at it, just dumbfounded.” As for Sherry, “I was like, ‘You are kidding me!” she said of first learning about the diamonds. She added that she absolutely adores her bracelet, but joked, “You know, 48 would have looked better, wouldn’t it? No, I’m kidding! I love the bracelet.”
Honest folks that they are, the Dickerson’s could not wait to get the other forty-seven bracelets back to the dealer. The manager in Atlanta, after suppressing his panic at receiving a phone call from Dale, provided a pre-paid shipping label for returning the excess jewelry. Then Dale received another package from Atlanta, this one containing a pair of diamond earrings for Sherry as a thank you for the couple’s honesty.
The Virgin Mary must have been familiar with Isaiah’s prophecy, “the riches of the sea shall be emptied out before you, the wealth of the nations shall be brought to you.” Yet, even she had to have been startled by the appearance of exotic visitors on her doorstep, and even more startled when they opened their treasures and offered her child gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Like, Dale Dickerson in the hamlet of Olive Branch staring dumbfounded at a pile of sparking diamonds, Mary in the little town of Bethlehem must have been overawed at the riches offered by the magi.
Superabundance and surprise: they are the two hallmarks of the season that we have been celebrating for the past twelve days and nights. In comparison to the gift that our gracious God has lavished upon us, five gold rings and forty-eight diamond bracelets seem absolutely trivial.
Let’s begin with the surprises. The Gospel narratives that we have been listening to during this holy season have sprung one surprise after another on the people whom we read about. Angels appear to a young unmarried woman in Galilee and to an elderly priest in the Temple in Jerusalem. A choir of angels startles shepherds trying to get some shut-eye while warding off predators. Mary and Joseph are taken by surprise by the visitors who come to see their child, and the Magi are surprised to learn about Herod’s attempt to hoodwink them.
But the most astonishing surprise is the child, himself. For centuries the people of Israel had been looking forward to a redeemer. Their expectations took many forms. Some people expected Elijah to return from the dead. Others looked for a Moses-like figure to lead them back to a more perfect observance of the Torah. Still others looked for Messiah-priest or a Messiah-king to purify the Temple cult or restore political autonomy.
Instead of any of those savior/leaders, God gave the gift of himself, clothed in human flesh, born into our world and our lives. Admittedly, the gifts that the Magi presented the boy-child were rare and as valuable as diamonds; but they pale in value before the gift of God’s own beloved Son.
Epiphany, Twelfth Night, Little Christmas as we used to call today’s feast, is an invitation to review God’s gift to us the way we take one last look at Christmas cards before we pack away our mangers and take down or trees. No matter what we ask from God, he is always going to give us more than we can imagine. We order one diamond bracelet from heaven and forty-eight come tumbling out of the envelope, so to speak.
Epiphany, in the days before printed calendars, used to be the occasion to announce the dates of moveable liturgical days such as Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday and Easter in the coming year. That way church-goers would not be surprised when the days arrived. Epiphany is the day that says to all of us today, “Be prepared, for God is likely to surprise you with his gifts in the coming year in ways you cannot now imagine.