“What can I give him,
Poor as I am?”
Today is one of the most important days in the old church calendar, but also one of the most widely forgotten: the feast of Epiphany. Today we remember the wise men visiting Jesus, but we also remember what this represents, that the Gospel has been made known to the nations. Epiphany is an older celebration than Christmas, and in some early church documents it appears to have been the date when the Eastern church at least celebrated Jesus’ birthday. It’s a wonderful day, full of rich significance for believers to celebrate. Today we’re going to enlist one of my favourites, Bach, to see us through, with the help of his first Epiphany cantata. You can read the text and translation here.
I will arise with the stars.
In dappled light, the ground illuminates to show
the king made low,
the way made known.
I will arise with the stars to see
the glory that shines from east to west,
though wearing humble clothes.
I will arise with the night.
With nothing in my hand to give, I will receive
for years enclosed.
I will arise in the night to see
the light that day has not received
and now is bright to see.
I will travel with the kings
though I am no king, nor have ever been wise.
I will arise
with the stars in my eyes
and give a broken heart, for all
the better your treasure to store.
One of the more curious lost phenomena of Christmas was the late Medieval custom of appointing a so-called “Lord of Misrule” (or, as called in Scotland, the “Abbot of Unreason”). This involved either a peasant or an unimportant figure in the church being appointed to oversee the Christmas revelries. A related or parallel custom involved appointing a “boy bishop”, a child who would be bishop for the duration of the Christmas season. The “misrule” over which the Lord of Misrule ruled was sufficiently baudy that the Protestant Tudor rulers, as part of their cleaning up of the English church, saw fit to abolish the custom (although the Catholic Tudor, Mary I, saw fit to reinstate it). Yet there’s an unexpected biblical truth contained in the custom: that human rule is turned upside down by the coming of a baby king into the world who, though born a peasant, was God Himself.
As we approach Epiphany (this Saturday), the daily readings remind us of the ways that the wisdom of the world is different to the wisdom of God (expressed by the wise men finding the heavenly king not with Herod but in peasant Bethlehem). Today’s poem takes as its inspiration the rollicking Medieval song, “Lux Hodie, Orientus Partibus”, a joyful song about a powerful donkey carrying a king. It’s in these kinds of moments that I think the Medieval church remembered something about the truth of Christmas that we would do well to remember today.
You who would be wise, take heed:
the king lies in a peasant’s bed.
You who would be great, take heed:
He takes a donkey as His steed.
You who would follow Him, take heed:
His throne’s a cross, a cursed tree.
You who would find life, take heed:
true life must die first, as a seed.
You who would be wise, take heed:
most blessed is this bruised reed.
Some wise men follow, some betray;
some see the star, some walk astray.
Some kings will bow, some kings will kill;
some men will starve, some have their fill.
Some hearts will turn to rock; some stones
will call in praise before His throne.
Our folly becomes wise in Him;
bow down, world’s wise men; know your king.