“The Greek word signifies manifestation, and hath been of old used for Christmas day, when Christ was manifested in the flesh; and for the day wherein the star did appear to manifest Christ to the wise men, as appears by Chrysostom and Epiphanius. For the antiquity of the day, Augustin says, The solemnity of this day, known throughout all the world, what joy doth it bring in!”—” This feast has several appellations amongst the Greek fathers, sometimes it is called, the day of sacred illumination, (Gregory Nazianzen); sometimes the Theophany, the manifestation of God. It often imports Christ’s birth-day; now is the festival of the Theophany, or Christ’s nativity. Yet sometimes they are distinguished, The nativity of Christ and the Theophany, &c. are to be accounted for holidays. And again, The first festival is that of Christ’s birth, the next is that of the Theophany, (Epiphanius). But of all the names most usual, and most frequently applied to it, is this of Epiphany, though under the patriarchate of Alexandria communicated both to the nativity and baptism of Christ.”
I.— The manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.
The order of divine providence, to a contemplative mind, affords one of the strongest evidences of the over-ruling power of Almighty God, in arranging and completing the purposes of his will for the final benefit of all his creatures. The establishment and administration of nations, and even the successive transactions of every man’s life, sufficiently declare, “this is thy hand, and thou Lord hast done it.” The motive may not always be visible to the limited view of man, but the effect is always visible; or at least, may be deduced from the variety of combinations which every man sees before him. In nothing is this observation more conclusive, than in a comparison of the volume of Scripture with the general history of the human race; and still more, with the history of the human heart.
The manifestation of our blessed Saviour to the world, is the grand key of those unsearchable riches, which the grace of God has given to mankind. He was first manifested by the voice of prophecy, generally, and obscurely, in the early ages; afterwards, more fully revealed in the family of David; and at last, expected and received in the manger at Bethlehem. Could this have been thought possible? Could it ever have been imagined, that he who came specifically into the world to save sinners, and to establish for himself a spiritual kingdom, a kingdom, sooner or later, to comprehend all people, nations, and languages, should be received in a stable amongst the meanest of mankind? But this was an indispensable link in the history of redemption. The more wonderful, because the more unlikely.
Our Lord’s nativity, doubtless, was his first personal manifestation to the Jewish nation, to whom his Gospel was to be first offered. Connected with this was the manifestation of himself, at his baptism by John, by a miraculous appearance, and a miraculous voice. “Then Jesus when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water; and lo! The heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him; and a voice from heaven saying, This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased. We cannot imagine any exhibition of himself more impressive, illustrious, or sublime. And if we refer on this occasion to the inspired words of the Evangelical Prophet, the scene before us becomes our own. “Behold my servant whom I uphold, mine elect, in whom my soul delighteth. I have put my Spirit upon him, he shall show forth judgment to the Gentiles.
It will not be supposed that great events can be accomplished without great manifestations. There must be something of no common nature to mark the circumstance, and direct the attention. Though some mystery hangs over the disclosure of the wandering star to the wise men of the East, none whatever attaches to the object of their journey. The appearance of a star of an uncommon description was likely to attract the notice of celebrated men belonging to a nation long distinguished for their study of astronomy. How they were made acquainted with the expected, or actual birth of Christ, does not appear. The Chaldeans were a wise and an inquiring people, and might have heard, or read of, the predictions relative to the Messias from the books of Moses, through the information of travelling Jews; or they might have had the circumstance particularly revealed, an opinion I am inclined to adopt, as they were warned by God in a dream to return by a different road. However it was, a star of so particular a description pointing out distinctly to them a line of road leading to the very object of their search, was a pre-disposing cause of their journey; and a miraculous interposition of Divine Providence to reveal the new-born Saviour to a remote region of the Gentile world.
The leading of the star was a moral movement, and every step of the Magi was on sacred ground. They had a Saviour in view, and were little molested with the difficulties of their journey. Christian traveller! dost thou see any resemblance to thyself? The Gospel is thy star, and the heavens above thee are clear. Thou hast no Alps to climb, nor torrents to obstruct thy path; but thou hast dangers to encounter which they never felt, perverse passions and pernicious principles; thou art way-laid by temptations—the world, the flesh, and the devil, are inveterate enemies in that wilderness which thou must pass. But look upward! thou hast a guide and protector as well as them; the star is as visible to thee, as to any of the eastern sages. If the star was emblematic of the Gospel, thou hast the reality of what they only had the figure. The bright and morning star is thine. There was a time in the course of their journey, that the wise men lost sight of the friendly star. They were searching at Jerusalem, and saw it not . Their interview with Herod was of a dangerous nature, and excited both the jealousy and cruelty of the tyrant. Their fears might be proportionate. They departed, it may be, dejected with disappointment from the holy city on their road to Bethlehem; but they had not proceeded far, when the star again appeared, and “they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.” Thus the man that mourneth for his sin committed against conviction, fallen from prospects of holy hope through the infirmity, and perhaps worse than the infirmity of the flesh, when he again beholds the blessed star of salvation beam upon his soul; when the faith which once led him over floods of ungodliness, and the barren sands of an Arabian desert, begins again to influence his breast, and the spirit of divine love to re-assure his heart, then does he resemble the wise men of the East, rejoicing at the re-appearance of their star, and warmly pursuing their path to the place where the Saviour lies. Happy is the man that recovers from his sin, from the hiding of God’s face, with all the fatal consequences of such a privation; happy in the acquisition of that treasure which the wise men found at Bethlehem; most of all happy, in being taught by the grace of God how to value it! Their own treasures presented to the holy babe, were trivial in comparison with those which he had to bestow. Gold, and frankincense, and myrrh, might be appropriate marks of their own characters and country, and might not be without an allusion to the heavenly Prince, the object of their journey; but the offering of a convert of the Gospel, the offering of one wearied and heavy laden with the burthen of his sin, where was that to be found, but in the very bosom of him whom they came to worship.
Blessed Lord! accept thine own offering; neither the calves and goats of the Jews, nor the lip-labour of the Christian, if I may use a term too degrading for the holiness of his profession, can be a sufficient offering for thee, who art all in all to us. Let us, impressed with this, conviction, approach the humble cottage of the lowly Jesus, and present our own gifts before him; not indeed earthly treasures, to whatever they may allude; not costly presents, such as have too often deceived men of this world; neither with ashes on our heads, nor sackcloth on our persons, but such as the Gospel, pure and unadulterated, rejoices to present, a pure faith, a contrite heart, and an holy conversation.
But our contemplation on the Chaldean manifestation of Christ does not end here. Herod’s cruelty was itself a manifestation of its cause. How shall we reflect on the case of the poor infants who were slaughtered on this sad occasion? Even with that comfort which the Gospel only can bestow. No death is premature which the Almighty has designed; nor any injury inflicted, which the Son of God cannot cure. In infancy, every man may be satisfied with death. If unsinning life may be presented as an offering, through the merits and mediation of him who merited all for us, Oh! let the tear be checked which is shed for a dying babe. Nature may make some resistance, but grace is the healing balm. These poor infants resemble the souls under the altar, in the book of St . John’s revelation, who were “slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held. It may be said that they were baptized in blood. True; it was the blood of Christ which taketh away the sin of the world. Youth and age are as nothing in the sight of him, to whom a thousand years are as one day. “Cease, then, from man, whose breath is in his nostrils, for wherein is he to be accounted of?”
II.—The manifestation of Christ by his First Miracle.
To rejoice at every manifestation of the Saviour to the world is a Christian feeling, and must be considered as a manifestation of the increase of our Christian faith. Blessed are the people that are in such a case! and truly blessed is the heart that can sympathize in so holy an affection, that can go on from grace to grace, till he appears before the Lord in Zion.
Our Lord’s manifestations of himself were gradual; like that of the morning, which first irradiates the hills, then penetrates to the depths of the valleys. Each ray brings an accession of light, till the whole atmosphere is sensible of the blessing. If the revelation of natural beauty makes such an impression on the mind, what may we not expect, what, indeed, do we not experience, when the deepest recesses of the soul become the receptacles of spiritual joy, and the “whole of man’s existence is absorbed in the high conception? I speak this under correction; for being compounded of body as well as soul, our warmest aspirations must accord with our relative situation. This union cannot be forgotten, and when rationally, though spiritually established, it must afford the just measure of every religious feeling.
It was a manifestation of our Lord’s person and character, when, at an early period of his life, he was discovered by his mother, sitting in the midst of the learned rabbis in the temple at Jerusalem, hearing them and asking them questions. His proficiency, natural rather than acquired, amazed his hearers, and astonished his mother, who had reason to believe that the Son of Miracle was destined to sustain a character of undefined greatness. The immediate effect of this voluntary appearance is unknown; but, doubtless, it led the way to the disclosure of his future character, and was a link of that chain which bound in one, both the Jewish and the Gentile world: and though Scripture is silent on the subject, it is possible that a Nicodemus, or a Joseph of Arimathea, might be influenced to believe, from a remote circumstance, in the divinity of his character; and, finally, to adopt that acknowledgment of it afterwards, so honourable and valuable to themselves.
The true character of Jesus was, if I may so say, in abeyance with respect to his public history, till he had attained the usual age of public teachers. He then stepped forward with that divine dignity, which accompanied him to the end of his short ministry upon earth.
That which attracts attention in any great character must be something above the ordinary efforts of mankind; something allied, as it were, to a divine original: and though in the common dispensation of God’s Providence, the course of nature is smooth and undisturbed, yet, when his will is to be displayed for purposes higher than man’s understanding, he speaks a language that must be heard, and in accents derived from himself—the clouds pour out water, the air thunders, and his arrows are abroad. Miracle is the signal of God’s peculiar interference at the delivery of the law. The grandeur of the scenery is equal to the importance of the occasion. The Gospel also has its introduction. It is, indeed, a covenant of mercy, and therefore introduced with a milder designation of God’s will. Here miracle is equally conspicuous; but the lenient hand of the Saviour distributes it under a different principle. The law says, the soul that sinneth, it shall die—the Gospel, come unto me and ye shall live. There are also inward as well as outward miracles; miracles of grace as well as miracles of glory. The conversion of a sinner’s heart, and magnifying the glory of God by a miraculous interposition, are conspicuous proofs that God is in us of a truth.
It pleased the Almighty, that the first manifestation of the Saviour in his public capacity, should be made by a miracle. The nature of the miracle was appropriate to the circumstance. The person of our Lord had been miraculously attested at his baptism by John. A few, a very few friends had attached themselves to him at this period, by the tie of an affectionate friendship, founded on the holy character which they believed him to possess. These friends, with relatives of his temporal state, were present with him at a marriage feast, probably of one of his family; unconscious that, at that time, he would give any proof of the divine nature of his character. How unconscious are many of us of the moment, or circumstance, which decides the most important event of our whole lives! This observation must be obvious to every reflecting man. A journey is often commenced which, to many, never ends. We enter an apartment, careless and unconcerned, when the presence of a particular person, or an unexpected offer, gives a turn to every prospect of our hearts. This marriage festival, which brought present enjoyment to some, gave salvation to many more. It gave an impulse, through the grace of God, to the first ministers of the Gospel, and showed them the way, through many long and painful travels, to experience the blessings and happy consequences of an apostolic mission.
The order of divine providence is here as minutely followed, as in any other part of our Lord’s various life. The first manifestation of his glory by his first miracle, was apparently undesigned as to every outward circumstance. It was not made in the temple, the most eminent monument of the glory of God; it did not take place in the holy city, where great kings and great prophets had usually assembled; it did not occur in the mansion of the rich, or in the camp of the warrior, where numerous retainers might have maintained his cause, or fought his battles; but it happened in the humble cottage of a poor man like himself, unable to supply all things necessary on a memorable occasion. His mother’s anxiety was excited: for, when they wanted wine, she said unto him,—” They have no wine.” In that country, wine was not the luxury, but the necessary of life: and when he liberally and miraculously supplied the want, justly might they wonder, and lay the first foundation of that faith on which they were to be built up unto eternal life. “This beginning of miracles,” says the Evangelist, “did Jesus in Cana of Galilee, and manifested forth his glory, and his disciples believed on him’.”
Though the conversion of a world was to be the consequence of our Lord’s manifestation, it was necessarily to commence from one point: for in all things there must be an impulse, as well as a final consequence. Here were friends to be convinced, as well as adversaries to be repelled. Both were ready to fill the ranks. Had they been as ready for conviction, or conciliation, the mystery would have been over. But not so, “great is the mystery of godliness.” “A great and effectual door is opened, and there are many adversaries. The harmony, however, of a family of love, as on this occasion, is a picture deserving the contemplation of everyone who would study the intrinsic beauty of Christian society; “after this, Jesus went down to Capernaum, he and his mother, and his brethren, and his disciples.”
The object of this miracle was to make Jesus known, as well as to confirm the faith of those who, in a short period, were to become missionaries of the Gospel. Eye-witnesses of such transactions were to be selected for the first preachers. Such was also the selection of witnesses of our Lord’s resurrection.
There is a consistency between this miracle, and the time, place, and persons, when, where, and by whom, it was performed. It had been tauntingly said of Christ, “Is not this the carpenter’s son? Whence hath this man all these things*?” The performance of the miracle was an answer to the inquiry. Even his brethren were convinced.
But Jesus not only manifested himself, but his glory. The word glory, in its spiritual sense, is attributed to Christ in its most extensive signification. The glory of the Lord is an expression continually occurring in Scripture; and no man can read it with out an overwhelming apprehension of that Majesty which no man hath seen or can see; an eminence and splendour which surpass human conception, and when we see “the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ,” we have a reflected glory which was communicated to man for the most beneficial purpose of man’s redemption. “God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto themWhen these expressions of love reach the heart, the glory of the divine union will excite every better feeling, and produce an animation and joy, as if touched with celestial fire.
Lose not a transport so seldom felt, so quickly lost. Be as one of the heavenly host, even now beholding and contemplating the magnificence of the Saviour. “The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.”
No man can be satisfied of the value of our Christian faith on its true principle, without earnestly endeavouring to extend its advantages both within, and without his power. If salvation be the end of religion, and the knowledge of religion be derived from the word of God, we have here the first step of those many travels to which the zealous missionary is directed. “When thou art converted,” said our Lord to St. Peter, “strengthen thy brethren .” This was not a general, but a particular admonition. But as universal precepts include particular duties, we may imagine that the conversion of brethren was to be propagated from man to man, as all the benefits of society extend to every member of a community.
When we look around us, do we not wish that all we see were Christian? When we observe ordinary habits become public nuisances, and knowing that we reside in a reputed Christian country where salvation has been preached, and even, where, I trust, it has been found; when we reflect upon the relays of sin that pass along our streets, and still more, of what is concealed from our eyes, are we not disgusted at such circumstances, and feel our hearts sink at so appalling a prospect; and finally, under such an impression, is it not our endeavour, by God’s grace, to lessen the iniquity at least by one? He who takes this view of his situation, must necessarily strive to improve it, and to propagate a saving faith within his sphere as an indispensable duty.
But as every duty has its own qualification, so has even the solemn duty of conversion. The mark may be missed by an improper use of the means. A true zeal must be according to knowledge; otherwise we may mar the very blessing it might have been our happiness to procure. This is not the place, however, to draw distinctions. If Christian missions are necessary, a self-evident proposition, they must be supported; but to make them available, they must be derived from that legitimate authority, originally and especially deputed by the voice of inspiration. I mean not to make any observation on the good men who cross sea and land to make a proselyte; but I have often regretted, that more effectual measures had not been adopted for the promotion of this good cause, within the bosom of our own excellent Church.
The propagation of the Gospel, though miraculously rapid at its first institution amongst the civilized nations of the world, was left to find its way in savage countries, and in remote regions of the globe recently or slowly inhabited, by ordinary means, and by the intrinsic value justly attributed to it by pious, zealous, and intrepid neighbours. We will not speak of late or early propagation of the Gospel, because, to the Almighty Ruler of the universe, a thousand years are as one day; and to the happy country, whenever or wherever converted to pure Christianity, we need only reckon by the same measure of time. That which I would wish to inculcate is, that conversion is a duty of all times and seasons as well as in all places, and incumbent on persons of every age and station. The opportunities of life indeed, are different with respect to every event, but if the heart be right, the duty will find its proper place, and God himself will point out the opportunity. If we travel with our eye under this direction, we can follow the Lord’s leading through the most wonderful tracks, and accomplish his purpose by ways nothing less than miraculous.
Within the memory of man, ships of discovery have been sent out into regions not known, and among people the most unlikely to be brought under the cross of Christ. See! the prophecy is fulfilling, ” all nations shall call me blessed.” At various periods in the history of the world, certain impulses seem to prevail in the developement of new facts. The extension of trade, and the astonishing application of the mechanical arts, constitute new powers in the hand of man. These powers arise from new combinations in the reasoning faculties, and produce effects attributable only to the God of reason; the consequence, therefore, is, that the ways of God are carried into effect in a manner derivable only from himself. Thus it is that the trading ship with its Bible on board, is a messenger of heaven; whilst the vessel itself traverses the ocean unconscious of its treasure.
Though all the Apostles were missionaries, St. Paul was the original missionary of the Gentile Church. Not only his preaching and epistles, but the very circumstances of his travels, were appropriate to his mission. What was his shipwreck on the island of Melita, but a part of this design? When they saw the viper on his hand, was it merely considered as an accident by his heathen spectators? This man is a murderer, they said. But when he shook it off, and found no harm—This man is a god. He was a prisoner at Rome,—why? that he might spread the knowledge of the Saviour, and make proselytes in Nero’s prison as well as in Nero’s palace. It is even said, that this great missionary visited Britain. Certain it is, his doctrines came early to this island. In what state did they find our Saxon ancestors ?—oppressed with the cruel rites of Druidism; rude, ignorant, and idolatrous. How great then are the blessings which a mission has brought to us! Let gratitude, founded on the depths of religion, return the obligation, by doing to others what others have done for us; and may we never fail to express that gratitude with faithful hearts to the Giver of all goodness and lover of souls, who hath called us, and our forefathers, out of darkness into the marvellous light of the Gospel.
It is thus that the same benefits are destined to travel round the world. Every man may lend a helping hand. A man may travel by his prayers; he may travel by his bounty; he may be a missionary by his fireside; in humility of mind, and rich in spirit, he may do all this—neither will his labour be in vain in the Lord—he may cast his treasure on the waters, and it will return after many days.
God uses his own means to accomplish his own ends. The Gospel was never thought of when Cook landed at Otaheite. Yet see the change! I can only draw a general conclusion from the circumstance. But there is more in contemplation in the eye of Providence than can be drawn by the most reflecting mind from the events of the most interesting narrative. “I shall see him, but not now, I shall behold him, but not nigh; there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Scepter shall rise out of Israel.” The star travelled with the wise men from Chaldea, till it became fixed over the revealed Saviour at Jerusalem. The manifestation of Christ is still in progress; nor will it cease till the Gospel of ” the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations’.”
But in casting my eye over the extensive labours of a missionary life, I must not omit other duties, with which we ought to be better acquainted—the mission which presents itself to us at home. And if I add, that this is preparatory to the great and comprehensive plan for the conversion of a world, I trust that I should begin at the right point. Even under the pleasing duties of a parish minister, he cannot but feel discouraged by the carelessness of some, and the obstinate resistance of others, neither of whom he can by any means consider as converts of the Gospel. Here there is ample scope for missionary labours within a narrow compass.
An eminent and eloquent divine, though not of our Church, produces this argument in favour of national establishments of religion.
“An establishment,” he says, “when rightly viewed, has greatly more in it of the character and power of a missionary operation. It may be regarded as an universal home mission. It works aggressively over all the land. That was a prodigious progressive movement which it made at the outset, when it first planted its churches, and chalked out its parishes, and so caused the voice of the Gospel to be heard throughout the whole length and breadth of the territory. And, then, if rightly followed up, we shall discern in its internal workings the same character; for each minister in his own little vineyard is provided with ample scope, and is placed in the best vantage-ground for the high and holy functions of a Christian missionary. It is true that his pulpit is stationary, and there must be some predisposition for Christianity among those families of his people, who are drawn to it by a process of attraction on the Sabbath. But his power is moveable; and by a process of aggression through the week, he can go forth among all the families of his people, even among those who have as little of predisposition for Christianity as exists in the remotest wilds of Paganism. We have not to traverse oceans and continents in order to perform the essential work of a missionary, or to assail an immortal spirit which is not in quest of salvation for itself, with the calls and overtures of Heaven’s high embassy. There is a moral as well as a physical distance which must be overcome; and in the act of doing it, the parochial clergyman may have to face such difficulties, and to force his way through such barriers of dislike, or prejudice, or delicacy, that in the prosecution of his calling, he may, without half a mile of loco-motion, earn the proudest triumphs, and discharge the most arduous functions; and, in short, evince all the sound characteristics of a most deep and devoted missionary. We must not overlook the great Christian good achieved, whether in those rare and transient visitations by which they intersect our land, or in that multitude of fabrics, where they permanently emanate the lessons of the Gospel, and by which they have beautified, with frequent spots of surpassing verdure, the face of our island.”