"The last and greatest day of the feast": traditional piety and Cosin's Epiphany sermons

In his sermon preached on the Eve of the Epiphany, 1653, to the exiled Court in Paris, John Cosin invoked an Epiphany sermon by "father Latimer" critiquing aspects of medieval cult of the Three Kings. Alongside this, however, Cosin's sermon offered a rather traditional Epiphany piety.   

Preaching on the Second Sunday after Christmas - a day for which the BCP appointed no Collect, Epistle, or Gospel - he took his text from the Gospel appointed for the Epiphany, explaining the significance of the feast as the culmination of Christmas:

There came wise men .... and said, For we have seen, His star in the east.

This text will be part of the Gospel which is appointed to be read in the Church to-morrow, and to-morrow will be the last day of the twelve which are appointed to wait upon the feast of Christ's blessed Nativity. The last day of the feast, and, as St. John said of another, the last and the greatest day of the feast to us; for by this last day we cone to have but interest in the first, and by the light of this star to find out our right way to Christ.

I shall therefore take the opportunity of our meeting here together to-day, (which of all the twelve is the nearest to the last,) to look upon those Persons that looked upon this star, and to take our text out of that Gospel which belongs to the duty of Christ's Epiphany, the rather because this present Sunday (as by the course of our calendar it now falls out), hath no other proper Gospel of its own assigned to it.

This reference here to "the last and greatest day of the feast" repeats a phrase he employed in his 1621 Epiphany sermon:

We are still at the feast of Christmas, and this is the last and great day of the feast.

That this is Cosin's earliest extant sermon and that he was then 27 years old suggests that this was a young cleric reflecting wider practice and understanding (mindful that the sermon was also delivered on the Second Sunday after Epiphany in Coton Parish Church, where Cosin's mentor John Hayward was incumbent) .  Also noteworthy in both sermons is the explicit acknowledgement of the traditional "twelve days" festivities.  Indeed, in the 1621 sermon Cosin lauds Epiphany as "the greatest of all the twelve".

While his 1653 sermon referenced Latimer's attack on the medieval cult of the Three Kings, connected with the shrines at Cologne and Saragossa, this did not stop Cosin referring to and defending the language of 'kings' regarding the Magi:

For so much we have of them in this chapter, whereby we may fairly and clearly collect that they were men of some higher note and regard than other common men were. And the prophecies that went of them before call them no less than kings and princes; to-morrow you shall have two lessons that call them so, more than once, (five or six times together,) besides that prophecy in the Psalms which hath been usually applied to them in the Church, that the kings of the isles should come and offer Him presents, the kings of Arabia and Sheba should come and fall down before Him with their gifts ...

I had rather it should be so than otherwise; both for the honour of kings, that Christ should first of all call them to him before all others; and for the honour of us all, that kings should be our first leaders to Christ, and ... the standard-bearers of our true religion towards Him. He that hath not a malignant eye to one of these three, either to Christ Himself; or to the presents that are brought him, or to them that bring Him the presents, will be willing enough to let them he here, as Isaiah called them long before, to let them be kings.

Here too Cosin was echoing his 1621 sermon which had urged the appropriateness of describing the Magi as 'kings', as they were "men of no small account, as likely to be kings, such as they had in these parts, as any else".  Noting "the old custom of the Church" to apply prophetic texts from the Old Testament to the Magi, Cosin counselled, "I would not be too boisterous to condemn and think every thing popery that we read not in the text".  

The 1621 sermon also evokes a traditional piety by placing the journey of the Magi in winter, saying that the Lord's Nativity occurred "in a cold, winter night":

For the winter, our yearly observation of the feast will tell us it was so.

Interestingly, both sermons conclude with references for the need for shorter preaching because of the season's festivities.  In 1621, Cosin ended with a rather touching description of festive joy and the need for preachers to recognise this:

And now we have followed them thus far, and are come along with them to Jerusalem, fain would we see what they do there, and so go along with them to Bethlehem too. But it is even fallen out as I told you I feared before, it is grown late before we can go any further, and therefore best staying here, for if we should go on, there be so many steps to be taken in the way, that the night would overtake us ere we should get to the text's end. But all the day must not be spent in preaching; and therefore since we are at Jerusalem, the city of peace, crying 'Glory be to God on high, and peace on earth,' let us take the peace of God along with us and so depart for this time.

In his 1653 sermon, there is again a reference to seasonal festivity but also to the administration of the Sacrament for the feast:

And because both the season is to be regarded, and the Sacrament to be attended, I will therefore suffer the time to take me here off from this sermon.

Administering the Holy Sacrament at the Epiphany was an obvious indication of the significance of the feast, suggestive of how Cosin viewed the Epiphany as "the last and the greatest day of the feast" of Christmas.  Taken alongside the 1621 sermon, it evidences a rich and traditional Epiphany piety present in the Jacobean and Caroline Church, sustained during the Interregnum.  In words from the 1621 sermon:

And indeed this is our Christmas-day, that were Gentiles.

(The picture of Coton Parish Church, Cambridgeshire, where Cosin delivered his Epiphany sermon for the second time in 1621.)


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