Have you ever had an epiphany? That moment when something became so clear and present that you exclaimed, “Wow! Now I get it!” On January 6, long after others have put away their Christmas decorations, Western Christians complete their celebration of the Twelve Days of Christmas with the Feast of the Epiphany. Eastern Orthodox Christians, who use a different calendar, begin their Christmas celebrations on January 7 this year (the date moves around from year to year), so they have to wait for their Epiphany.
Anyway, one might ask what is Epiphany? Like many churchy words, it’s from the Greek and means ‘to be made clearly visible, or present.’ It remembers the wise men, magi, who visited the baby Jesus in Bethlehem months after his birth. They were foreign gentiles, not Jews. Their arrival was a big surprises to everyone, especially Herod, king of the Jews. He was not happy to hear from these strangers about the birth of a new king. Nevertheless, God led them to the place where Mary, Joseph and Jesus were. Their visit made it obvious that God’s word made flesh in Jesus was to be made known to all the earth. In spite of the song, they weren’t kings, and no one knows how many there were. It’s only recorded that they brought three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. Gold, a gift fit for a king. Frankincense, incense to lift prayers to God. Myrrh, spice to anoint the dead. Each foreshadowed an important element in Jesus’ life.
No one is entirely certain how celebrating Epiphany got started on January 6, but it was first celebrated by Egyptian Christians about 200 years after the time of Jesus. It not only remembered the visit of the wise men, but also celebrated the start of Jesus’ adult ministry when God’s voice declared him to be Son of God after his baptism in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. A little too complicated? Don’t worry about it.
As the Christmas season draws to a close, Epiphany declares that the power of God’s redeeming love is not just for some people, but for all people in every place. Christians don’t own it. They’re simply called to be bearers of it for the benefit of others. It’s a remarkable change of direction. Prior to Jesus, God’s revelation through prophets and sages was understood to be selective and exclusive, with God’s favor limited to certain people, and denied to all others. Epiphany declares that God’s favor is extended to every person who ever lived, or ever will live, and to the whole of creation, without limit. That’s not an easy thing to grasp. We humans tend to close our circles, and are not good at sharing, so it’s a work in progress for us to understand God’s unlimited love. We’re only a few thousand years into it, and have a long way to go. We’re slow learners.
In the meantime, Epiphany is supposed to remind Christians that, although following Jesus may take them through darkness and danger, there is nothing that can take life and light away from them. Moreover, they’re obligated to bring that light and life as a gift to others, and receive it as a gift from others as they go along the way. As each is able, they are instructed to be agents of God’s healing, reconciling love, and to participate in manifesting God’s favor through their words and actions.
Epiphany lives out the well know passage from the 23rd psalm: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. Your rod and staff comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil, and my cup is running over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.” Martin Luther’s famous hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is our God,” puts it this way “[L]et goods and kindred go, this mortal life also, the body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still, his kingdom is forever.”