Today is the Feast of the Epiphany, the “manifestation,” or, in a looser translation, the “coming out” of the newborn Christ in the world. In the Christian West, over a very complicated history, we focused primarily on the Magi from the Gospel of Matthew. But in the Christian East, three events at the beginning of Jesus’ “public” life were considered the manifestations of the events that began with his conception and birth: the visit of the Magi, the baptism by John in the Jordan, and the wedding at Cana from John’s Gospel. Don’t worry, we westerners don’t get shortchanged – we get the baptism next week, and the wedding at Cana the week after that. Just like the sacraments of initiation, we decided to spread things out and make them more complicated…
So keeping in mind not just today’s readings about the three kings, why is Epiphany important? Why is it more than just the oft-forgotten conclusion to an already truncated Christmas season?
Before you ask, I am one of those people who go around complaining about people taking their Christmas trees down on December 26th and limiting the celebration of Christmas to just one day. But simply whining about that or pompously pointing that out to one’s neighbors begins to look a bit like mocking someone for wearing white after Labor Day – you aren’t wrong (especially on the Labor Day thing), but you haven’t given them any reason to change their habits other than the repetition of the formula. You haven’t given them any good news.
The good news of the Epiphany, in all of its forms, can be found in the living through of the liturgical season and the loose correlation with our lives that the tradition of the church pulls us into like a magnet. Think back to the living through of Advent that we spend much more time and energy upon. It’s got its own hymns, its own feel, its own material culture – anything involving purple candles is going to be a hit with the two tastemakers in your local parish, the children and the liturgists. And in Advent we can enter into the spirituality of waiting – waiting for a God who seems to be absent, waiting for a Christ who we know is coming but seems to taking his sweet time, waiting for the world, outside and inside, to be healed.
The good news of the Epiphany is that, as in our lives, the waiting doesn’t stop, but it changes. If Christmas celebrates the kenotic entry of God into our world as a poor illegal immigrant kid of a single mother and her boyfriend, Epiphany anticipates the manifestation of Christ in glory at the fulfillment of the world. If Christmas celebrates the quiet of the cave, Epiphany anticipates the voice from heaven, the beginning of the wedding feast, the nations of the world joining together and sharing their gifts. On Epiphany, we return, liturgically, to the vision of the first weeks of Advent, the vision of God’s coming in glory, might, and power. Just as the infancy narratives tell the story of Christ in miniature at the beginning of Matthew and Luke, our Epiphany celebrations anticipate, again, not just the end of Christmas, but the End, the recapitulation of all things in God’s Christ. Epiphany is not only a “Little Christmas”, but also a “Little Second Coming.”
If the waiting of Advent makes one aspect of our spiritual waiting liturgically present, the waiting of Epiphany plays out in a different key. For most of us, in most of our lives, the presence of God is like that of Christmas – hidden in a cave, a single star over a dark stable, sung by angels at midnight. But we long for the clarity of an epiphany. We long to walk by sight and not by faith, and to see our God in the clear daytime as in the heavenly Jerusalem. We hope to have the often brackish water of our daily lives turned into rich, choice wine. We still wait, for the voice of the Father from heaven speaking out with the clarity and the force of a thunderclap. But that is not often given to us yet. And so with Epiphany we begin waiting again, waiting with the joy of our knowledge of the quiet Christ child within us, yet with the hope for something more, something brighter, something clearer.
Epiphany is not the conclusion to a season so much as a primary celebration of the in-between of Christian time – already, we know Christ in our hearts, in our churches, in our lives, but there is yet more to come. Not just a little Christmas, this little Second Coming makes present the glory of the world to come. Keeping Epiphany well means treasuring God’s gifts in the quiet before the dawn, and keeping alert for the trumpet blast. The voice that we hear in whispers today we hope to hear shouted from the rooftops soon: “You are my child, with whom I am well pleased.”