Even though most of us began celebrating it on Sunday, today is the traditional date of the Feast of the Epiphany – the “manifestation” of Christ in the world. And despite the image at the top of this post,* I have something shocking to tell you: today is not the anniversary of the magi’s visit to the Christ child.
Not because we in the west don’t focus upon the magi today (and this past Sunday). But because the Epiphany, like any liturgical celebration, is not an anniversary, it’s an anamnesis – a fancy theological word for a remembrance that is not simply a past event, but also a present event for us, and an anticipation of a future event. If we forget the present and future of Epiphany, if we reduce it to celebrating an anniversary of something that happened “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” then we miss something possibly important for our spiritual lives here and now. And, in our time, I would argue that celebrating Epiphany as a promise in the future towards which we are pilgriming may be a comfort for us and an opportunity for growth.
First, some history. The feast of the Epiphany is one of the earliest feasts of the Christian church, earlier than the feast of the Incarnation. (For a great overview, see Martin Connell’s Eternity Today, Volume 1.) And, as continues in the celebration in the Eastern churches, it has never been just about the Magi, but also wove two other scriptural events in which Christ as God’s presence in the world was made manifest at the beginning of the story, his baptism by John in the Jordan and the first sign of the Gospel of John, the miracle at Cana. (Don’t fret, we’ll get at least the baptism next Sunday in the West, though we’ll have to wait for Lectionary Year C next year to get Cana on the 2nd Sunday of ordinary time, both vestiges of the earlier multivalent celebration.) In all three of these events, Christ is made known to us – and possibly to himself, in the baptism – as the Christ, as the light to the Gentiles, as the Beloved Son with whom God is well pleased, as the Bridegroom who kicks off the wedding feast. In relation to the events of Christmas, which is almost like a private revelation for Mary, Joseph, some shepherds, and some lucky, lucky donkeys, the Epiphany is Coming Out Day for the Word made Flesh. To paraphrase/mangle the Zen koan and John 1, if the true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world, but nobody was enlightened by it…well, you see the issue. The Epiphany liturgically makes that enlightenment real and present for us, which makes it so much more the anniversary of three magi stumbling into a barn.
Many of our thoughts and sermons for this feast, like most good sermons, will focus upon bringing the truth of these past events and their significance forward to our present. How do we keep our eyes open for the manifestation of Christ in our own lives? How do we live so as to be manifestations of Christ to others, turning their water, or worse, into wine? How do we who have been adopted as children of God hear his voice of love telling us, “You are my beloved child”?
But the futurity of the feast, its eschatological nature, to use another theological term that focuses upon the completion of the story begun in Christ at the end of and beyond time, is less remarked upon and, I think, of great comfort, at least to me. Because the light of God manifested in Christ at these epiphanies is not always so clear, so bright, so easy a star to follow as the one the wise persons saw. In our world and in my own prayer life, there are a lot more cloudy days than bright sunshine. Without reciting a whole litany of the darknesses of our world – though the realities of structural racism in my country have most weighed on me this Christmas season – one can see quite clearly how often the light of Christ is obscured. Without oversharing about my own spiritual life, I can affirm, as many others likely can, that these weeks after Christmas can be a place of great darkness for those of us in the northern hemisphere. In a song titled “February,” Dar Williams wrote “And I think Christmas/was a long red flare/shot up like a warning/we gave presents without cards/and then the snow, then the snow came.” The party is over, the presents are opened, and yet our longings for ourselves and for our world are left unfulfilled.
If Epiphany is only about the past and then present, then we are stuck wondering why we can’t perceive the light that has come into the world; we might even blame ourselves for not being faithful enough, or not celebrating Christmastide well enough to really obtain the “true meaning of Christmas.”
But if Epiphany is also a celebration of the future, then it can be a feast of hope. The clouds have obscured the light, but we have faith that it is there, in and through the flashes of Christ, of God’s presence in the world, that we can continue to be on the lookout for. Traditionally, on Epiphany, the date of Easter is announced, already pushing us forward to fuller experience of the paschal mystery. But most importantly, in the eschatological life of the Christian living in between the “already” of Christ’s birth and the “not yet” of the reign of God, Epiphany closes our celebration of Christmas by putting us right back where we started – in Advent. In waiting. In a call to watch, struggle, and pray for the light coming into the world, with the surer knowledge that it is there, slowly yet surely burning away the clouds.
*This image comes from the website of St. John Chrysostom’s Church in Manchester, England, which includes information on the prayer used for blessing a home on Epiphany, with C+M+B standing either for the names of the magi, Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, or the Latin Christus mansionem benedicat, “May Christ bless this house.”