Epiphany Day

The word “epiphany” has been overused the last few years. Many people use it as a synonym for discovery, especially a discovery about one’s self. The word means “shining out” or “shining upon.” In the original Greek of the New Testament it usually refers to the glory or grace of God shining upon his people, although in Acts 27:20 it is used literally of the sun and stars.

In the traditional Christian calendar, the season of Epiphany follows the twelve days of Christmas and extends to the night before Ash Wednesday, which  starts the penitential season of Lent. The Sundays of Epiphany are bookmarked by the first Sunday of the season, in which the Baptism of Jesus is considered, and the last Sunday of the season, which recalls his Transfiguration (in which Jesus literally shone with light). On both occasions, the voice of God the Father claims Jesus as his Son. The other Sundays of the season also reflect upon the evidence that Jesus is God’s Son and the world’s Savior, evidence coming from his miracles and from his teachings.

The Day of Epiphany, January 6, is a festival which remembers the visit of the Magi to Bethlehem to honor the King of the Jews. This event is also evidence of the identity of Jesus, as these foreigners honor him with gifts worthy of a king—gold, frankincense, and myrrh. As poems and songs over the centuries have revealed, these gifts describe the identity of Jesus as “king and priest and sacrifice.”

The Bible does not say how many Magi came bringing these gifts. Traditionally they are depicted as three—one for each gift—and many depictions of the Magi show one as Asian, one as African, and one as European. This reflects the theme that Jesus, as King of the Jews, is Lord and Savior of the entire world. As an artistic theme, it is beautiful, but it is not historically accurate. Historians debate the origin of the Magi. Because the word is Persian, some think they came from Persia. However, the word was in general use by this time in history. Others think that, because they were following a star, they came from Babylon, the center of astrological studies. Since the Word of God forbids astrology, this interpretation is problematic. The best hint of their origin is the gifts that they brought. Usually gifts to a king (or other national leader) represent the products of the givers’ homeland. The one part of the world which produces all three gifts—gold, frankincense, and myrrh—is Arabia.

Moreover, the only prophecy linking the King of the Jews to a star came, not from a prophet of Israel, but from an Arab prophet named Balaam. “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near; a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the forehead of Moab and break down all the sons of Sheth” (Numbers 24:17). Who was more likely than the Arabs to preserve this prophecy and to discern its fulfillment?

Picture a group of Arabs showing up in Jerusalem asking for the newborn King of the Jews. The man the Romans had named king of the Jews, Herod, was an Idumean, not a Jew. He was suspicious of any threat to his rule, even killing his own sons for fear they would take the kingdom from him. When his scholars showed Herod and the Magi that the Messiah should be born in Bethlehem (so he could inherit the throne of David), Herod first tried to trick the Magi into leading him to the child, then ordered the murder of all the young boys in Bethlehem. Warned by an angel, Joseph took Jesus and his mother to Egypt, sparing his life as a child so he could later save the world by his sacrifice.

The nature of the star that led the Magi to Jesus is also uncertain. It probably was not a comet or a nova, since ancient civilizations do not report such an event at the right time in history. A very scholarly website links the star of Bethlehem with the motion of the planet Jupiter, involving retrograde motion near the star Regulus at approximately the right time. While I appreciate the thoroughness of the research and its faithfulness to the Biblical record, I am uncomfortable with its reliance on astrological symbols to communicate to the world the Incarnation of the Son of God. Given that God spoke at other times through the casting of dice, I suppose I cannot totally dismiss the possibility. J.

 

Advertisements

Super Advent

The season of Advent begins on Sunday November 27 this year. Because Christmas is on a Sunday, Advent is a full twenty-eight days this year—the longest Advent can be. For this reason, I have decided to label this year’s Advent a Super Advent. We will not have another Super Advent until 2022.

This month the moon reached its perigee while it was full. (The perigee is the nearest the moon comes to the earth during its elliptical orbit.) The nearness of the full moon made it seem a little larger than usual on the 14th, especially when it was closest to the horizon. This effect of a larger moon has been labeled a Supermoon.

Advent always begins on a Sunday. Therefore, when Christmas is on a Monday, Advent is only twenty-two days long. This year’s Super Advent reaches the other extreme. But what is Advent? Advent is less a countdown toward Christmas than it is a spiritual and emotional preparation for Christmas. While the rest of the world is bustling with Christmas preparations and early Christmas celebrations, Advent is an island of calm, a quiet time of reflection for Christians. Congregations that observe Christmas all the Sundays of December are missing an opportunity. Congregations that observe Advent offer an opportunity to consider why Christmas matters to Christians.

The word “advent” means “coming.” During Advent, Christians think about the coming of Jesus. Advent is a royal season, as we await the coming of a King. Yet it is also a somber time when we reflect upon our sins and upon the price the King chose to pay to claim us for his Kingdom.

During Advent Christians sometimes think of three advents of Christ. We think of his first coming to be our Savior. We reflect upon the prophecies and pictures of Christ in the Old Testament and upon the people of Israel waiting for the Son of David. We think of his second coming to be the world’s Judge. We do not fear his judgment, because we know he has already given himself (in his first advent) as a ransom so we will not be judged and condemned. Therefore we rejoice to welcome him on the Day of the Lord when we will see him coming in the sky with all the angels and all the saints. Meanwhile, we think of another advent of Christ which happens every day. “I will be with you always,” Jesus promised the apostles, and his promise to them is true to us as well. Jesus comes to us in his Word and in the blessings of his Church. He comes as Savior, as Ransom, and as King. He comes to claim us and to make us his forever.

During this Super Advent we have twenty-eight days to think about the Advent of our God. May these four full weeks of Advent enrich your Christmas celebrations. J.

Second Sunday of Easter

Many Tuesdays I stop at the bank, which means that I have a different route coming home from work. Since late February, one of the houses I pass on that route had decorated a tree by the road—it was filled with plastic Easter eggs. All through March, every time I drove past that house I wondered how long into the Easter season that tree would remain decorated. As I suspected, when I drove past that house on Easter Tuesday, the tree was already bare of Easter decorations.

What is it with our culture? Why do we celebrate major holidays before they arrive, only to pack up our celebration before they have ended? Christmas decorations appear in November, even in October, but they are packed and put into storage before half of the twelve days of Christmas are ended. With Easter also, the anticipation of the holiday is filled with bright colors and springtime decorations, but once the last egg is found some time Sunday afternoon and the last Easter candy is eaten sometime Easter Monday, the holiday is over for another year.

The traditional Christian Church does not treat Easter that way. For forty days (plus six Sundays) the Church observes the solemn season of Lent—a time to repent of our sins and meditate on the price the Lord paid to redeem us from those sins. The songs in church are somber; the decorations are minimal. Then, Easter morning, sometimes before sunrise (in the earliest traditions, at midnight), the Good News is announced. “The Lord is risen.” “He is risen indeed! Alleluia!” Flowers fill the church with color, hymns of joy and praise are sung with enthusiasm, and Christians rejoice in the news of Christ’s resurrection, a guarantee of our own resurrection.

Christmas lasts twelve days. Easter lasts seven weeks. Why seven? Seven is a number of completeness; as God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh (according to the book of Genesis), and as the Church on earth is represented by seven lampstands and seven congregations (in the book of Revelation), so seven weeks of Easter marks the completeness of joy Christians receive from the Good News of the Lord’s resurrection.

Christ was crucified and returned to life during the festival of Passover. For forty days he appeared to his disciples, strengthening them, preparing them to do the work of the Church. After he ascended into heaven, another ten days passed. Then, in Luke’s quotation of Jesus, the disciples were “clothed in glory from on high.” The Holy Spirit was poured out on them during the festival of Pentecost, a festival commanded by God through Moses along with the Passover festival and the autumn observances.

Easter is seven weeks long—forty-nine days—so it can be longer than the season of Lent. Christians repent of our sins, but our joy exceeds even our repentance. Darkness lasts a nighttime, but light prevails in the morning. On the second Sunday of Easter, Christians still rejoice that “Christ is risen.” “He is risen indeed! Alleluia!”

I hope and pray that your Easter joy has not fizzled and been forgotten. In a sense, every Sunday is a miniature Easter, a weekly reminder of Christ’s resurrection. As the resurrection of the Lord happened on the eighth day of Holy Week, beginning something new, so the Holy Spirit was poured out on the disciples of Jesus on the eighth Sunday of Easter, beginning something new. In the Lord, we are new always. J.

 

Trinity Sunday, part one

Trinity Sunday—a long-standing tradition in the Christian Church—is observed one week after Pentecost Sunday. On Pentecost, Christians remember the work of the Holy Spirit in the world and in the church. On Trinity Sunday, Christians contemplate the mystery that the one God is three Persons and that God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are one God.

In a future post I will write more about this theological mystery. On this occasion, I want only to address a part of that reality—the way the three Persons of the one God deal with Christians. Over the ages, Christians have tended to model theology with reference to these three Persons. From the earliest creeds of the Church to the most recent volumes of systematic theology, references are made to God the Father and his work of creation, to God the Son and his work of redemption, and to God the Holy Spirit and his work of sanctification.

Even this traditional way of talking about God can be misleading, since it tends to support the idea that the three Persons are three gods, not one God. This confusion is reversed by realizing that the three Persons do not act alone—all three are involved in creation, in redemption, and in sanctification. For example, God the Father is often called the Creator, but the first chapter of John’s Gospel and the second chapter of Paul’s letter to the Colossians both specifically state that Jesus the Son of God was intimately involved in creation. The second verse of the Bible says that God the Holy Spirit was involved in creation.

Likewise, while only the Son of God became human, lived according to the Law of God, died on a cross, and rose again from the dead, all three Persons of the one God are involved in redemption. God the Father planned the redeeming work of his Son and sent him to do that work, and God the Holy Spirit guided him in that work. Moreover, the Father and the Son are involved in the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit grants the gift of faith, but when Peter confessed his faith, Jesus told him that his faith came from God the Father (Matthew 16:15-17). Jesus also promised that he would send the Holy Spirit to his followers, and on occasion God the Holy Spirit is described as the Spirit of Jesus.

Does it matter which Person of God does which work in the world? It matters mostly that Christians understand that the work of Jesus was not his work alone but is the work of all three Persons of the Triune God. Trinity Sunday reminds us of the unity of the one God and the unity of all the work he does.

I have one more observation to make about the Holy Trinity, and this observation will lead into tomorrow’s blog. When religious people consider God the Father and the work of creation, many people can agree on this aspect of God. Jews, Muslims, and Christians of many kinds all agree that there is one God and that he created heaven and earth and everything that exists. The First Article (belief in God the Father and the work of creation) unites many religious people.

Jews and Muslims and some who call themselves Christian do not believe in God the Son. They consider Jesus a prophet and a teacher (or else a myth or a fraud), and they deny that he is the only-begotten Son of God. For most Christians, faith in Jesus separates their religion from the other religions of the world. The Second Article (belief in Jesus the Son of God and in the work of redemption) unites Christians and distinguishes them from other religious people.

Christians are largely divided about the work of the Holy Spirit. Some expect him to regularly perform the miracles he performed in Jerusalem on Pentecost. Others expect him simply to create faith in the Christian’s heart and to guide that believer in Christian living. Some groups of Christians hardly speak at all of the Holy Spirit. The Third Article (belief in God the Holy Spirit and the work of sanctification) divides Christians more than any other differences.

More about this tomorrow.

J.