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.

 

The Feast of the Transfiguration

Can you imagine seeing someone you know well suddenly begin to glow like a fluorescent light bulb? Jesus once provided this experience to Peter, James, and John, the inner circle within his twelve apostles. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record the time that Jesus took the three of them up on a high hillside in Galilee to pray. Suddenly his face was shining like the sun and his clothes were brilliant white, more white than any bleach could make them. With Jesus were Moses and Elijah, heroes of the Old Testament, discussing the “departure” of Jesus that he was about to fulfill in Jerusalem.

Today Peter would have taken a selfie with Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. He didn’t have the opportunity to take a picture, but he still tried to cling to the experience. He suggested putting up three tents so Jesus, Moses, and Elijah could stay on the hill. Presumably, Peter expected other people to climb the hill to visit with the three holy men. Instead, a cloud surrounded the hill, and God’s voice was heard saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen One—Listen to him!”

Liturgical Christians have chosen to close the season of Epiphany by remembering this event. During Epiphany, Christians have remembered the ways in which Jesus revealed his identity through his teaching and his miracles. Glowing with light might be the most impressive way Jesus had to demonstrate his true nature as the Son of God. Christians today want, like Peter, to hold on to the special times when Jesus seems close to them and peace and joy appear to be within reach. Sometimes congregations try to meet this desire with uplifting hymns and praise songs and a “worship experience” that dazzles the eyes and the ears and the brain. Jesus is not near only when his people are dazzled and uplifted. Sometimes his presence is felt most clearly during the dark night of the soul. Mountaintop experiences last a short time, but the reminder to “listen to him!” continues ringing long after the light has faded away.

For liturgical Christians, the Feast of the Transfiguration is somewhat of a holy Mardi Gras, a last blaze of glory before the somber time of Lent arrives. The secular Mardi Gras of the world seems designed only to give people a reason to repent and to regret their sins in coming days. Holy people do not use the excuse of a coming fast to “sin boldly.” They remain focused on Jesus during feasts and during fasts; they draw upon the power of his forgiveness to “go and sin no more.” All God’s people sin every day and need forgiveness every day. Even Moses and Elijah fell short of the glory of God. God’s forgiveness is real every day, and his love and mercy are worth celebrating every day.

Because of his sins, Moses was not permitted to enter the Promised Land. Before he died, he saw it from a distance, but he could not cross the river and set foot in the land. Moses first stood in the land when he stood with Jesus at his Transfiguration. His presence with Jesus in Galilee demonstrates that Jesus was completing the work of Moses. Moses delivered the Law to God’s people, but Jesus fulfilled the Law. Moses acted as a mediator for God’s people, praying for forgiveness when they sinned, but Jesus offered himself as a sacrifice as well as a mediator. Moses led his people through the wilderness but had to stop short at the border of the Promised Land; but Jesus leads his flock through the valley of the shadow of death, bringing us safely to the other side where we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

The joy of Transfiguration is but an echo of the joy of Easter. The greatest glory of Jesus was not to glow with light: the greatest glory of Jesus was to defeat sin and Satan and death and to offer forgiveness and life to the people he loves. If one rejoices in the blessings God has bestowed, or if one is hoping and waiting for greater blessings, each of us can be certain that the glory of our Savior has made us his forever. To him be the glory! J.

Epiphany

January 6 marks the beginning of the Epiphany season with the celebration of Epiphany Day. While many Christians in eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa are only now celebrating the birth of Jesus, western Christians are thinking now about his life and about his identity as the Son of God.

Before writers started using the word epiphany as a synonym for “realization” or “discovery,” traditional Christians were using the word epiphany to talk about their relationship with Jesus. The apostle Paul, for example, uses it in I Timothy 6:14 to speak of the appearing of Jesus on the Last Day. Since the root meaning of the word epiphany is shining out or shining forth, it can be used to describe a revelation or revealing. The idea of light is central to “epiphany,” which is why it best applies to Jesus, the Light of the world.

On Epiphany Day, western Christians recall the visit of a group of wise men to Bethlehem to worship the King of the Jews. These wise men may have been from Persia or from Babylon, but the gifts they brought suggest that they were Arabs. (Also, it was an Arab prophet named Balaam who associated the coming of Israel’s King with a star in the book of Numbers.) They brought three gifts, although the Bible does not say how many wise men came to Bethlehem. Many Christians have manger scenes in their homes that show three wise men (or kings) visiting the new-born Savior along with the shepherds and the farm animals. Matthew says that they found the child and his mother in a house in Bethlehem. One custom uses the figure of the manger scene to bring together Christmas and Epiphany: the figures of the wise men and their camels are moved from place to place in the house each of the twelve days of Christmas, finally arriving at the manger only on January 6, the day of Epiphany.

From this day on to the beginning of Lent, Christians focus on the evidence that Jesus is the Christ, the promised Savior, a light to enlighten the nations and the glory of Israel. His miracles are remembered—changing water into wine at a wedding celebration, healing diseases of many kinds, and similar acts of power. Traditionally, the final Sunday in the Epiphany season recalls the Transfiguration of Jesus, when he shone with light in the presence of his disciples Peter, James, and John, as well as the Old Testament heroes Moses and Elijah.

Epiphany is a time for Christians to remember and celebrate Jesus Christ, the Light of the world. As he shone in Bethlehem and in the towns of Galilee and in Jerusalem, so he shines in the lives of his people today. Through the writings of the apostles and the prophets he shines into the lives of people all over the world. Through the work of his Bride the Church, he shines upon many within the Church and many who are drawn to the Church. He has not stopped working miracles, but his greatest miracles are not physical healings and the casting out of demons. His greatest miracles are the forgiveness of sins, and the gift of faith, and the power that turns sinners into saints. May the light of Jesus the Son of God shine in your life this Epiphany season. J.