One of the major days in the Christian calendar is Epiphany. For virtually all the Christians I know, Epiphany is not as big a deal as Christmas. It is hard to gauge how significant Christmas really is because of all the hype and commercialism that goes with the Christmas season. In fact for many people, there is no religious significance to Christmas. It is merely a long shopping time, which begins in late October and reaches a crescendo by the Christmas Day itself. Of course, I am not recognizing the authentic meaning and depth Christmas has for so many people.
Epiphany is different. While it is less than two weeks later than Christmas and, indeed, is now the bookend to Christmas itself, it is far less known and probably less celebrated. In fact, many Protestant traditions do not recognize nor celebrate Epiphany. Growing up as a Quaker, I never heard of it. I am not sure when I first heard the word. Churches that are much more liturgical, i.e. Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, etc., were aware of Epiphany and would have celebrated it on January 6 or the Sunday closest to that.
What I learned when I studied religion is the background and meaning of Epiphany. I also learned that within the Orthodox tradition, it was the day of the manifestation of God in the person of Jesus. In the Greek tradition the word for Epiphany day is theophany, which literally means “manifestation of the divine.” The Christmas story we hear on December 25 is the story drawn from some of the Gospels, namely, the account of the baby Jesus born in a manger, etc. But that is nothing else than a particular narrative form of God’s manifestation.
The key idea of Epiphany is that God is here and God is visible---you can actually see what God is like and how God works in the world. That is the role of the life of Jesus---his life is the epiphany, the manifestation. I must admit when I learned this kind of material, it made the whole Christmas season much more understandable and relatable. I will confess that I actually like Epiphany more than Christmas itself.
Like all of the major holidays in the Christian calendar, Epiphany has its scriptural basis. In this case it is the second chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. This is the story of the three magi or kings, as it often is called. That chapter opens by telling the reader Jesus had been born in Bethlehem during the time of King Herod. The three magi came from the East to see the baby and “king of the Jews.” (Mt 2:2) The presence of these wise men from the East raises concerns in Herod’s mind, so he summons them to help him find this new little royal figure.
The story concludes with the wise men making it to Bethlehem and offering the three gifts---gold, frankincense and myrrh. Of course, no kid has a clue what those last two gifts are! And then, we are told the wise men are led to go home via a new way in order to avoid King Herod. As such, the story ends on a high note.
Rather than commenting on that high note, I am intrigued by the fearful figure of Herod. Herod is King and he does not want to share that nor does he want any threats. To hear there is a new king born raises alarms. I am assuming Herod is significantly egocentric, so this heightens his wariness. As King, he controls not only his own future, but also those of his people. He wants it that way.
So the story that follows the Epiphany text is quite important. At some point Herod knew the wise men from the East were not coming back to work with him to destroy the new little “king of the Jews.” So Herod ratcheted up his manipulative plans. He decreed that all kids two years and under around Bethlehem be killed. A friend of mine says this was Herod’s plot to kill the future. I couldn’t put it more starkly.
This is always the threat to God’s presence in our world. The threat is to kill that presence, in order that our own agendas can go forward. Especially for those of us who are egocentric and more controlling of our futures (and sometimes other folks’ futures, too), God’s presence is a threat. It threatens to seize control from us and provide other people and other programs to go forward. What happens if I am not king?
I find this sobering because I realize how easy it is to kill my own future. I can do it by a million ways. I do it by staying in control of my own life, instead of obeying the leading of God’s presence in the world. And I am sure I have intended to kill the future of others. For that I am sad. No doubt, I have attempted to be god in their lives. And when I am trying to be god, Epiphany is not good news!
So I appreciate Epiphany. It is a reminder that God is with us. And since it includes the Herod story, it is clear reminder of my own petty tendencies to control, manipulate and mess up my own future and, often, that of others. I welcome again the good news of Epiphany.