In last week’s email to Ascension’s diaspora I mentioned that our recent Christmas and New Year celebrations had an arbitrary ‘man-made’ quality about them in terms of when we have them. Observing Jesus’ birth could happen at any time. (I suppose you might want to have it a ‘distance’ from Jesus’ death but even that doesn’t have to be the case; in fact one early theory for celebrating 25 December as Jesus’ birth comes from the idea that Jesus entered the world (conception) and died on the same day – calculated as 25 March – hence 25 December 9 months later.) As for New Year – we can change the year (out with the old and in with the new) one any day. Of course once these celebrations begin, the question becomes ‘Why would you change them?’ but if a good enough reason was found, then perhaps it would be done.
Today we’re observing The Festival of The Epiphany a day ‘early’. The 6th January has a long pedigree of Christian observance combining at times Jesus’ birth, the arrival of the Magi, Jesus’ baptism and even the wedding at Cana (his first miracle). Over the centuries differing emphases have occurred between Western and Eastern Christendom. So our Lutheran lectionary advises us that tomorrow – Monday – we should journey with the Wise Men and next Sunday (the first Sunday after The Epiphany) to be in the crowd at the River Jordan as Jesus is baptised. The Church ‘covers’ in a few Sundays thirty years of Jesus’ life. Then until Ash Wednesday we remain onlookers as we glimpse aspects of Jesus’ life after The Epiphany. (Strictly Epiphany isn’t a season of the Church Year as Advent, Lent and Easter are – the Sundays between 6 January and Ash Wednesday are just that – Sundays … after The Epiphany.)
Epiphany means ‘manifestation’ and refers to where God is revealed. Another word used here is ‘theophany’ – an appearance of god. The Church is celebrating that God has revealed himself for the Gentiles (as represented by the Magi) through a celestial sign which was ‘fine tuned’ by God’s Word when the prophet Micah was consulted. ‘But you, O Bethlehem Eph-rathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days’ (Micah 5:2 ESV). In this case, the heavens and the page point to a little boy (we have no idea of Je-sus’ age at this point – somewhere up to 2 years old – if we go by Herod’s response) and we are still saying today ‘There is the Son of God!’.
The world shakes its head, perplexed but also stubborn and fearful. Gods shouldn’t look so ‘normal’ – like one of us. Part of this manifestation is also the fact that God doesn’t work to our standards or versions of what is divine. (What can it mean when this Son of God hangs on a cross?!) Christians have learnt that to meet or see God one needs to encounter Jesus. Follow him. See what he’s doing. Jesus acts now through words, water, bread and wine and again God isn’t working to our standards and versions of what is divine. And when we re-spond to what we see, hear, and receive, we find the only thing we can do is also bow down and worship him. — GS