Sunday, January 6, 2013

Epiphany: More Than Just the Wise Men

As we enter the season of Epiphany, inevitably someone will ask “What is Epiphany really all about? Is it just about remembering the Wise Men when they visited the Christ Child?” While the visitation of the Magi from the East is certainly part of the answer, there is more that can be said that will hopefully enrich our understanding of Epiphany, and why it is still an important part of the Church Year. Epiphany comes from the Greek word epiphaneia , which means “appearance” or “manifestation”.
In a sense, Epiphany is the final crescendo or climax of the Advent and Christmas Seasons. Counting forward from December 25th, it is also referred to as the Twelfth Day of Christmas. It extends from the traditional date of January 6th until the beginning of Lent. Like Easter and Christmas, Epiphany is an occasion for feasting in some cultures. If you've ever lived in a French-American Roman Catholic community in the deep south you may be familiar with the custom of baking a special “King's Cake” as part of a family observance of Epiphany.
As the name implies, one of the overarching themes during this season is “appearances” or “manifestations”. In our Scripture readings, this theme of appearances is initiated with the familiar story of the Wise Men from the East (Matthew 2:1-12); the appearance of the star which leads them to the newborn King of the Jews – the manifestation of God made flesh. During this season, this theme continues with the Baptism of Jesus, which is marked with a glorious manifestation of each Person of the Holy Trinity. The subsequent readings during Epiphany will vary from year to year, but generally include familiar passages such as excerpts from the Sermon on the Mount, the Calling of the Twelve, and the Wedding at Cana. These passages have an underlying thread that illustrates God's faithfulness by His coming and appearing before us for the purpose of teaching, nurturing, and caring for His
people as He traverses ultimately to the cross that awaits Him. The Epiphany season concludes with a reading about another manifestation of God that rivals the glory and majesty of the Lord's Baptism, with striking parallels: Christ's Transfiguration, as recorded in Matthew 17, Mark 9, and Luke 9. Again, the God-Man is glorified before some onlookers and the voice of the Father is heard again saying: “This is My beloved Son...”.
Our hymnody during Epiphany reflects this as well. Yes, we do sing of the visitation of the Wise Men, such as in “The Star Proclaims the King Is Here”, but there are several that speak of directly of the glorious manifestations of the Lord's baptism and the grace and mercy He offers us:
This the baptism that our Savior greatly longed to undergo
This the crimson cleansing needed so the world God's love might know
This the mission of Messiah as He stepped from Jordan's stream
He, the chosen and anointed Son of God, sent to redeem.
Jesus, Once with Sinners Numbered (LSB 404)

During this time in our services, we reply back to God with humble thanks and praise, as so beautifully illustrated in the Gradual for Epiphany, taken from Psalms 117 and 96:
Praise the Lord, all nations!
Extol him, all peoples!
For great is His steadfast love toward us
and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever.
Ascribe to the Lord the glory due His name;
Bring an offering, and come into His courts!

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