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Wednesday, January 06, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: Isaiah 43:1-7, Psalm 29:1-11, Acts 8:14-17, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

I’m writing this on Epiphany. So what is Epiphany? It’s a somewhat twisted tale—or trail.

In the Eastern Church (Russian and Greek Orthodox mainly), tomorrow (Jan. 7) is Christmas. I like that because it’s my birthday. Then there’s the Armenian Church that celebrates Christmas on Jan. 6 (Epiphany). The earliest reference to Epiphany as a Christian feast was in A.D. 361 by Ammianus Marcellinus, who described it a “Christ’s birthday, that is, His Epiphany.”

The most obvious explanation for the difference in the dating of Christmas is that the Eastern Church uses the older Julian Calendar, which differs from our Gregorian Calendar by 13 days.

The point is that Epiphany may be nothing more than another celebration of Christmas. I thought maybe it’s placement in the calendar of the church year was an attempt to accommodate or reconcile the two Christmases 9 (the twelve days of Christmas and all that), but it turns out that the Eastern Church celebrates Epiphany on Jan. 19, still using the Julian Calendar.

So, here we are, entering the season of Epiphany, starting with a day on which we traditionally remember the coming of the Wise Men to bow down and worship before Jesus, and a day which, in the Eastern Church focuses more upon the birth and baptism of Jesus. In our Western church calendar, this Sunday, Jan. 10, is labeled, “The Baptism of Our Lord.”

The word “epiphany” comes from the Greek, and simply means “manifestation.” It’s still all about “incarnation” or embodiment, the central focus of our celebration of Jesus’ birth—at least when we get beyond the tinsel and bright lights and reindeer.

My take on “epiphany,” though, is that it is more inner and spiritual than “incarnation.” In every day life, if we ever actually use the word “epiphany,” it is probably when we say something like, “That experience was an ‘epiphany’ for me,” an experience that opened my eyes, touched my spirit, helped me understand myself, the world around me, God, better. An epiphany is a moment when we are surprised by the welling up of eternity within us.

In the broadest sense, there is not just one epiphany in the stories of Jesus. If one were to look for a specific moment in Jesus’ life to call “The Epiphany,” it might be his baptism (described in this week's Gospel reading from Luke 3), when a voice from heaven said, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Jesus’ whole life, though, was a “manifestation” of eternal truth, the stories of his life drawing us in to inspire and challenge, to move and open, us—his birth, the transfiguration on the mountain top, his teaching moments and his touching (sometimes literally) encounters, his death and resurrection.

As the story continues, the experience of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is another epiphany. It is no surprise a scripture about receiving the Holy Spirit (from Acts, chapter 8) is included as one of the readings for this Sunday. Both that passage and the story in Luke deal with baptism, both of them suggesting that it is not the water that makes the difference. If one wants to get to the heart of things, experience a true epiphany, one has to pay attention to inner workings of God’s Spirit.

Isaiah 43 also connects, in a way, with baptism. “When you pass through the waters,” God says in verse 2, “I will be with you . . .” He talks about us being “precious” in his sight. “Do not fear, for I am with you . . .” Psalm 29 speaks of the voice of the Lord over the waters, in the thunder, shaking the wilderness, and so much more. Epiphanies all around us.

A footnote: I haven’t said much about the visit of the Magi, which most informed Christians know wasn’t part of a time gathered around the manger. They came later, when Jesus was in a “house.” Look it up in Matthew 2:11. Although their story is not one of the readings for this Sunday, they are central to the Western Church’s celebration of Epiphany. Some have seen them as the first Gentiles (“non-Jews”) to worship before Jesus. They symbolize the reach of his truth beyond any nationalist and/or parochial boundaries. This week's reading from Acts has some of the same dynamics. Even the Samaritans “accepted the word of God” and “received the Holy Spirit,” although they had to wait for the arrival of Peter and John for the Spirit to come. Therein is another story for another time—about church politics and authority.

Finally, while Epiphany is a time to keep our eyes and ears and hearts open for moments of revelation, epiphanies and theophanies that may be all about us, might it also be a time to realize and live out the fact that we ourselves are and/or can be epiphanies, revelations of God to those around us.

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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