Epiphany

Epiphany, celebrated on 6 January at the end of the ’12 days of Christmas’ in the western churches, is one of the oldest festivals in the church calendar. There are clear references to it from the second half of the fourth century, although it may well have been celebrated by some communities much earlier, in which case it predated Christmas, which was celebrated on 25 December from the first half of the fourth century.

The word means ‘realisation’ and is associated with ideas of a sudden discovery, light dawning, the penny dropping, a ‘eureka’ moment. The festival celebrates the sudden discovery of who Jesus was and what his coming into the world meant for humanity.

Over the years, various aspects of the biblical narrative have been associated with Epiphany, all of them linked with this realisation:

  • The visit of the Magi, who not only revealed to Herod that a new king had been born but whose visit also revealed that the birth of this king was significant for Gentiles as well as Jews.
  • The baptism of Jesus, in which he was revealed as the ‘beloved son’ of God the Father, both human and divine.
  • The first revelatory sign at the wedding in Cana, when the disciples first realised something of who Jesus was.

Epiphany is also regarded as the end of the Christmas season, and ‘Twelfth Night’, when Christmas decorations are traditionally taken down, is sometimes celebrated on 5 January.

Various customs and superstitions have been associated with Epiphany, some of them still practised in various places, including:

  • ‘Chalking the doors’ – writing on the doors of houses ‘C ✝ M ✝ B’ and the year. The crosses represent Christ; the letters have two referents – the first letters of the supposed names of the three Magi (Caspar, Melchior and Bathazar) and ‘Christus mansionem benedicat’, a Latin request for Christ to bless the house.
  • ‘Star singers’ – young boys dressing up as the Magi, carrying a star and processing around the neighbourhood.
  • Eating the ‘Three Kings Cake’, in which a small figurine of the Christ child is hidden, with a prize for the person finding this.

Some carols are associated with Epiphany rather than Christmas, especially ‘As with gladness men of old’ and ‘We Three Kings.’

Biblical Texts

Matthew 2:1-12: After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,

    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;

for out of you will come a ruler

    who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

Matthew 3:13-17: Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfil all righteousness.” Then John consented. As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

John 2:1-11: On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.” “Woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons. Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim. Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.” They did so, and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.” What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

Anabaptist Perspectives

1. The Anabaptist tradition has insisted that the life of Jesus matters, not just his birth, death and resurrection. The omission from the ecumenical creeds of any reference to his life, teaching, relationships, signs and conversations (moving straight from ‘born of the Virgin Mary’ to ‘suffered under Pontius Pilate’) has been regarded as serious and damaging. The major festivals of Christmas and Easter celebrate his birth, death and resurrection, but Epiphany focuses on aspects of his life. As such, Anabaptists might welcome this opportunity to celebrate the revelation of who Jesus was and is.

2. Anabaptist spirituality emphasises nachfolge – following and journeying. The life of discipleship is not static but ongoing as we learn to follow Jesus. This may be a costly and demanding journey (as it was for many early Anabaptists). The long and probably arduous journey of the Magi might function as a symbol and reminder of this.

3. The Magi were archetypal outsiders, foreigners, probably astrologers, maybe adherents of Zoroastrianism, certainly Gentiles. Their visit to the infant Jesus, which details in the text of Matthew’s Gospel indicate probably took place up to two years after the shepherds’ visit, implies that Jesus is a ‘light for the Gentiles’ (Isaiah 49:6) as well as Israel’s Messiah. For much of their history, Anabaptists have been outsiders, banished from their homelands, foreigners in the lands where they sought refuge, regarded as odd and unconventional by others. That many contemporary Anabaptists are now settled and comfortable should not mean this history is forgotten. Epiphany might be an occasion to remember.

4. The Magi brought gifts to Jesus – gifts with great significance that interpreters have associated with both kingly status and suffering. These were offered as acts of worship. Early Anabaptists insisted that worshippers in their communities did not come empty-handed but brought with them contributions, using the gifts they had received, so that their gatherings were participatory. Unlike the state church, in which all were silent and passive except the priest, Anabaptist congregations took seriously the biblical expectation that ‘when you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up’ (1 Corinthians 14:26). There was also an expectation of ‘mutual aid’, sharing resources with those who needed these. Epiphany might be an opportunity for members of a congregation to recommit to participation and maybe specify the gifts they will bring.  

5. The refusal of the Magi to obey Herod’s order to return to him and supply the information he wanted about the location of the child resonates with the refusal of the early Anabaptists to obey the demands of the authorities in relation to having their own children baptised, ceasing to engage in unauthorised preaching and baptising, leaving the region, swearing oaths or defending their homelands. This subversive memory might be celebrated at Epiphany as a challenge to faithful non-compliance to the authorities today.

6. The baptism of those old enough to choose to follow Jesus and commit to a life of discipleship has been a defining mark of the Anabaptist tradition (shared now by many other communities). For early Anabaptists, it was not only the lack of biblical evidence for baptising infants, or the order of believing before being baptised that is apparent in New Testament texts (such as Matthew 28:19 and Mark 16:18), but the example of Jesus being baptised as an adult that meant they were unwilling to allow for the legitimacy of infant baptism. Epiphany is an opportunity to recall this revelatory event and to renew commitment to living a baptised life.

Ideas and Resources

A Prayer for Epiphany

We have seen a great light.
We are walking in the darkness still.

Morning Star, invisible
until the night is darkest,

streaming to meet us
long before we looked up.

It takes time

for a pinprick of light
to fill the negative.

A picture is forming.
Let us hold still.

(Angeline Schellenberg: https://mbherald.com/a-prayer-for-epiphany/)

From Christmas to Epiphany

‘A simple way to mark Christmastide and Epiphany with your family is by having a little more fun with your nativity scene. Begin on Christmas day with the Magi somewhere in your home, but far away from the manger, perhaps on the other side of the room or a different room entirely. Each day of Christmas move the Magi a little closer to the manger until they finally arrive 12 days later on Epiphany. We usually move our magi at night after the kids are in bed and they have fun finding their new location the next morning.’

‘In my perusing of different Epiphany traditions and ideas I came across the suggestion that on the way home from an Epiphany celebration it is meaningful to drive home by a different route than that by which you came.’  

https://www.veritasacademy.com/headmasters-blog/celebrating-epiphany-and-how-it-can-be-just-as-special-as-christmas

Prayers

God of light,
your rising reveals all things in their true proportion.
Illumine our lives, that we may see rightly,
love deeply, and act justly.
In the example of Jesus,
we pray for the advent of your reign.

God of light,
your presence illumines even our darkest shadows.
Gather today’s sorrow and pleasure and remake them, in us,
into generous hope, sober joy, tested faith,
that our lives may be radiant with your love.
In the example of Jesus,.
we pray for the advent of your reign

From Take our Moments and our Days

Pointed Epiphany Prayer

God of grace, thank you for every epiphany that will happen today
for every one who drops a weapon because there are no enemies
for every one who breathes in the scent of cedar and is cleansed
for every one who drops that heavy bundle of resentment
for every one who is guided by generations yet unborn
for every one who is contented at the end of a journey
for every one who falls on their knees before a baby
for every one who senses the webs that connect us
for every one who follows a sign from heaven
for every one who remembers to give gifts
for every one who is bowled over by love
for every one who recognizes the holy
for every one who dances with joy
for every one who says a prayer
for all with stars in their eyes
For Jesus’ sake
We pray
Amen

Darkness and Light

In the darkness before creation,
you made all that lives and breathes.
In the darkness of Mary’s womb,
you formed Jesus, bringer of light.
In the darkness of our world your spirit sustains us.

O God, you are with us in darkness and in light.

Under the cover of darkness,
Magi followed the star to the Christ-child.
We come from the East and we come from the West,
following you on our different roads,
following the same star to the same place.

O God, you are with us in darkness and in light.

In the stillness of the dark,
we pray for all who need God’s presence in a special way—
people who cannot find work,
who cannot pay their bills,
who have no place to live,
people who are discouraged and hopeless,
people who have become cynical and bitter.

O God, you are with us in darkness and in light.

We live in this world in our bodies,
we rejoice in life and breath,
yet when sickness or pain cripples us,
we lose our bearings, we feel lost and bewildered.
We need your presence to keep us safe.
Be with those who are sick, especially _______________.

O God, you are with us in darkness and in light.

Thank you for moments of inspiration,
for moments of clear vision
where we see who we are and who we are meant to be,
where we see where we are, and where you want us to go.
Give us courage to take the journey that you call us to,
and give us strength on the road.

O God, you are with us in darkness and in light.

Your presence sustains us,
having seen your face,
having done homage to your goodness,

We are confident in the work you are doing
in us and through us,
for your kingdom come,
on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.

(https://carolpenner.typepad.com/leadinginworship/church-year-epiphany/)