As we continue to work our way through the Church Calendar, we note that the Christmas season ends with Epiphany. For the twelve days of Christmas, we celebrated the coming of the Christ who brings with him the messianic expectations of a Kingdom of Justice, Truth, and Healing. As Christians, we also confess that this same Messiah is the Incarnation of God Himself. Jesus reveals the full character and being of God; as stated in the Gospel of John, Jesus is the divine Logos, by whom, through whom, and for whom all things were made, he is the new tabernacle where Heaven and Earth meet in flesh and blood, and he shares the divine identity with God the Father.
January 6 ended the Christmas season with Epiphany. Some churches celebrate Epiphany as a single day–others celebrate an entire Epiphany season. But this begs the question: What is Epiphany?
As we’ve previously said, the purpose of the Church Calendar is to help us closely follow Jesus’ story, so that we understand the full scope of who God is, and who we are in Christ. This type of focus is a helpful tool for our spiritual formation, so that we can meditate on deep theological truths like the Incarnation, Transfiguration, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension, and Pentecost, in a way that runs with the grain of Scripture and Jesus’ story, instead of abstracted away from them.
Epiphany means manifestation or revealing appearance. In Epiphany, we celebrate the revelation of Jesus as not only the Jewish Messiah, but also as the light for the entire world. This is why Epiphany is usually associated with the visit of the Magi, representing the Gentile nations, detailed in Matthew 2:1-12, and with Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan recounted in Matthew 3:13-17. How are these aspects of Jesus’ story connected to his revelation as the Light of the World?
The Book of Deuteronomy shows us that God had chosen Israel for a purpose–to fulfill God’s promise to Abraham to bless the nations through Abraham’s family. This promise is fleshed out as God reveals that Israel’s laws concerning worship of the one true God and justice for the vulnerable and weak are supposed to testify to the world that God is the true God. (See Deuteronomy 4:6, and Tim Keller’s helpful exposition here). In this way, Israel will participate in God’s reconciliation project with the whole world, which will finally lead to the New Creation.
The story of the Hebrew Scriptures is the tragic inability of Israel to live up to this vocation. But Isaiah promises Israel that God will raise up a suffering servant who will stand in for the nation, and whose total obedience to God will somehow mysteriously atone for Israel’s sins and inaugurate the arrival of God’s Kingdom. (See Isaiah 49).
In Epiphany, and in Matthew chapters 2 and 3, we see these themes rushing together. The Magi come to Jerusalem to pay homage to the King of the Jews, having seen the sign of the Star, because they somehow recognize that this king deserves their adoration and loyalty. John the Baptist calls the Jews to repent and wash themselves in the Jordan, because he knows that for Israel to return to its proper vocation it needs a fresh start where it must renounce its idolatry and unfaithfulness and, in a sense, cross the Jordan River into the Promised Land once again to prepare for a new campaign against and victory over sin. (See Joshua 3). This is why Jesus submits to John’s baptism, to accept Israel’s vocation as a new Joshua.
Epiphany highlights for us the tight connection between Jesus’ adoption of Israel’s vocation and his rightful place as King of the World. It is by acting as the true Israelite, the suffering servant of the Lord who stands in the place of his nation, that Jesus is able to conquer evil and inaugurate a Kingdom of Justice and Healing that encompasses the whole world. The Magi were the first Gentiles to recognize this new king, and because of his victory over sin and death all nations are brought under his reign. Epiphany reminds us that the arrival of the Messiah was not just good news for the Jews–it was good news for the entire world!
But as the gifts of frankincense, gold, and myrrh remind us, the arrival of the Messiah was bound to prompt a reaction by the principalities and powers that seek to run the world on their own authority. And that’s what we will explore in our next post.