An unfortunate thing about being Protestant is that we keep ourselves at arm’s length from the ecclesiastical calendar. “It’s too Catholic,” I hear. Of course, there are liturgical Protestants who do celebrate Epiphany, but the wide strain of Evangelicalism in the US avoids it. That’s too bad because it could be a way to let the celebration of Christmas spill over into the New Year.
What is Epiphany? Yes, it has to do with the visit of the Three Wise Men to the Christ child when he was about 1 year old. But there is more, much more. The word “epiphany” means ‘to show more’ or in theological terms it means ‘to bring to light.’ January 6th is called Epiphany or the Sunday nearest it called Epiphany Sunday because it celebrates the arrival of the Magi and the spreading of gospel light to the nations.
There is the beauty in Epiphany. It’s about you getting to hear what the shepherds first heard. It is a celebration not just about Three Wise Men. It’s a celebration about simple folk like you and me getting to hear, “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (see Luke 2:11). It’s about you and me getting to see the Light.
The Book of Common Prayer on the Collect for Epiphany says it this way:
O God, by the leading of a star you manifested your only Son to the Peoples of the earth: Lead us, who know you now by faith, to your presence, where we may see your glory face to face; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
The prophet of old, Isaiah, says it this way:
Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
Lift up your eyes and look around;
they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far away,
and your daughters shall be carried
on their nurses’ arms.
Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and rejoice.
(see Isaiah 60: 1-5)
The Apostle Paul says it this way:
For the grace of God has appeared (epiphany as a verb), bringing salvation for all people…
(see The Epistle to Titus 2:11)
And Disney, though with no Gospel intentions, somehow uses words that are more real in the Christ child than in a cartoon romance:
And at last I see the light
And it’s like the fog has lifted
And at last I see the light
And it’s like the sky is new
And it’s warm and real and bright
And the world has somehow shifted
All at once everything looks different.
(words from Tangled)
Indeed, the world has somehow shifted since Messiah came. New Testament scholar John Dickson marveled once again on his FB page at this wide, wide dispersement of Gospel light to all the world, to all nations, to you and me.
It is a genuine historical mystery that a tiny Jewish renewal movement founded by a crucified Messiah became an unstoppable global phenomenon in just three centuries, with few resources, no armies, and zero legislative or political clout. All they had was service, persuasion, and prayer. I have a PhD in this topic, and I have no earthly idea how it was accomplished!
The Wise Men brought rich gifts to the Messiah and took back to their pagan lands priceless Good News that is still illuminating the darkness in that region and beyond. Enjoy Epiphany.
‘We Three Kings’ by artist James Christensen