Summary: Expect God to be made manifest in your life.
I know that most of you have not been kept up nights wondering about Epiphany. A large number of people have never heard of Epiphany, and although I had heard of it, it never really dawned on me that anyone might actually celebrate it until I visited Germany in January of 1979.
Epiphany falls on January 6, on the 12th day of Christmas–the day you’re supposed to get 12 drummers drumming and the day we commonly remember the arrival of the Wise Men in Bethlehem. In Germany and a number of other countries, this is a big event. Children dress up as kings and travel from door to door–much as we do on Halloween–only instead of collecting for themselves, they collect for the poor, remembering that the wise men brought gifts to the poor Christ child.
Seeing those children out in their costumes was the first contact I had with anybody actually celebrating epiphany, and it started me wondering if we weren’t missing something. Well, the more you look into church history, the more you realize that we are missing a lot of things. Epiphany in the early church was one of the great feast days–second only to Easter in its importance. The third great feast was Pentecost, another day that has drifted into religious backwaters. And even Easter is greatly watered down today. Easter used to be celebrated with an all-night vigil the night before and then the celebration continued on for what was called the “Great 50 Days” ending with a huge blowout on Pentecost. Epiphany, Easter, and Pentecost were the focus of the church. Nobody even thought about celebrating Christmas until the fourth century.
So what’s the deal? Or, as one of my seminary professors used to ask, “How come nothing epiphs on Epiphany anymore?” Why was Epiphany so important, and why is it so unimportant now?
For those few who might have heard of Epiphany, chances are that you will know it as the day the Wise Men came. And that is right–partially. The word Epiphany means “manifestation” or “revelation.” So the Wise Men are celebrated on Epiphany because they represented the revelation of Jesus to the Gentiles. But it used to be that Epiphany celebrated more than the Wise Men.
In the days when Epiphany was a great church feast, it also celebrated the revelation of Jesus in his first miracle–changing water into wine at Cana–and the manifestation of Jesus as the Son of God at his baptism. Those three things–the Wise Men, Cana, and the Baptism were all lumped together to symbolize the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, and such revelation was cause for great celebration.
That a baby was born in a manger was relatively unimportant, compared with the events that proved to the world who that baby was. The authority of Jesus was validated by the signs he performed–like changing water into wine–by the voice of God and descending dove at his baptism, and through signs in the heavens that could be interpreted by the Gentiles. Those signs were God’s way of saying, “Pssst...this is the guy!” and Epiphany was the church’s way of saying, “And we can never be the same again.”
So why doesn’t anything epiph on Epiphany anymore? There may be several answers, but I think one of them is that, for the most part, we no longer expect it. We no more expect God to be revealed in our midst than we expect stores to start giving away merchandise. And because we don’t expect it, we get what we expect. The early church was a church full of excitement and expectation. They anticipated the return of Jesus at any time, and the persecutions which they endured forced them to be aware of their faith and sometimes to die for their faith at all times.
Many of us today have lost that sense of excitement and expectation. In the early church, the point of Epiphany was not to remember history, but to be reminded that God appears miraculously to us in places and in ways that we don’t expect. If we keep remembering that God seems to thrive on unexpected appearances and if we keep expecting to see God everywhere we turn, we are not too likely to miss it when it happens again.
The wedding at Cana was crowded, but only a few were aware that Jesus had worked a miracle in their midst. Most weren’t paying attention, except to realize that the wine was flowing again. They weren’t watching and missed an event that people have talked about for two thousand years. Bethlehem was so full of people that Mary and Joseph couldn’t even find a room to spend the night, but there is no indication that more than a handful paid any notice to the new life that changed all of history, bright stars and shepherd’s stories notwithstanding.