Blessed Feast of the Epiphany. What happened to Epiphany is simple. The Church went away. Even the Liturgical Churches often transfer all these holy days in Christmastide to the nearest Sunday if they can (check the rubrics for this).
This is the traditional day when little French children received their gifts. Once Twelfth Night revels abounded the night before the feast day, as Mardi Gras precedes Ash Wednesday. Only Epiphany was still a feast day, so no gruel for supper. It is a wonderful day, with the arrival of the mysterious astrologers bringing symbolic gifts of kingship, priesthood, and burial. A splash of exotic wonder to the manger scene. And some dangerous power politics (Matt 2:1-12). But most importantly, it is the sign of the incorporation of the whole world, the Gentile world, into the gift of the Incarnation, as prophesied by Isaiah, amongst others. The other night I thought about the Feast of the Holy Name, more commonly called New Year Day, preceding this arrival and in a somewhat sleepy state tried to construct a timeline. Yes, I know we are not talking history, but these narratives are deeply imbedded in our minds and teach so much. So I got up and tottered into my office and looked up the distance between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Only five or so miles. A reasonable day trip. But the bris could have been done anywhere. It is important because circumcision binds the Incarnate One as a fully human member of the Jewish covenant which must precede the new covenant. But what about the mass murder of the Holy Innocents in December before the Magi see the child? And the presentation at the Temple in February? That would have been a quick escape to Egypt and back. Not history, remember, and a story cobbled together from two Gospels. A wonder tale. But one that changes our hearts. One that uplifts our souls.
Traditionally, Twelfth Night was a time of mummery, jest, feasting. I have spent many a Twelfth Night celebrating with the Medieval recreation group, the Society for Creative Anachronisms (www.sca.org). An indoor event, so no combat, but a chance to wear your best period clothes and feast and dance and flirt and drink a little. And this year will be the 30th anniversary of a theophany I was gifted with at an all-night vigil in my parish church, about which I have written. So it is a special day for me. And I have never taken down my tree and other festive greens before Twelfth Night. Because the Incarnation is important. And should be pondered, prayed over, savored.
In the Episcopal Church we revert to green vestments after January 6, but in the Church of England they customarily use white throughout the Epiphany season. I wish we would, too. The season should really end with the Feast of the Presentation, Candlemas, also called the Purification of Mary, forty days after giving birth. The 1928 prayer book still had a rite for this. We have swept this away considering a change in attitude toward women and childbirth, but there might have been a sensible reason for shielding women, giving them time to heal from a difficult birth. At Candlemas the year’s supply of candles are blessed in reverence to the Light of the World. And in Luke (2:22-40) we read the wonderful prayer by Simeon still used in Evening Prayer and Compline. And Anna, the prophetess, stepping out to the people and becoming the first evangelistic preacher. Let’s not forget her. What this is all about is not just High Church piety, but about remembering that we have rich stories. It would be a shame to brush them away as old fashioned and silly. If we can revel in “Frozen” and Star Wars movies, why can’t we keep using ours. They are good stories. And part of our salvific formation. Yes, salvation. Remember that?
Today’s readings are pretty clear about the gift not only to a fallen Israel but to the world. “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isa 49:6b). And Matthew (12:18) quoting Isaiah 42:1, “Here is my servant, whom I have chosen, my beloved, with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.” And here we are, in 2020, and what does the world look like? The Herods have multiplied, and they are still afraid, and still killing the innocent. Anti-Semitism and racist attacks. Genocides on tiny minority ethnicities throughout South East Asia and the Middle East. Attacks on Christian communities throughout Africa. And here at home, the Wall and children in cages. And a planet burning up, being destroyed through human greed. Oceans rising and life dying, fleeing if they can. Too much. Where to start? Where to pray? Where to act? And so many people opening themselves to the very evil they oppose through hate and division. Perhaps what this flow of seasonal narratives in Scripture, prayer, and liturgy can teach us is that even in that moment in human history when our relationship with God changed, when we could see God in human form, in ourselves, it was fraught with evil, control, power, and death heaped upon the innocent.
Some of us gather in communities and march, carrying signs. Some of us engage in the body politic or preach from our pulpits. But it almost seems to be hopeless. There is no 30,000 ft. view that will inform us if there is movement for the good. Or what is God’s will for us. I ran across this quote from a letter Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote to Eberhard Bethge from Tegal Prison on July 21, 1944.
I discovered later, and I’m still discovering right up to this moment, that is it only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. By this – worldliness I mean, living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world. That, I think, is faith.
It was Bonhoeffer’s call to take part in the anti-Nazi resistance. But there are many ways we are called to be obedient to God in the world. I cannot tell anybody else how the Spirit will guide them in faith.
Current church teaching urges us to think in terms of the Body of Christ, the Beloved Community. But there is also the inner and very personal conversion when the soul opens to God and knows beyond any doubt that it is loved, that it is cherished and protected, and nothing will ever separate it from that love. From that, the soul reaches out to other souls in community. From that indwelling of the Light of Christ within us, we too can reach out our arms as Jesus did from the hard wood of the cross and embrace the pain of the world. When the angel appears, when the dream is real, when we have discerned, should not our answer be, “Be it unto me according to thy word”? Then we have become the shepherds, the Holy Mother, Joseph, the Magi. And Jesus in the garden. And we will have turned our backs on the Herods and Roman emperors and soldiers and oppressors. The church year began only a few weeks ago in Advent, and we are at another signpost. We are living out Salvation History. Embrace it. It is ours to live and to share.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is currently at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.