Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Season after Epiphany: A Season of Theophanies

This time of the Liturgical Year is usually referred to as “the Season after Epiphany,” or Epiphanytide for short. It is part of the Ordinary Time of the Church Year, those Sundays which are ordered (numbered) after a Feast. Thus, the Season after Pentecost has numbered Sundays that stretch around to Advent, and this time of year has the same format connected to Epiphany. The color for both seasons (outside of major Feasts and special commemorations) is green – a color of growth and renewal.

Epiphanytide has been treated in different ways over the centuries. Current practice in the Episcopal Church connects us to the ancient understanding of this as a season about Theophany, or the showing forth of Christ as the Son of God – fully divine as well as fully human. This is clearly a major focus in the Feast of the Epiphany itself. The gifts given by the Magi indicate both Christ’s divinity (the frankincense) and his humanity (the myrrh for his burial); the gold connects them together in that he is shown to be the King of Glory, who will restore God and humanity to peace through the Divine Love made known on the Throne of Glory, the Cross.

But, there is far more in this season of Theophanies. On the first Sunday after the Epiphany, we recall Christ’s baptism in the river Jordan at the hands of St. John the Forerunner. This is the central Theophany of the season. It is recalled in the Gospels as the key moment when Jesus is shown forth to be the Anointed One, beginning his public ministry. It is also the moment when the Trinity is first shown and made explicit, though this great mystery was not understood by those present at first. The voice of the Father pronounces: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17) In this moment, we are given the glorious gift of God’s self-revelation, seeing there the mystery of Divine Love and interrelationship, into which we are baptized as followers of Christ. We share in God’s loving approval through Christ and our response to the gift of new life in him. This Sunday is both a showing forth of the Divine life of the Holy Trinity and a recollection of our own share in that life through Holy Baptism. In the solemn procession at the beginning of the Liturgy on this Sunday, a special stop (called a station) is made at the Baptismal Font, and a prayer recalling our baptism offered. It is customary in some places for Holy Water to be sprinkled during this procession, as well, as a physical reminder of our baptism. The sign of the cross is made by those present as the water reaches them, providing an personal opportunity for acknowledging the gift of grace in Holy Baptism, and the call to live that new life out in our daily lives as disciples. And yet there is more!

On February 2, the Calendar commemorates the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple (also known as the Purification of the Virgin Mary, Candlemas, and Fortieth Day). This Feast brings us to the Temple, when St. Mary and St. Joseph, in accordance with the Mosaic Law, presented the infant Jesus forty days after his birth. It concludes the Incarnation cycle of feasts that began with the Annunciation in March, and reaches its climax at Christmas. This feast recalls Jesus’ Presentation in the Temple (Luke 2), and St. Simeon’s words, “Lord, you now have set your servant free….” Once again, Jesus is revealed to be the God-Man, the Incarnate Savior in our midst.

In Year C of the three-year cycle of Sunday readings (we are in Year A), the Wedding Feast at Cana is the Gospel lesson for the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany. This, the first of Christ’s miracles, is another “showing forth” of his Divinity. It also tells us that God is able to transform that which is ordinary into that which is extraordinary. Another part of this mystery is that other than Jesus and his mother Mary, we are told the only people who understood what had happened were “those who served” at the wedding feast. In other words, only if we adopt a servant’s humility and role as disciples will we ever gain an understanding of the Gospel and the great mysteries of the Faith. This challenge stands before us each day, especially when we share in the Holy Eucharist. We take into our very selves the Holy Mysteries of Christ, and are called to service in the world as Christ’s agents of grace. Only in this way can we enter into the true knowledge of God.

Finally, Epiphanytide culminates in the Sunday before Lent, when we celebrate the final Theophany before Jesus’ going to Jerusalem to be offered upon the Cross – the Transfiguration. This great day, with its solemn retelling of the great mystery of Christ’s appearing on the Holy Mountain with Moses and Elijah (symbolizing the Law and Prophets, the Living and the Dead – of which Christ is the Fulfillment and over which he is Lord), is celebrated with great richness. The Uncreated Light of God shines from the Savior, and those privileged few with him are stunned by their encounter with the glory of the Son. We see on this day a foretaste of the Holy Resurrection, giving us strength and grace as we undertake the rigors of a Holy Lent beginning on Ash Wednesday.

Of course, throughout the closing weeks of Epiphanytide we are preparing for Lent. A Lenten Rule for our observance will be made available, teaching on Lenten practices will be offered, and each person is called upon to hear what God is saying to us so that we might take up our cross and follow him into fuller life and freedom. This is called our Christian ascesis, our training for the Kingdom of God, and we will each need to take seriously what the Lord tells us is required for our growth in the knowledge and love of God as we prepare for Holy Week and Easter.

We will do this preparation, however, not as yet another secular “moral improvement project” due to guilt, on our own initiative, or through our own willpower; we will do so as a loving and joyful response to God’s call, God’s revelation of the Divine plan for us in Our Lord, and by God’s grace in these Holy Theophanies. God is with us, Emmanuel – not only at Christmas, but now and always. Let us rejoice and be glad in this truth, this promise.

May God richly bless you as you enter again into the mystery of this Holy Season!

Faithfully in Christ,


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