Epiphany, like all the seasons of the Church Calendar, summons the faithful to a narrative distinct from other competing narratives. Derived from the Greek word epiphaneia (ἐπιφάνεια) “appearing, manifestation,” Epiphany celebrates the in-breaking of divine light, offering hope for all people captured in contexts of moral, political, and spiritual darkness. Unlike other master-narratives that ignore, or misconstrue the deep seeded problems of humanity, the biblical narrative informing Epiphany assesses humanity’s plight realistically and instills unshakable hope that the true God seen in the face of Jesus Christ will ultimately drive darkness from every sphere of our world.
Historically speaking, the churches of East and West have observed two distinct but mutually informing traditions regarding the celebration of Epiphany. Western churches contemplate the journey of the magi vis-à-vis the appearing of the star (Matt. 2:1-12), while churches in the East reflect upon the manifestation of Christ’s divinity at his baptism (Matt 3:13-17). Meditating upon the substance of each of these traditions calls us to align our stories with God’s story, so that we may enter upon a new year with hope unshakable.
Rejoicing in Epiphany’s Light
If we would see the forward-looking implications of the magi’s quest we need to develop the apostolic habit of reading our Bibles backward, as well as forward. Matthew, along with the other Canonical Gospels, assumes continuity with the Old Testament’s storyline and apart from that earlier narrative his portrait of Jesus makes little sense. What significance, then, might the former narrative ascribe to a strange astrological sign guiding distant Gentiles to Jerusalem to worship Israel’s king? Matthew employs a rich array of allusions and echoes from the OT, but we only need turn to Isaiah’s prophecy to discern the main thrust of his message.
Isaiah repeatedly speaks of a time when God’s light will dawn on Israel and Gentile nations will come to the brightness of his glory in Jerusalem (Isa 2:1-3; 60:1-3; compare Matt 2:1, 2). Furthermore, these nations will bow down and worship in the presents of God’s glory in Israel (49:23; compare Matt 2:11a), bringing their treasures as offerings of praise (45:14; 60:5; compare Matt 2:11b). The quest of the magi, then, signals the dawning of God’s glory among the nations, shining in the face of Jesus.
Despite the deep problems of our world, then, believers can live in hope because the appearing of God’s Son in the flesh heralds the arrival of God’s Kingdom, and anticipates its coming fullness. Therefore, faced with the uncertainties of politics, the instability of nations, and the ravages of war, believers live with the hope that the nations will ultimately cease their raging at the glorious appearing of Jesus Christ (Isa 2:4; Rev 11:15). Furthermore, by Epiphany’s light we believe justice will dawn for the oppressed and God in Christ will arise and execute judgment upon those who enslave, exploit, or kill the weak and the helpless (Ps 10; James 5:4). The cries of millions of sex slaves, and the blood of myriads more aborted souls, have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.
Transfixed by Theophany’s Sight
If the significance of Epiphany in the West fosters the expectation that the nations will ultimately bow before the splendor of Jesus the Messiah, then Theophany, as celebrated in the East, rejoices in the manifestation of the Triune God working toward this glorious end. Theophany sets the dramatic scene of Jesus’ baptism foremost in the meditations of the faithful (Matt 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21, 22; John 1:32-34). Among the Evangelists, Mark’s account offers the most dramatic portrait of the event. As Jesus emerges from John’s baptism, the tearing of the heavens evokes divine visions from the ancient past (Ezk 1:1). Together, the descending Spirit and the Father’s declaration, “You are my beloved Son,” anoint and affirm Jesus personally as the Messiah of biblical expectation (1 Sam 16:13; Ps 2:7; Isa. 11:2; 42:1; 61:1). Thus, Mark gives us an insider’s perspective on Jesus, enabling us to approach the rest of his account with eyes and ears that perceive the deeper truth of his identity.
Deeper still, the baptismal theophany discloses the fact that the good news about Jesus is fundamentally Trinitarian. Jesus’s baptism graphically portrays the Three-In-One on mission to redeem his lost and broken world, overthrow the devil, and establish his eternal Kingdom.Thus, a living faith in this Triune God imparts the hope that the dark guest within and the evil structures without can be gradually defeated through the power of the gospel, and ultimately eradicated by the coming King, when believers behold the beatific vision, that is, when we see his face (Rev 22:4).
Gloria Patri . . .
Our Father, may your name be praised for sending your Son to illumine the darkness of our world and for shattering the sinful night of our souls! Your Son is the bright and morning star, the hope of all nations! May more and more people become joyously transfixed by the light of his face so that lives of repentance, faith, and praise continually resound to your glory!
Lord Jesus, praise you for becoming human to redeem humanity, for taking our sinful flesh in order to destroy sin in the flesh! Reign in our hearts O King of nations! Subdue every rebel lust, tear down every idol, banish every shade of unbelief, fear, and enmity. Replace these dark guests with purity, godliness, faith, hope, and love.
Holy Spirit, praise you for illuminating the face of Jesus, for opening our eyes to his infinite glory and beauty! Lead us into all truth so that your fruit may ripen in our lives this year. Descend upon us with fresh anointing, so that like Jesus we may face our times of testing endued with you power. Most Holy Spirit, bear this prayer to the Father in the name of his Son Jesus. Amen.