Sunday, January 6, 2013

Epiphany, or a revelation "for the rest of us"

Would I be wrong in guessing that a lot of Christians or churches don't really know what to do with Epiphany?

Granted, it's an odd little feast day.  It isn't Christmas anymore, yet the story associated with Epiphany is one that is typically folded into your average children's Christmas pageant (let's face it, aren't there typically three wise men in there somewhere?), so it feels like "been there, done that" more than an important marker in the church year.

Some years, like this one, the lectionary does Epiphany no favors; for those who follow it, last week's scripture leapt ahead to Luke's picture of the twelve-year-old Jesus (see previous entry for my sermon on that), before lurching to this story of indiscriminate time.  Another year, (year A, possibly?) the slaughter of the innocents precipitated by the events of Epiphany is in the lectionary the Sunday before Epiphany.   Oops.

Eastern Christian traditions apparently tie Epiphany to the baptism of Jesus instead of the magi visit.  I'm not sure if that would be more helpful or more confusing.  Furthermore, I'm told by some that certain cultures in the West, perhaps in Central or South America, reserve a lot more of their festivity for Epiphany, or the day of the kings, than for Christmas.  That actually sounds appealing to me.

In truth, though, a lot of churches have decided exactly what to do with Epiphany: nothing at all.  If as in most years it doesn't fall on a Sunday, it can be conveniently ignored or treated as the drop-dead date for getting the Christmas decorations taken down.  When it intrudes upon a Sunday, as it does this year, it can frankly still be ignored, or it can offer the choir an excuse to recycle one last Christmas anthem (especially if it happens to mention the magi), or it can be sloughed off in a prayer or something else while the preacher moves on to the next sermon series.

As you might guess by now, I think there's a loss in doing so.  Maybe it's a hard story to preach, but the visit of the magi (whether there were three or not) opens the door to us in a way the Lukan nativity story doesn't necessarily do.

These guys were foreigners.  By most any logic one would think the birth of a future king in Israel would hardly be worth their notice, no matter how striking the astronomical phenomenon accompanying it.  And yet this company of scholar/astrologers loaded up and blundered off onto a long and arduous journey to see this child-king, blundering right up to the current king's doorstep in doing so, and setting off a series of tragic events that would result in the family's hasty departure to Egypt for some time, and the death of too many two-year-old or less boys.

They saw something in their signs and stars that made them react in a way that seems all out of proportion to us, making such a journey and lavishing strange and expensive gifts on the child (how old Jesus was by this time, we can't really be sure).

There is something about the fact that God threw open this door and ushered in these decidedly non-Jewish guests to the party that we should hold on to and even cherish.  This is our entry into the story.  This is the opening for us, the wide world outside, to come in and see "him whose birth the angels sing," the child of promise whose promise will extend far beyond the boundaries of his birthplace or hometown or place of execution.  This is our clue that this story is not going to be merely about a narrowly-defined "people of Israel" in a particular place or time.  This is our redeemer before we even knew it.

Maybe if restoring Advent is the current noble cause in the progressive church of the day, perhaps phase two can be the restoration of the Christmas-to-Epiphany orbit.  This is of course going to be even harder to push, since for most pastors the Sunday after Christmas is vacation day (how do you think I got to preach last week?).  Still, I can't help but think we lose something when Epiphany gets shuffled off into the void in haste to "get back to normal" in the church.

But then, it's always possible I'm wrong.

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