Epiphany is one of the six great feasts of the church year: Christmas, Epiphany, Transfiguration, Easter, Pentecost, Trinity. All six feasts fall in six months of the year, followed by six months of "green Sundays," with no major feasts. But there are commemorations and things to celebrate during these times. More on that in June.
Because Epiphany is January 6, it rarely falls on a Sunday. Since it is a major feast, some churches move it to Sunday morning, hence some congregations will celebrate it on Sunday, January 8. This supplants the Baptism of our Lord, a lesser festival, but an important one, and it also expands the 12 days of Christmas to 14. As usual, my rule of thumb is what best serves the proclamation of the gospel in your context.
I will take some time to talk about both.
It seems there was some difference about when to celebrate Christmas. The first Christmas in Eastern Christianity was probably January 6. Because of the 13-day difference between the Gregorian and Julian calendars, Ethiopians still celebrate Christmas on January 7 (which is December 25 on the Julian calendar). A few years ago, when the bishops went to the Holy Land at the request of Bishop Younan, it was a delight to celebrate Christmas here on December 25, then go to the Holy Land and celebrate it again on January 6.
Some early Christians believed that Jesus was conceived of the Holy Spirit on the same day he was resurrected. Since they set that day around March 25, it was easy to count forward nine months of gestation to December 25, which was the date set for Christmas in the Western calendar. Others may have set the date to coincide with the pagan celebration of winter solstice, around December 21 (December 22 this year). When Christianity moved into German and Scandinavian areas, this coincided with Yule-time, a pagan festival which ran from late December into early January. The historian Bede said December 25 was the first day of the pagan year.
For Western Christians, Epiphany is about the visit of the Magi. For Eastern Christians, Epiphany is about the Baptism of Jesus. In the Eastern Church the historical theme was the mystery of the incarnation. It included Jesus’ birth, the coming of the Magi, the Baptism of Jesus, some of his childhood events and even the wedding at Cana. The earliest reference to Epiphany is in 361 A.D. For a while Christ’s Epiphany and his birthday were used interchangeably. In 385 Epiphany still commemorated the birth of Christ. It was also called the Day of Theophany. Even into the 5th century John Cassian tells us that the Egyptian monasteries were celebrating Jesus’ birth and baptism on the same day, but other churches had begun to separate the festivals.
For us in the West, Epiphany is the culmination of the 12-day Christmas season. Some Latino cultures have a 40-day Christmas which extends to Candlemas on February 2. I could spend a lot of time going into the developments of the calendar and the religious festivals, because it fascinates me. However, I’ve discovered that while I and a few of you are interested by this stuff, the majority of our people aren’t. The preacher might dare a short paragraph on the development of the holiday for the erudite who bask in the esoteric, but the bulk of the faithful are less interested in history and more interested in "what does all this mean for us today?"
The coming of the Magi, is symbolic of the nations coming to Christ. It is a turning point. The gospel is for the Gentiles, for all people. This theme is picked up in the epistle reading form Ephesians. Paul states unequivocally that the mystery of the gospel that has been hidden for the ages is this: That God planned all along to bring in the nations. This was foretold by the prophet Isaiah in chapter 60, our Hebrew Bible reading.
No longer is the divine favor upon only those who eat kosher, observe Sabbath in a strict way, and commemorate Pesach and other festivals. Christ is now our Pesach, our Passover.
Epiphany is a time to celebrate mission! The gospel for the world – the whole world. This means not preaching our culture, or even our peculiar religious traditions. This means preaching Christ alone. Therefore, Christianity in China will look different than it does in Germany, or North Dakota. In parts of the world Christianity may incorporate Confucius and Buddha. We do not consider them the hope of the world, but there is much wisdom there. Christmas will not be about the days getting longer, or about snowscapes and a heavily clad Santa Claus in a culture in the southern hemisphere, where Christmas falls on the longest, hottest day of the year. Epiphany may be a time for us to learn to strip our proclamation of Christ of its cultural trappings, down to the meat of the matter, so that we ensure that we are proclaiming Christ to the world, and not our cultural bias.
Epiphany may be a time to consider sponsoring a missionary. Why not sponsor Joe Troester, a missionary in the Central African Republic? Joe is a geologist who is providing desperately needed fresh water for villages in the CAR. Even a small amount helps!
Epiphany is also a time to consider the ways that Christ comes to those in our own culture who have wandered from God. An increasing portion of our own population have no church home. How do you proclaim Christ into this increasingly irreligious world? The Magi were pagans. They had no great interest in the Hebrew Bible or Jewish religious practices. They were stargazers, perhaps astrologers of a sort. But they were interested in Jesus. Perhaps we can use the fact that although people are often dissatisfied and suspicious of our congregations as organizations, our antiquated structure and our odd rituals, they are still fascinated with the message and person of Jesus.
Baptism of Jesus
Why did Jesus need to be baptized? If John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and Jesus, according to traditional Christian theology, was sinless, why on earth would he need to be baptized by John? Why be baptized at all?
Interestingly, scholars Christian and non-Christian alike, believe the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan to be one of the most historically plausible events in the Bible. Admittedly, it seems odd, John baptizing Jesus. In Matthew’s versions, even John balks. John tried to prevent him saying, paraphrased, "Wait. Haven’t we gotten this backwards? Shouldn’t you be baptizing me?" (Matthew 3:14-15, paraphrase) Jesus responds, "Allow it for now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness." So, third, being baptized by John is perhaps Jesus’ way of submitting to God’s plan. (Just as Mary did in our Advent IV reading? ) Fulfilling all righteousness may be a first reason.
Jesus came to John, whom he considered to be one of the greatest people ever born (Luke 7:28, Matthew 11:11). Jesus’ baptism is an alignment with John’s vision and mission. This may be a second reason.
Third, the purpose of baptism is not just repentance. In Acts 2:38, Peter tells people to be baptized for forgiveness and to receive the Holy Spirit. Of course the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus in the Markan narrative.
Fourth, the baptism is the launching of Jesus’ mission and ministry. The affirmation of Jesus call from God is made clear, "You are my Son…" Not "This is my Son…" as in Matthew and Luke. This is a private communication between God and Jesus, because in Mark, Jesus’ identity is not known to the other characters in the story, yet. It unfolds. Also, we have a reflection of Psalm 2, the David king as God’s son:
I will tell of the decree of the Lord:
He said to me, ‘You are my son;
today I have begotten you.
These words of affirmation will be repeated on the last Sunday of Epiphany, Transfiguration Sunday, February 19, 2012, only for everyone, "This is my beloved Son…"
Most importantly, Jesus’ baptism anticipates his own death and resurrection. Baptism represents death, and coming out of the waters, resurrection. Romans 6:3-4 says the familiar words:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.
The central event of Jesus’ ministry is his death on the cross and subsequent resurrection. This Sunday may give us an opportunity to talk about baptism as an inauguration of our own ministry, as well as a call to "be buried with Christ" so that we might rise with him and walk in newness of life.
Whether you do the Epiphany texts or the Baptism of our Lord texts, it might be a great time for an affirmation of baptism, complete with sprinkling, and a sermon inviting people to consider what ministry God has called them to in their baptism.
Michael Rinehart, bishop
Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod
12941 I-45 North Freeway, Suite #210
Houston, Texas 77060-1243