Tomorrow, January 6, is the Feast of the Epiphany, the day the church remembers the revelation of Jesus as God Incarnate, and the homage paid the infant Jesus by the Magi. In this concluding reflection in our Advent and Christmastide series, Bobby Gross helps us reflect on the significance of the day, the season which follows, and the possibility of epiphanies in our lives.
The apostle Paul, writing to the earliest Christians in Corinth, makes a remarkable affirmation:
For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Cor 4:6).
This resonates with John’s testimony about the Word-become-flesh: “We have seen his glory… full of grace and truth,” which we marveled over in our Christmas reflection on Incarnation.
The first set of seasons in the liturgical calendar is often called the Cycle of Light: during the darkening days of Advent, we long for the Light; in Christmas we celebrate the Light that the darkness does not grasp; and now, in Epiphany, we contemplate how the Light of Christ is made manifest to the whole world, including through our own lives (Jesus to his followers: You are the light of the world).
The season begins with the Feast of Epiphany on January 6, around which we cluster three biblical events: the visit of the Magi during the infancy of Jesus, the baptism marking the start of Jesus’ public presence as an adult, and the wedding at Cana where Jesus turns water to mirth-inducing wine as his first recorded miracle. The common thread is “manifestation,” in keeping with the meaning of epiphany: “to cause to appear, to bring to light.” We will muse briefly on the first two of these episodes.
The Gifts of the Magi.
Matthew’s gospel tells the story. These astrologers (perhaps Zoroastrian) from the East (perhaps Persia) find their long way to Judea in search of a “child who has been born king,” having divined and followed a sign in the heavens. They come bearing gifts of homage; they leave having been changed. That’s what epiphanies can do.
As Matthew tells it, on arriving where the Child is they are overwhelmed with joy!
As Dorothy Sayers portrays it in her play, one of the wise men grasps that the child is “King of Heaven” and Mary is “Mother of God,” but cannot account for his insight:
I spoke like a man in a dream. For I looked at the Child. And all about him lay the shadow of death, and all within him was the light of life; and I knew that I stood in the presence of the Mortal-Immortal, which is the last secret of the universe.
Or as T. S. Eliot imagines it in his poem “The Journey of the Magi,” the birth they sought to witness was in some ways more like a death since they could be “no longer at ease here in the old dispensation,/with an alien people clutching their gods.”
Such epiphanies are orchestrated by God; we are given to see the light.
The Baptism of Jesus.
And Jesus is given epiphanies! When he joins the riverside crowd listening to the preaching of that slightly crazed, spiritually piercing prophet called “The Baptist,” Jesus has already discerned the essence of his identity and destiny. But to act on such discernment will entail risk and require faith. And faith needs to be bolstered. Jesus steps forward with many others to be baptized by John. But his immersion in the waters is unlike any other’s: heaven is “opened” to him, the Holy Spirit “descends” on him, and a Voice affirms him (“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”). (Luke 3) In this epiphanic experience, God graces him with confirmation, infilling Presence and assurance of being loved, all of which he will need because his faith will be repeatedly tested, starting in the desert.
The Epiphany season, as centered on the adult Jesus, begins with his Baptism and ends with his Transfiguration, the latter epiphany dramatically mirroring the first. (Luke 9) On the mountain with his three friends, his face changes and his clothes become dazzling, and the figures of Moses and Elijah appear and speak to him. Peter, James, and John in their drowsiness almost miss it, but startled awake, they hear a Voice out of the overshadowing cloud: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” In this epiphany, they are given to see “the glory of God in the face of Jesus,” if they will only pay attention. And Jesus also needs the mercy of this epiphany as his faith soon will be put to its most excruciating test in Jerusalem.
In Advent we tried to stay alert for “present comings” of Jesus into our busy lives. The Christmas narratives made us think about annunciations and dreams. And now we speak of life-changing epiphanies, enlightening glimpses of glory. All such experiences echo God’s breaking into human history; in them, Eternity punctuates Time.
We experience time in two ways: as chronos and as kairos. From the first Greek term, we get our word chronological, which suggests the orderly sequence of quantitative time, metronomic, linear. By contrast, the Greek word kairos means the right time or the propitious moment, something more qualitative, suggestive of rhythms, seasons, special occasions.
In Living the Christian Year, I rehearse the Church’s historic understanding of how we can layer the “story of God” over the days and weeks of the secular calendar and render them sacred, charged with spiritual meaning, infused with kairos. Philosopher Charles Taylor, in his magisterial treatise A Secular Age, discusses the complexities of how societies have related to “time” over time. He identifies the times of feasts and festivals, like Carnival [or Christmas or Epiphany], as kairotic: “that is, the time line encounters kairotic knots.”
I think of epiphanies as something like these. Of course, we can be given to see so much about God through our regular reading of the Scriptures and attending to good preaching. In the gospels, we look at Jesus—his person, his teachings, his actions, his signs—and God is revealed. And the more we respond in faith to what we learn, the more we see.
But sometimes we experience epiphanies like the Magi or Mary or Peter or Jesus himself, kairos occasions where the Joy overwhelms or the Heavens open or the Spirit descends or the Voice sounds, times when the Light blazes. In worship or contemplation, by streams or on mountains, through poetry or music, in conversation with friends or compassion from strangers, perhaps even in our academic discoveries. They are glorious (it is the Glory that grasps us so that we might apprehend). They are full of grace. They yield truth. They are beautiful, “the harvest of presence…. that especially occurs in the meeting of time with the timeless.” They are life-changing. They shed light on everything.
 NASB20 translation of John 1:5.
 Some church traditions treat the period between the Feast of Epiphany and Ash Wednesday (the start of Lent) as a season focused on how Jesus revealed God in his life and work; other traditions, notably Roman Catholic and Anglican, treat this period as the first block of Ordinary Time (the other being from Pentecost to Advent).
 The Man Born to Be King (Harper & Row, 1943, reprinted by Eerdmans, 1974), p. 41
 The Complete Poems and Plays (Harcourt, Brace, & World, 1971), p. 68-69.
 Celebrated the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, this year February 27 (with Ash Wednesday on Mar 2).
 Bobby Gross, Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God (IVP, 2009), see chapter 1.
 A Secular Age (Harvard University Press, 2007), pp. 54-59
 David Whyte, Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment, and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words (Many Rivers Press, 2015), pp. 19-20, speaking of “beauty.”
We appreciate receiving these reflections from Bobby Gross. The previous posts in this series are: Lament: How Long, O Lord, Longing: Come Lord Jesus, Laughter, Bring Us Home With Joy, Letting Go: May It Be So, Lord, and Christmas Reflection: Incarnation: Grasping Glory.