We conclude this series taking us through the weeks of Advent and Christmastide with the Feast of Epiphany (January 6). Bobby Gross helps us reflect the abundance of life on offer in Christ, celebrated by this feast.
After savoring the Feast of the Nativity for twelve days (not without some bitter flavors—honoring Stephen, the first martyr on Dec 26, remembering the slaughtered Holy Innocents on Dec 28, perhaps with fresh laments for the children of Gaza and their wailing mothers, along with the cries of bereft Israelis), we come to the Feast of Epiphany on January 6. It too is a day of giving and receiving gifts.
In Hispanic cultures, January 6 is known as Dia de Los Reyes, or Three Kings Day. In Latin America, children receive most of their Christmas gifts on this day, from the three kings rather than Santa Claus. The old shoes they put out the night before are filled with toys and presents by the time they awake. This gift-giving tradition echoes the story of the Magi bringing their exquisite offerings for the Christ child, having been given to understand a celestial manifestation to be a sign of a king’s birth.
Thus “epiphany,” a manifestation, an unveiling, a bringing to light, a gift of seeing.
This feast inaugurates a third season in the Cycle of Light in the liturgical calendar: in Advent, waiting in a darkened world, we anticipated “a great light”; during Christmas we celebrated the “true light coming into the world”; now, in Epiphany, we proclaim Jesus as “the light of the world.”[i]
After centering the manifestation of Christ to the Magi on January 6, the Sundays of the ensuing season are bookended with celebrations of two epiphanies in the life of Jesus: his baptism in the river on the first Sunday and his transfiguration on the mountain on the last.[ii] On the second Sunday of Epiphany we always attend to Jesus’ “first sign,” the turning of water into wine at a wedding in Cana (John 2), an extravagant act.
If joy is a taste of God’s abundance, as I proposed in my last blogpost, then what else might be served at the full feast of abundance!
Something in me resists the idea of abundance. I immediately think of the extreme wealth inequality in the U.S., embarrassingly mindful of the “haves” and the “have nots.” That’s because I have to recognize myself as one of the “haves.” To desire abundance seems like avarice, to relish abundance feels like gluttony. These misgivings on the material front make sense if I take seriously Jesus’ warnings about greed and hoarding and the potential idolatry of mammon.[iii]
Yet I am grateful for my relative financial security and would want that for everyone. Faithful stewardship requires that I combine whatever material plenty I have with abundant generosity and hospitality. To give away freely is to shift my confidence from what I currently possess to the source from which it comes, the God of great generosity.
But can we count on God’s generosity, his promise of abundant life? This is a another way in which I am uneasy with expectations of abundance. I tilt toward self-reliance rather than trusting in the provision of God. If I keep my expectations for divine blessing low, than I won’t be disappointed. I can avoid that uncomfortable uncertainty in Jesus’ encouragement to “ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (John 15:7).
The problem with this cautious posture is that the gospels, the dramatizations of God’s “good news of great joy for all people,” reveal a Messiah offering and enacting astonishing abundance. John’s gospel especially does this, as I underscored in my last blog. The story in John 2 of the wedding at Cana makes the point abundantly clear.
Jesus and a few of his friends are invited to a week of wedding festivities at a nearby town in Galilee. There must have been family connections because his mother also attends. At some point, the wine runs out, and Jesus’ mother, apparently embarrassed on behalf of the hosts, indirectly asks Jesus to do something about it. While Jesus verbally resists being used by his mother, he nonetheless quietly acts, telling the servants to fill six large 20-30-gallon jars with water, which mysteriously, marvelously becomes wine. Good wine. Very good wine.
Theologian David Ford describes this as “an abundance that goes beyond all needs.” As John declares, this is a manifestation of Jesus’ glory, an epiphany. Ford writes of this glory:
Ford suggests that this first sign of Jesus acts out the prologue in John 1:
Jesus acts with a kindly, almost mischievous, generosity to bless the wedding feast, multiplying pleasure and delight and joy for ordinary people at a special occasion. It is his glory—his joy, evidently—to shower us with “a sweet excess,” to quote from the first two stanzas of “A Wedding Toast” by Richard Wilbur:
St. John tells how, at Cana’s wedding-feast, The water-pots poured wine in such amount That by his sober count There were a hundred gallons at the least.
It made no earthly sense, unless to show How whatsoever love elects to bless Brims to a sweet excess That can without depletion overflow.[vi]
May the Cana miracle reveal to us afresh the Love that elects to bless with a feast of abundance, wine to gladden our hearts and Eucharistic wine to satisfy our souls.
In John’s telling, the “grace upon grace” which flows from the Word’s fullness goes on to include: wind freely blowing and renewing, Spirit given without measure, water welling up to eternal life, baskets brimming with leftover bread, gratitude perfuming a whole house, a net bulging with fish, not to mention the ill recovering, the crippled walking, the multitudes eating, the blind seeing, and the dead breathing again. Joyful abundance!
Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren, in Prayer in the Night, meditates on a compassionate prayer from the office of Compline, which we can practice before going to sleep. One chapter ponders the petition “shield the joyous.” Tish admits to hedging her bets when it comes to the “vulnerability of joy.” Risking abundant joy requires hope and risks disappointment, she says, but goes on to affirm:
My prayer for us in these coming weeks of Epiphany is that we have eyes to see the abundance of life on offer from the One who claimed, “I am the life,” that God would show us grace upon grace. In the goodness of our material lives. In the richness of our communities of love. In the security of our spiritual home. In the love that grants “a sweet excess,” not unlike the great eschatological feast of abundance prophesied by Isaiah:
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. (Is. 25:6)
[i] Isaiah 9:2, John 1:9, John 8:12
[iii] See Luke chapters 12, 18.
[iv] The Gospel of John: A Theological Commentary (Baker, 2021), p.64.
[v] Ibid., p. 65.
[vi] Collected Poems, 1943 to 2004 (Harcourt, 2004), p. 136.
[vii] (IVP, 2021), p. 155.
Previous posts in this series:
Longing: Greatness and Grace in our Leaders (for Christ the King Sunday)
About the author:
Bobby Gross is the author of Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God (InterVarsity Press). Bobby has spent his career in campus ministry with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. He currently serves as Senior Field Director for the Graduate & Faculty Ministries division. For 13 years he served as VP and National Director for Graduate & Faculty Ministries. Originally from Columbus, GA, Bobby and his wife Charlene have lived in Miami (FL), New York City, and now Atlanta. He graduated from UNC Chapel Hill with a B.A. in American Studies and English Literature and did additional studies in theology at Regent College in Vancouver. Bobby served on the national board of Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA) for six years. An admitted bibliophile, Bobby also writes poetry and collects contemporary art on religious themes.