Outside a blanket of new-fallen snow has covered the city of Chester, refreshing the snow that was already there, that has lasted for over a week now. If the forecasts are correct, it will not be there for much longer—within a few days the temperature will be flirting with double digits in the positive range. But at times on Friday evening the snow flurry was coming down like a picture on front of a Christmas card: big flakes pinwheeling down, sparking up the cold, dark night as, moment by moment, they catch the stray light from street lamps.
The combination of looking out a window at that kind of snow accumulating like a secret in the air and of it being January brought to mind another place, one out of my past. Where I served as a full-time minister in Canada was a snowy spot in winter. I lived in the manse beside the church, both of which were up a hill a fair distance from the road. I recall many winter days looking out my front window, down the lawn to the massive pine trees which stood by the road, watching the snow swirl. Sometimes the snow would make it difficult to see the cars on the other side of the trees. If I were waiting for someone to come, peering out would assume a more anxious air.
Not that I had many meetings in the manse—I arranged for almost all meetings to be held in the church because I needed to have my private space—but once a year I had an open house. I tidied and I baked and I opened the doors to anyone who wanted to stop by. That one day a year was the day of Epiphany, 6 January. The last of these before I left for my doctoral studies fell on an extremely snowy, almost blizzard-like day, and only a few people made their way to the manse. I kept looking out the window for people who said that they would be coming—just in case. When I looked out at the heaviest moments of falling snow on Friday night in Chester, I thought of that open house on that stormy day eight years ago.
I chose Epiphany for the manse open house partly as a way to mark the end of the Christmas season and partly because I thought Epiphany needed a party of its own. For churches with roots in western Europe, 6 January is the day that commemorates the arrival of the magi in Bethlehem, bringing their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to give to the child Jesus. At some points in history, Epiphany was a more important celebration than Christmas, and some cultures have a rich tapestry of traditions which mark the day. However, as Presbyterians have only become more attentive to the seasons of the liturgical year relatively recently, not much has developed within our tradition in connection to the day other than maybe reading and having a sermon on the story of the wise men from the east on the Sunday nearest to the 6th. While having a special non-Sunday worship service to mark the day so soon after Christmas just does not happen for most Presbyterians, hosting a get-together at the manse was a little way to encourage the congregation to think of the Christmas story as extending beyond the 25th of December.
To be honest, though, I think that I have a soft spot for Epiphany because its observance has mostly escaped the all-consuming rush and intensity that has come to roost on Christmas Day. When most people have grown tired of carols, and the after-effects of New Year’s have worn off, 6 January comes around and speaks a word in the quiet for those who might listen. This Christmas thing, Epiphany says, is even more complex than trees and presents and family meals. (Yes, this is perhaps a bit ironic in that the magi were the only ones in any gospel version who bring Jesus gifts.) When I was a child, once I learned that Matthew’s Gospel says that the magi did not arrive until sometime after Jesus was born, marking Epiphany was all about getting the story right, even if almost everyone wants to include the magi in their nativity scenes. Only later did I start thinking about the themes associated with the 6th by Christian theologians. First, the wise men, though they may not have been there at the same time, joined the shepherds in pointing to this great thing that God has done. “Epiphany” comes from the Greek for revelation, a bright showing, with connotations of an almost blinding insight. Then, somewhere along the way, I learned about and reflected upon the idea that the wise men were there to act as foils for King Herod the Great and accursed, who, though he ruled with sly and vicious political wisdom, was neither wise in the ways of God nor kind to most anyone (just ask Josephus). The wise men are depicted as being more sensitive to the word of the Lord than a ruler who is successful in the terms of earthly power is. Finally, my time as an intern at a church on the prairies exposed me to a third theological theme for the day; there they celebrated Epiphany during their usual midweek service by singing hymns from many different parts of the world, aiming to underline the inclusivity of the Christian faith. The 6th of January reminds Christians that God calls to people from afar as well as from nearby.
Epiphany 2013 has come and gone; it is about halfway through the season after Epiphany, halfway between the end of Christmas and the beginning of Lent. (Ash Wednesday comes very early this year, on 13 February.) Christian liturgists disagree about the nature of this time of year. Many, like me, have been taught that there is no real season of Epiphany, but rather a season after Epiphany, a season of so-called Ordinary Time to be precise, like the Sundays after Pentecost. Others shake their head at this and call this the Epiphany season: it’s just neater that way. Whether or not there is a season of Epiphany, if you follow the Gospel readings of the Revised Common Lectionary, the Sundays after Epiphany certainly respond to the theology of 6 January, especially in exploring just who this son of Mary might be. This year, for instance, following the account of the visit of the wise men, you hear of: the baptism of Jesus, when ‘a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”’ (Luke 3:22); the wedding in Cana, when Jesus turns water into wine (John 2:1-11); the time Jesus read in the synagogue in Nazareth and is presented as making a manifesto of Isaiah 61:1-2, the proclamation of good news to the poor, the captive, the blind and the oppressed; the continuation of that story, when Jesus points to the many times that God’s prophets worked miracles on behalf of Gentiles; and finally of the Transfiguration. Each of these stories either underlines the special identity of Jesus or provides a key description of his mission.
As I have said, I have a soft spot for celebrating Epiphany. I like the idea of emphasising the inclusivity within Christian traditions, and I’m partial to the implicit critique of power politics. However, over the last few weeks I have also come to see that Epiphany’s theological themes move very close to rather frightening notes of triumphalism. The prominence of wise men from the east can be and has been read as a sign of the blindness not only of Herod but also of the priests, scribes and other religious authorities of Jesus’ day. The world bowing down before the child Jesus can be used to underline Christian theological smugness—because we are his disciples, we think we control the way that others might come before Jesus. The allusion to the submission of everyone else seems an opening for religious colonialism, for seeking power over others, for lighting up the knowledge of one truth and declaring other understandings deficient. Little about Epiphany seems very friendly to interfaith relations.
But I am not prepared to abandon the day of Epiphany. There is one thing that I have noticed, and surely others have noticed the same thing before before and will do so again. Although the wise men have been seen as symbols of the good news of Jesus reaching beyond his homeland and his own people, after they give their gifts and return home, there is no sign that they convert, not to Judaism and certainly not to Christianity, which would not have existed yet. No doubt they were changed by their journey, as all such journeys have the power to change the traveller, but when they arrived back home, they most likely settled back into whatever religious devotion they had always had. To me, this suggests that the type of revelation associated with 6 January should be tweaked. Instead of churches simply viewing the Epiphany as a confirmation of Christian beliefs about the identity of Jesus, churches would do better to remember that this insight into the significance of Jesus comes from people of a different faith altogether. Instead of using Epiphany to declare a triumphal superiority over those who believe differently, churches could then find in the holiday an opportunity to reflect upon what they can learn from people of other faith traditions. After Epiphany, Christians must always be open to the possibility that, when they encounter those who are different, they might learn something significant about God.
Is this not a possibility for Christian theologians to consider? In this season after Epiphany, it leaves me wondering: what will I yet learn from those who are different—and what have I missed because I was not prepared to listen?
Here in Chester, the snow has stopped, and by the time this post is read will already mostly be melted. But I still think of the last 6th of January that I spent in North America, looking out the window through the snow for people I was expecting. I hope that I had learned enough that I did not neglect the revelation provided by the handful of people who braved the weather to join me, never more than one at a time. I hope so.