Understanding the Season of Epiphany

The period from Christmas (December 25th), to Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent (March 5th), is the season in the Liturgical Calendar that we call Epiphany.  The word “epiphany” means “manifestation” and refers in particular to the manifestation of Jesus as Savior not only of the Jews, but of all the peoples of the world.  The Lectionary lessons in this season describe three “manifestations” of Jesus that we celebrate in this season.

The first of these is the visit of the Magi, which we celebrate on January 6 (or the Sunday nearest, which in 2014 is January 5th).   The coming of the Magi is rooted in the paschal mystery and the redemption which it brings to the world.  Epiphany is a story that speaks to the very essence of the gospel and it’s redemption, for Epiphany has to do with the extension of salvation not just to the Jews but to the Gentiles (something that is very important to us).    In the early church, Epiphany was a major celebration, more important than even Christmas or the “birth of Christ” and ranking second only to Easter, because Epiphany demonstrates the “manifestation” of God’s salvation clearly.  The importance for us is shown in the Epistle passage for the day which proclaims the truth of Epiphany – Eph. 3: 2-6 – “the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body and partakers of the promise of Christ Jesus through the gospel.”

The second of the “manifestations” is the story of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptizer,when God manifests Himself to the world with the sign of the Holy Spirit (the dove) and the voice from heaven like thunder, saying “This is my beloved Son, and He brings me great Joy.”  John proclaims (and God authenticates) that Jesus is God’s Son, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, the Anointed One (in the Greek, Messiah).

The third of the “manifestations” is celebrated on Transfiguration Sunday.  This is the last Sunday before Lent begins, and closes the Epiphany season.   The story of transfiguration Sunday is a miraculous experience of Peter, James and John, as they are on the mountain with Jesus, and they see him “trans-figured” before them.  As this miraculous event occurs, once again they hear a voice from heaven, “This is my Beloved Son!  Listen to Him!”   The early church fathers interpret the glory of God manifested as the dazzling light to Peter, James and John, as the true vision of the Divine in Christ, a presence available to us through the power of the Holy Spirit.

The Book of Common Prayer “collect” (prayer) for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, and the Sunday before Lent, suggests why the Transfiguration of Our Lord is celebrated:

“O God, who before the passion of your only-begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”  (Book of Common Prayer according to the use of the Episcopal Church, 1979, page 217).

We celebrate the revelation of Christ’s glory “before the passion” so that we may “be strengthened to bear our cross and be changed into his likeness.”   The focus of the Lenten season is renewed discipline in walking in the way of the cross and rediscovery of the baptismal renunciation of evil and sin and our daily adherence to Christ.    At Easter, which reveals the fullness of Christ’s glory (foreshadowed in the Transfiguration), Christians give themselves anew to the gospel at the Easter Vigil where they share the dying and rising of Christ.    In the biblical context, the synoptic gospels narrate the Transfiguration as a bridge between Jesus’ public ministry and his passion. From the time of the Transfiguration, Jesus sets his face to go to Jerusalem and the cross.

This revelation says that not only Christ in us, but Christ is being revealed through us to others.  As God was manifested in Jesus Christ, so Christ is to be manifested through the church to the world.  Because we are to BE the Church, the body of Christ who act as salt and light, we are to be the continuing manifestation of Christ’s love and redeeming power.