Arise and shine. The journey is just beginning.
January 5 is the twelfth and final day of Christmas. On January 6, the Christian calendar turns to a new season: Epiphany.
The origins of Epiphany as a church festival are somewhat vague, as is the very definition of the word. “Epiphany” can mean manifestation, revelation, appearance, insight, enlightenment, or a shining forth. Epiphany begins with the story of the Magi, three astrologers, who follow a brilliant star to the place of Jesus’ birth and honor the child with gifts. Upon seeing the baby, they were “overwhelmed with joy,” and fell on their knees.
The wise men awaited a sign in the sky — a star — to guide them on this journey. Revelations break in, light shines forth, and glory appears. Such things are from the realms of mystery, awe, and wonder. They surprise and disrupt the normal course of existence. Epiphanies are not of our making.
But it would be a mistake to believe that we are only passive recipients of epiphanies. We need to be alert for their appearance and search out the trailings of their presence. Revelations can be missed if one isn’t attentive or attuned to the possibilities of sacred surprise.
The Magi, of course, were looking for a sign. They were professional spiritual seekers! But they weren’t content just gazing upon the star. They didn’t remain in some distant locale and admire its glory from afar. They got up and followed it to its source. And their journey even involved danger — as a treacherous king attempted to use them to manipulate this manifestation for his own evil purposes. They kept going.
We may not create epiphanies, but we respond to them. Epiphanies grab a hold of us; we can’t shake them. Epiphanies ask something of us. The star is an invitation, a calling to do something — to act.
These verses from Isaiah, traditionally read at Epiphany, underscore this:
Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
We arise; we shine — glory entices us, woos us, into the light. We don’t just observe. Epiphany embraces and vivifies us.
Epiphany is a manifestation, the mystery revealed, and an invitation to discover grace, goodness, and God. It is neither a magic fix nor a moment when utopia arrives. But the birth, the star, and heavenly glory don’t eliminate the darkness. Rather, such revelations cast the light that we need to see the way. Epiphany beckons us to pay attention and participate in widening the circle of light in the world — to push back against all brittle injustice and brutality. Whether a babe in Bethlehem or a burning bush, epiphanies are guide stars on a longer journey toward healing, liberation, and peace.
Perhaps these words, a seasonal benediction of sorts, from Madeleine L’Engle capture the fullest sense of Epiphany:
This is my charge to you.
You are to be a light bearer.
You are to choose the light.
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness —
on them light has shined.
On Epiphany day,
we are still the people walking.
We are still people in the dark,
and the darkness looms large around us,
beset as we are by fear,
a dozen alienations that we cannot manage.
We are — we could be — people of your light.
So we pray for the light of your glorious presence
as we wait for your appearing;
we pray for the light of your wondrous grace
as we exhaust our coping capacity;
we pray for your gift of newness that
will override our weariness;
we pray that we may see and know and hear and trust
in your good rule.
That we may have energy, courage, and freedom to enact
your rule through the demands of this day.
We submit our day to you and to your rule, with deep joy and high hope.
— Walter Brueggemann
Epiphany is a cracking of the ice underfoot. The frozen world starts giving way to something else — the branches sparkle in the moonlight, a star leads to a barn, the beauty of the deep structure of things is revealed. We begin to wonder: Maybe every baptism announces God’s love. Maybe water always has been wine. Maybe we are all prophets of liberation. Maybe every day’s work holds abundance. The poor and sad and persecuted have always been the blessed. Perhaps we are always dancing on the stars and just don’t notice. Not until an epiphany. It is far more than a day. It isn’t just the “weeks following” Christmas or the Magi visit. This is the season of extraordinary time, the in-breaking of creation’s promise.
— Diana Butler Bass, from “Epiphany Now”
Once upon a time there were some very wise men who were all sitting in their own countries minding their own business when a bright star lodged in the right eye of each of them. It was so bright that none of them could tell whether it was burning in the sky or in their own imagination, but they were wise enough to know that it didn’t matter. The point was, something beyond them was calling them, and it was a tug they had been waiting for all their lives.
— Barbara Brown Taylor
To discover how to be truthful now...
To discover how to be living now….
To discover how to be loving now...
To discover how to be human now….
Is the reason we follow this star.
— W.H. Auden
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