We have entered the odd season of Epiphany that lasts from January 6, to Ash Wednesday, this year on March 2. What purpose the season serves isn’t entirely clear to many regular church goers. Is it simply a midwinter break between Christmas and Lent?
No, it’s an important season of the Christian year that prepares us for the spiritual work of Lent. In what way? Let’s start at the beginning. Epiphany, always twelve days after Christmas, falls on January 6 and celebrates not the visit of the magi, but the Light of Christ that drew them to Bethlehem. It’s the light they carried with them into their own lands, far distant and foreign to the people of Judea and Galilee.
Scripture readings in the weeks that follow explore how the Word of God made known in the Light of Christ extended into the Mediterranean world beyond the domains of Jerusalem and its people.
The movement of God’s Word into the greater world celebrated in the season of Epiphany has its antecedents in Hebrew Scriptures rich with anticipatory examples. Ruth from Moab, the Queen of Sheba, the Sidonian widow, Namaan the Syrian general, the City of Nineveh, and the diaspora of Jewish settlements all over the eastern Mediterranean world. God’s Word was never limited to the land of Israel, nor were other peoples excluded from receiving it. What changed with the birth of Jesus is the light of God’s Word made flesh came to illuminate not some but all in every time and place. The gospels record Jesus engaging with, healing and teaching Roman soldiers, foreigners from Sidon, Samaria and the Decapolis. Each was an example for his disciples to follow as they spread the Light of Christ into the whole of the Roman Empire.
Readings and sermons that fill the Epiphany season are intended to inspire us to continue the work of carrying the Light of Christ into the world. But it would be a mistake to think that what was done in the first century Roman world is what we are supposed to copy in our own day. It is holy guidance for reminding us that, as by our baptism we are under holy obligation to carry the Light of Christ according to the needs and conditions of our day. The odd season between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday should be a time of exploration and examination. In what ways can the Light of Christ be made brighter in our own troubled times?
It’s a time for creative thinking. Some old ways no longer work, some need to be restored to usefulness, and some discarded. Exciting new ways need to be employed with skilled enthusiasm. Most especially, we cannot presume that we are the only enlightened ones taking the Light of Christ into deepest darkest wherever. Evangelical fervor has too often assumed that the Light of Christ was to be wrapped in the cultural and social standards of one’s own native land. It wasn’t subtle: Europeans were civilized, no one else was, The Light of Christ was subordinated to expanding Western cultural hegemony with all of its prejudices. Learning to be powerfully humble in the way of Archbishop Tutu may be our biggest challenge. The second challenge may be the recognition that we are not called to take on burdens added to the ones we already carry. God is not asking us to do something else, but to do what we are already doing in a new way with the Light of Christ shining more brightly in the process.
In short, this is a season in which to explore what it means to bear the Light of Christ into the world if we never leave our own backyards or travel the face of the earth.
In a way, Epiphany prepares us for a different kind of Lenten discipline. What does that mean? Lent is a time for self examination, confession, and amendment of life. The usual practice is to give up something, take on something, and attend church more often. The tone is somber. It’s very personal. It’s not bad, but a Lent extending from Epiphany adds something new to it. In what ways could we remain our authentic selves, yet do better at bearing the Light of Christ in the year ahead? Is our congregation a beacon of Christ’s light for the community, or is it an exclusive club for members only? Is our outreach in Christ’s name? Are we true to the call of discipleship to be followers who trust Jesus to lead us, or do we put our primary loyalties somewhere else?
These are difficult questions that are not going to occupy the minds of most church goers, but they are questions that could inspire the minds of pastors and teachers as they lead others through the forty days of Lent.