Epiphany: A Season of Revelation
Lectionary Readings for Epiphany: Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you! Isaiah 60:1
Tell about it. – Mary Oliver
Today, in the rhythm of the church year, we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany—that is, the manifestation of God in earthly form. Taking its themes from the journey of the Magi, foreign astrologers who undertook a journey of discovery prompted by the rising of a mysterious star, Epiphany reminds us that God’s presence shines in unexpected places and in unexpected ways among ordinary people in ordinary settings.
The fact that Mary and Joseph were an ordinary young couple making the best of a tough situation, reminds us that the light of God’s presence can shine in the midst of our own dark nights.
The fact that ordinary shepherds were among the first witnesses of the greatest story ever told, encourages us to be awake and alert to the good news of Christ’s presence in the wilderness places of our own lives.
The fact that the Magi were Gentiles—foreigners!—reminds us that even though Jesus was the King of the Jews, he was born as a Savior for all humankind, not just those who were specially chosen. Their presence at the manger represents Christ as Light to the whole world!
And the fact that so much of what took place in the Christmas story was guided through dreams and unusual signs in the sky reminds us that God reveals God’s self to us in mysterious ways, and we’d best be paying attention!
The Mystery of Christ With Us
Just like Christmastide is a season of twelve days, Epiphany is a season of the church year stretching from January 6 to the Sunday before Ash Wednesday. Three events in particular are associated with this season—the visit of the wise men from the east, the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River along with his temptation in the wilderness, and the turning of the water into wine. Reflecting on these events, launches us into a season of seeking manifestations of God’s presence in our ordinary lives as well.
In Christian tradition, the weeks between the Incarnation and the Resurrection are called Ordinary Time because we are not celebrating any particular mystery of our faith but rather the mystery of Christ with us in all aspects of our lives. Yet ordinary time is far from being unimportant or uninteresting. The Incarnation—God with us in the flesh—transforms every aspect of our human experience into a place of encounter with the Holy One. It takes more than a day or a week to fully live into this reality; it takes practice to learn how to recognize it.
As Joan Chittister writes, “The time between Christmas and Lent, and the time between Pentecost and Advent [are] known as Ordinary Time, time outside the seasons of the two great feasts of the church. Time to rest in the contemplation of those centers of the faith that are the lodestones of our souls…in this period that is between the two poles of the life of Jesus, we get to pause awhile. To take it all in. To make the connection between that life, that reality, and our own. Ordinary time gives us time to contemplate the intersection between the life of Jesus and our own…In the liturgical year we live the life of Jesus day after day until one day it becomes our own.”1
Things Get Really Exciting
Some people find themselves in an emotional slump after the intense waiting of Advent, which culminates with Christmas, and then is followed immediately by celebrations associated with the chronological New Year. This let-down is understandable given the adrenalin-pumping pace of the holidays. It can feel like everything we looked forward to is now behind us and all that lies ahead is cold weather (for some) and getting back to work.
This year, in particular, it’s hard to know what to feel. Most of us are grateful to have left 2020 behind but we are still in the midst of one of the most extraordinary seasons any of us have ever lived through—a pandemic season when there is hope on the horizon but still nothing is as it should be.
Even so, the celebration of Epiphany—with its emphasis on how God reveals the mystery of divine presence in the midst of our ordinary lives—can actually fill us with anticipation. Epiphany reminds us that Ordinary Time is a season when things can get really exciting as we reflect on the “extraordinarily ordinary” aspects of Jesus’ birth story; it encourages us to renew our determination to seek God in the ordinary aspects of our own lives as well.
Don’t Want to Miss a Thing
There is a Christian practice that can help us with this. It is called the examen of consciousness—that is, our consciousness of God with us as David models for us in Psalm 139:1-12. This prayer practice is so very simple because all we have to do is take a few minutes at the end of every day to review the events of that day asking God to show us evidence of the Divine Presence we might have missed. You may prefer to take a few minutes in the morning to look back on the previous 24 hours, but either way we are creating space for God to reveal evidence of his presence, his activity and his glory so we don’t miss anything.
As we reflect on every aspect of the day—waking, showering and dressing, eating, commuting, relating with others, difficulties and challenges at work, moments of pleasure and pain, consolation and desolation, decision-making, interacting with the news and needs of the world, concluding a day spent working at home or returning home, the evening spent with housemates or family, crawling into the comfort of our bed at night—we can ask God, “Reveal yourself to me. Show me where you were present, making the ordinary extraordinary. I don’t want to miss a thing.”
This is a prayer God loves to answer.
The Extraordinary Ordinary
In my experience, God always uses this heart-felt request to heighten my awareness of divine presence in the ordinary moments of my life. This so consistent with another meaning of the word epiphany—and that is, “a sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something….an intuitive grasp of reality.” I don’t know about you but I feel like I need that more now than ever—to perceive and to grasp the essential nature of things in this topsy-turvy world we’re living in right now.
When we incorporate this simple prayer practice into our daily routine, Ordinary Time becomes anything but ordinary! It becomes a season of enlightenment when we see things for what they really are, we see God for who God really is, and we see what God is up to and we can join God in God’s work. That’s when things get really exciting!
When the song of the angels is stilled
when the star in the sky is gone
when the kings and princes are home
when the shepherds are back with their flocks
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost
to heal the broken
to feed the hungry
to release the prisoner
to rebuild the nations
to bring peace among the people
to make music in the heart.
1 Joan Chittister, The Liturgical Year (Nashville: Thomas Nelson: 2009), p. 96, 97.
Howard Thurman poem quoted from Bread of Tomorrow: Prayers for the Church Year, Janet Morley, ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1992), p. 52.
©Ruth Haley Barton. 2021. Not to be reproduced without permission.
For more on the practice of examen see Sacred Rhythms (chapter 6) by Ruth Haley Barton.