By: Boyd Morris
Notes on Epiphany
Boyd W. Morris
Introduction to Epiphany
The word epiphany is used by Paul in Titus 2:13, 2 Thess. 2:8 and 2 Tim 1:9-10. It means “an appearance or manifestation.” The original meaning of the Greek word epiphaneia denoted an official state visit by a king, especially when he revealed himself to the people. In the life of the Church, Epiphany is the celebration of the manifestation of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world.
As incarnation is the dominant theme of the Christmas season, so the dominant theme of Epiphany is the manifestation of Jesus Christ as the Replacer of the world system with the kingdom of God. This awesome reality becomes more intensely real and personal to us as we enter into an ever-deepening experience of Epiphany, namely, that in Christ’s birth the rebirth of the human race has come; that He, the Last Adam frees humanity from sin, ushering in the new world (1 Cor. 15:45-49).
In this season of Epiphany we do well to ask how the manifestation of Jesus Christ as the Replacer of the world system with the kingdom of God is to be extended in and through us, individually and collectively.
Historical Development of Epiphany
Originally, before Christmas was moved to December 25 in order to replace the pagan feast of the birth of the sun, Epiphany was the celebration of the birth of Christ. But after this, the Eastern Church began celebrating the baptism of Jesus on Epiphany, while the Western Church has since marked Epiphany by three events: the visit of the Magi, the baptism of Jesus, and the marriage feast at Cana. Thus Epiphany has become the time when the Church seeks to unpack more fully the understanding of what the birth of Christ means to us individually, the human race collectively, and to the entire created order cosmically.
Overview of Epiphany
Epiphany (which means “show” or “reveal”) is the season in the Christian tradition that begins on January 6 and extends until Ash Wednesday. It is the season of mission and baptism. On January 6, the day of Epiphany, we mark the visitation of the Wise Men who, in bringing gifts to Jesus from distant lands, became the first Gentiles to acknowledge Him as King. Thus the Wise Men were the first to manifest Jesus to the world as “a light of revelation to the Gentiles” (Luke 2:32), showing that His coming is not limited to only a few, but is for all peoples, languages, tribes and nations. On the First Sunday after Epiphany we celebrate Jesus’ baptism. In the remaining weeks of the Epiphany season we are united with Jesus as He manifests the glory of heaven on earth in His ministry of teaching, healing and miracles. The color of Epiphany, like that of Christmas, is white, the color of celebration, newness, and hope that mark the most sacred days of the Church year.
The Day of Epiphany, January 6
Epiphany did not just happen 2,000 years ago, but is taking place now through us, the people of God, Christ’s Church. The Ephesians reading for this day makes clear that the Church is the means God has appointed for making the universal kingdom of Christ manifest. The world now comes face-to-face with Christ in and through His Church. It is in and through His Church that Christ’s kingdom shall be established throughout the world, not just among the Jews.
Epiphany calls us to this mission, a mission that aims at nothing less than the replacing of the world system with the kingdom of God. Such a mission demands that we ask, What hindrances must be removed to the glory of God being manifest in us so that the glory of God might be manifest through us?
The Season After Epiphany
First Sunday after Epiphany: The Baptism of Jesus
On the First Sunday after Epiphany we celebrate the baptism of Jesus. In order to recover the full meaning of this event for us individually and collectively as His Church, let us ask that by the power of the Spirit we may enter into what this event meant for Jesus.
In His baptism Christ is revealed as the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the whole world, placing sin under ultimate judgment. As the messianic King He fulfills the will of the Father, reversing the curse by taking the judgment that was upon fallen humanity due to sin and placing that judgment upon sin itself. This in turn destroys death since death came by sin. It also destroys the devil since Satan holds the power of death.
Israel passed through the Jordan River in leaving the wilderness and entering the Promised Land. In this rite of passage, as far as the rest of the world was concerned, Israel ceased being an obscure tribe wandering in the desert and was manifest on the world stage as the nation of nations come to reshape the created order in line with God’s original intensions before sin, Satan, and death entered. As so it is in Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, as it is for us. The time for replacing the world system with the kingdom of God has come, and it has come in and through us.
A further indication that Jesus has come to replace the world system with the kingdom of God is found in the parallel motifs between Genesis 1 and His baptism. There is water, the dove, and the sound of a voice in both accounts, pointing to Jesus as the one who is inaugurating a new creation. These motifs are also reminiscent of the Flood and the Exodus.
John the Baptist makes clear that the cross is the means by which this new world order shall be manifest in and through Jesus. “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). The origin of the connection of the cross with the crown in the image of the lamb is traceable through Isaiah 53:7 all the way back to Genesis 3:15. This One who is the Son of God (John 1:34; Matt 3:17), is also “our Passover” (1 Cor. 5:7).
Epiphany calls us to allow God to extend the war against evil that He promised to wage in Genesis 3:15. There are two sides to this war: victory over Satan and the restoration of the world. Let us therefore, in being made one with Christ in baptism, put to death in us all that would allow death and Satan to manifest in and through us. And then, let us instead manifest the reality of the new creation we actually are in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17) by means of the new community we have been membered to, Christ’s Church. What must we now do as individuals and as a community to see the new creation emerge as the world system is replaced with the kingdom of God in and through our lives?
St. Gregory of Nyssa, an Eastern father of the fourth century, brings this First Sunday after Epiphany into focus: “Leave the desert, that is to say, sin. Cross the Jordan. Hasten toward life according to Christ, toward the earth which bears the fruits of joy, where run, according to the promise, streams of milk and honey. Overthrow Jericho, the old dwelling place, do not leave it fortified. All these things are a figure of ourselves. All are prefiguration of realities which are now made manifest.” (St. Gregory of Nyssa, The Bible and the Liturgy, trans. Jean Cardinal Danielou, quoted in Nocent, The Liturgical Year: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, 279.)
As the Spirit came upon Jesus at His baptism, so may the Spirit come upon us, bringing us deeper into the understanding that Jesus Himself came into when the words were spoken, “This is my beloved Son” (Matt. 3:17). We are now members of this new kingdom community that is replacing the world system. May the Lord deepen in us this transforming revelation of our membership in Christ and to one another in His Church that we may rest in knowledge of who we, the Church, truly are in Christ.
Second Sunday after Epiphany: The Wedding Feast in Cana
At the wedding in Cana the glory of God came down and was manifest. Entering into the full experience of what this means requires that we enter into what this event meant to Jesus. For it is in Him that all things become clear.
Jesus’ phrase, “My hour has not yet come” (John 2:4) is used throughout John’s gospel in relation to Jesus death on the cross (John 7:30; 8:20; 12:23, 27-28; 13:1; 17:1). Thus it is the cross, in fulfillment of Genesis 3:15, that is the ultimate manifestation of the glory of God in Christ. The turning of water into wine at Cana is a foretaste of the fullness of the glory of God to be revealed in the Paschal mystery. Note that John says this sign at Cana was a manifestation of His glory (John 2:11).
The true meaning of the wedding feast at Cana has been understood by the fathers of the Church in relation to the many and varied symbols associated with this event. Water is a sign of baptism. Wine is a sign of Christ’s passion. The wedding banquet is a sign of the great wedding feast of the lamb for all nations. In all these signs, the old is made new. The world system is replaced by the kingdom of God. Let us therefore ask, What must we do to allow Christ to effect this transformation in us, even as He transformed the water into wine?
The Remaining Sundays after Epiphany
The glory which is from above is revealed in history through Christ and His Church. This is the theme of Epiphany. In the remaining Sundays after Epiphany we thus see the progressive unveiling of the glory of God in Christ as He calls the disciples and trains them, manifests the transformative power of heaven on earth, is rejected by the world system, and finally, is transfigured.
Keeping the end in mind helps us to understand what all the Sundays after Epiphany are about, namely, the transfiguration of the world. Every one of the Sundays after Epiphany, each in their own way, opens the window a bit more to this phenomenon. Obedience to the covenant is the condition God has required for the fulfillment of His promise to dwell with man on earth as in heaven, thus transforming the world.
Third Sunday after Epiphany
1 Corinthians 12:12-27
Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
In this reading from Luke we see that Jesus is in continuity with the ancient promises. In Him the Scripture is fulfilled. It is this present fulfillment that is the essence of what we declare in our Festival Assembly worship. God’s saving actions are manifested among us here and now. We are not waiting for some future day when the kingdom will be manifest, but recognize that now is the day of salvation.
The present, progressive, unfolding manifestation of the kingdom of God naturally follows on the heals of the Christmas season’s emphasis on “word made flesh,” The seed of the new humanity in Christ has been definitively sown, now it is growing.
Keeping in mind the reading from Nehemiah, the power of God’s word is central to the new day that has come. Back in Advent we were introduced to this, especially by Mary who declares, “Be it done unto me according to your word.” The renewal of the Church and of all things is to be accompanied by a return to the law of God (context), not just to the laws of God (content) that, apart from adhering to the Law, are misinterpreted within a foreign context by would-be autonomous man.
Law and Prophets
The nation is reconstituted in the hearing of the Law during this national liturgy.
A Common Theme that Emerges from the Readings for this Third Sunday after Epiphany
The Gospel reading and the reading from Nehemiah are parallel in that they both deal with liturgy. Nehemiah’s is a national liturgy while the one in Nazareth was local. Both are gatherings for public proclamation in which the true authority of God is present, empowering the people of God to imagine, shape, form, and manifest a new world by our collective obedience as the Church. For as the Church we are a body of individual members, a holy nation and commonwealth united for a larger kingdomcultural purpose, a covenantal purpose whose fulfillment demands that the “two become one.”
A vital aspect of the public proclamation of the Law is that these words are to be fulfilled in our hearing. Such fulfillment requires that we be the Body of Christ. To fail to be the Body of Christ goes hand-in-hand with justifications for why the good news is not fulfilled in our midst now.
In Epiphany we celebrate the rebirth of the human race in the Church, the community through which the new order of the world is manifest in a visible, present, cultural way that replaces the world system with the kingdom of God now.
This is the time of the Scripture being fulfilled. Jesus is the one who has come to restore the City of God.
In the reading from Nehemiah and from the Gospel, the Scripture is read and then interpreted. Proper interpretation goes hand-in-hand with the progressive transformation of the created order as a result of the replacement of the world system with the kingdom of God.
The great lesson on this Third Sunday after Epiphany is that we do not live before the Lord merely as individuals, but in community. The alternative to subcultural individualism and countercultural collectivism is kingdomcultural covenantalism.
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