Friday, January 6, 2012

An Epiphany of the Epiphany

Greetings on this glorious feast day of Epiphany!

At least, it's a glorious day here in north central Texas, where the temperature is about 70 degrees and there's not a cloud in the sky.

Yet even if our weather here was as nasty as winter weather can get, even for Texas, January 6 would still be a day for glorious celebration of the Epiphany, or the welcoming to the world of the Christ child by the wise men.

Not that the wise men actually found the Christ child 13 days after His birth; Epiphany, like Christmas itself, is more symbolic than literal. Epiphany, which can mean the same thing as "stunning realization" or "new truth," commemorates the wise men being the Bible's first documented foreign visitors to the Christ child. Why is this important? Because it signifies how Jesus was born to save not just one class of people, or one race, or one caste or social group, but that as God incarnate, He would not be a respecter of persons. Anyone of any race, ethnicity, economic status, or even prior religion, can be saved through Him.


Indeed, Christ's very first visitors were the humble shepherds, called to the manger from the hills around Bethlehem.  They were most likely Jews, or at the very least, people who had relatively close ancestral links to the lineage of David.  But the wise men from the East were obviously of a far more distant people group.  It has been estimated that it took about three years for them to "come to the place where the child was," which by that time, was in Nazareth.

And just to be clear:  nowhere in the Bible does it say there were three kings.  They were men of nobility, probably, and importance, obviously, but they could have been their generation's version of NASA scientists, and there could have been two of them, or dozens.  We just know there was more than one of them, and they came from the East.

Christ is indeed the Savior of the world.  And at least to me, that's what Epiphany celebrates.  Cross-cultural missions, which is the extension of the significance of Christ's international purpose, is part of what Lutherans celebrate at Epiphany, which I think is appropriate.

Christ's Gospel is for His elect, but His elect is scattered across the globe.  His elect is comprised of the rich and the poor, and everything in between.  That's why it's fitting that before Christ ever "officially" began His earthly ministry, he'd already been greeted - heralded, even - by people representing the spectrum of human existence.

Isn't that incredible?

In the Christian Calendar, the season of Epiphany started last night, with what's called "the Twelfth Night," corresponding to the traditional Twelve Days of Christmas.  Epiphany will run until the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, upon which day Lent begins.

Twelfth Night and the Start of Epiphany

Last year, I attended my first- ever Twelfth Night service at a relatively conservative Episcopalian church in Dallas' tony University Park enclave called St. Michael and All Angels.  It started at dusk, and ended well after nightfall.  After the service inside their towering, 1950's-vintage sanctuary with the massive marble wall across its chancel, we congregants were led outside to a mobile metal altar, where boughs and branches of evergreens had been piled high.  These had come from decorations which had been arranged throughout the church during Advent and Christmas, which meant they were dry and brittle - perfect kindling.

About two hundred of us gathered around the mobile metal altar, underneath the spreading branches of grand live oak trees (they're called "live oak" because they keep leaves all year long).  After a short prayer, one of the priests, wearing a striking white robe in the surrounding darkness, lit the stack of evergreens, which had already been doused with lighter fluid.


The entire pile of dry evergreens went up in a flash of white, orange, and yellow; a grand burst of light, energy, and heat.  The conflagration initially looked high enough to torch trees whose branches hung about twenty feet overhead, but the mobile altar had been strategically placed beneath an opening in the trees' canopy, and soaring fingers of flame licked up through the opening, probably another ten feet or so, until dying down to just below the canopy ceiling.

Impressive?  You bet!  Rush-hour traffic which had been crawling along the street in front of the church (does rush hour ever really end in Dallas?) practically came to a halt as passers-by stopped in amazement.  They knew it was a controlled burn of some kind - the church's forecourt was crowded with people, and the priests with their white vestments stood near the street, one of them holding a sparkling brass crucifer.

The reaction amongst us in the crowd was equally noticeable.  We gasped and shrank away at first, when the initial flash consumed the evergreens.  Then we quickly grew comfortable with the drama of the fire, and even appreciative of it, since it was chilly outside - yes, even Dallas gets cold around Christmastime - and the warmth contrasted so nicely with the winter air.

Officially, the service was over, but it took several minutes before the first few people started to walk away, either to the parking lot and leave, or to the church's fellowship hall, where a 12th Night "feast" had been prepared.  As I stood, lingering, letting the glow of the fire caress my face, even as my backside continued to complain about the cold, it struck me:  what symbolism from this fire, and the fire of the Holy Spirit!

I got it.

It was its own epiphany!

Not the Holy Spirit - I've had Him ever since I was saved, just like any believer.  No, what I "got" was the symbolism that many of us evangelicals have thrown out along with our very ambivalence to liturgical ceremonies like the 12th Night and Epiphany.  How more dramatic staging of the work of the Holy Spirit than a pile of dead evergreens ignited in the darkness?

This Little Light of Mine

What kind of witness could we be to our world - wherever in the world we've been called to serve - if we let the light of Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit (depicted as a flame in the Bible) shine through us?  Of course, if we're just a flash-in-the-pan, like this symbolic bonfire was, then we wouldn't be much use at all.  But that's not the point of this little tradition, is it?  Obviously, we've got to put the fire out.  St. Michael and All Angels probably had to obtain a permit from the University Park police to even have an open flame outdoors like that.  But can't you stop and enjoy the imagery?

Here we are - by outward appearance, we look green, like those evergreen branches did, even though, upon further inspection, you could tell they were dead, brittle, and dry.  Useless except for being turned into mulch, perhaps, or better yet: fire, light, and heat!

Traffic on the street outside the church practically stopped, remember?  Surprised, yes, but also intrigued by the impressive flame and the light it gave off.  Those of us standing around were soothed by the heat, even though none of us wanted to get too close!

If you'll permit me one of the axes I can't help but grind, a hallmark of seeker-sensitive, contemporary churches is refuting tradition so that our tactile, object-oriented culture can "relate" to the Gospel.  Meanwhile, I say that the 12th Night observance is just the traditional object lesson our seeker-sensitive churches, despite their cynicism of tradition, could use.

Sure, the 12th Night is extra-Biblical.  No, it's not a necessary component of worship.  And if you can't do it if it's raining on January 5, it's no huge loss to anyone's faith.

But it certainly helps, doesn't it?  And what's wrong with that?

"So, Mr. Liturgy-Lover," you may be asking, "if this 12th Night was so great, why didn't you go back this year?"

Because in his homily last year, the rector preached that the reason Christ came to Earth was so that we could communicate better amongst ourselves.

That's what he said.  No atoning sacrifice.  No propitiation for sins.  Nothing but being the equivalent of the first cell phone, or Mark Zuckerberg.

What pitiful theology, right?  To cap it off, an elderly gentlemen down in the front of the nave actually had the temerity to elicit a satisfied "Amen!" at the homily's conclusion.  An amen that echoed like a hollow punctuation mark in what was a grand room, yet a room I realized held little true faith.

And that's the problem with liturgy, isn't it?  Not that the liturgy itself is a problem, but that it's mostly faith-less churches that perpetuate the liturgy.  Liturgy that should be owned by God-led, God-worshipping, and God-preaching congregations.  In order that the glory of His name can be broadcast in at least a fraction of the gloriousness with which we describe days like this one here in Texas.

So... in Lone Star State parlance: happy E-piffnee, y'all!

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