Monday, January 6, 2014

January Sixth, the Twelfth Night

Today is the sixth of January.

So what, you ask?  It's Monday, the beginning of the first full calendar workweek of 2014.  It's back to the grind after two weeks of holidays.  And even here in Texas, the temperatures are frigid.  Fifteen degrees - with a windchill of about two - when my clock radio turned on this morning.

Nevertheless, no matter the day of the week on which it may fall, January 6 on the Christian calendar denotes the Feast of Epiphany.  Ee-PIFF-ah-nee.  It's also called the "Twelfth Night," since January 6 is twelve days after December 25, the day we "officially" commemorate the birth of Christ.

Yes, centuries upon centuries of us humans re-telling the life of Christ - and striving, in some meager way, to ascribe a contrived extravagance to the mortality He suffered on our behalf - has inflicted some indignities with regards to accuracy.  We celebrate Christmas when we do, for example, because it was easier for early church leaders to link it with other secular holidays than to try and figure out a more precise timeline for the Nativity (which was probably in late March or early April).

Speaking of contrivances, it's worth noting that the Magi, whose visit with the Christ Child the feast of Epiphany commemorates, were never in the stable, as is popularly portrayed.  Nor do we know if there were only three of them.  We know there was more than one, that they traveled a great distance that couldn't possibly have been traversed the night Christ was born, and that when they finally did arrive, they brought three gifts for the Christ Child.*

Hey - not to rain on your "three kings at the stable" parade; even the whole "Twelfth Night" thing is man-made; the Magi did not arrive at Bethlehem twelve minutes after His birth, or twelve days, or twelve months - or twelve anything.  The number twelve is simply a theologically significant, frequently recurring number in the Bible.

Epiphany may look like it's a contrived tradition, which is the excuse many modern evangelicals give for ignoring it, but that's too bad, because Epiphany is, more importantly, chock-full of Gospel relevance.  Epiphany celebrates the physical revelation and purpose of our incarnate God in the form of Jesus, since it was through the gifts given by the Magi that tangible confirmation of this human baby's redemptive role in history was established.  Yes, the angels had proclaimed the birth of Christ, the shepherds had witnessed it, and Simeon and Anna had orally validated it, but the gold, frankincense, and myrrh from the Magi provided material proof for it in a world always searching for tactile affirmation.

Theologians postulate that the baby Jesus was probably two or three years old by the time the Magi arrived in Bethlehem, and that Joseph and Mary had established a residence for their little family in the same town over which the Christ Star had shone since the night of His birth.  It's even possible - although unlikely - that Joseph and Mary, by the time the Magi arrived, already had other children, since by then, they would have been officially married for a while.  But even if they didn't have at least one other child by natural means, how awkward must it have been to watch what was likely a caravan of royal astronomers and sages pull up at their front gate?

With, of all things, gold, frankincense, and myrrh?

These were exceptionally important gifts.  The gold they gave, for example, represents the royalty of Jesus as the King of Kings.

Frankincense was an expensive perfume used in the Jewish temple representing worship as a fragrant offering to God.  In the context of being a gift from the Magi, it signifies the consecration of Christ's pure life of service on Earth that would please His holy Father (some branches of Christianity tie frankincense to Christ's baptism by John the Baptist, and the dove appearing from Heaven as God decreed His pleasure in His Son).

Myrrh is a luxurious, aromatic resin that, in Biblical times, was used in the embalming process, as corpses were wrapped for burial.  Obviously, this could have been an exceedingly troubling gift for Mary and Joseph, charged with rearing the young Savior, since it foreshadowed the Passion of Christ and His arrest, torture, and crucifixion.

Sobering, indeed; and yet, for us, a reminder of the intrinsic, righteous, and holy purposes for Christ's mortality.  So that's why Epiphany is considered a feast day for believers in Christ, because without the attributes these gifts symbolize, we would have nothing at all to celebrate.

Think about it:  the gold can be seen in Christ's royal yet servile life that pleased God (frankincense) and demonstrated a sort of death (myrrh) to self.

Since no mention of these gifts is ever made again in the Gospels, some theologians have speculated as to whether or not Joseph sold them to fund the family's flight into Egypt to escape Herod.  Or maybe the family sold of some of it over time as daily bills continued to come due during Christ's growing-up years in Nazareth.  At least if the family had saved the myrrh, don't you think one of the apostles would have included a reference to it when Christ's body was taken from the cross and placed in the tomb?

Nevertheless, since the gifts from the Magi were rich in both their cost and symbolic affirmation, what happened to them matters far less than what they represent.  Maybe it's not a sin to casually shuffle the Magi conveniently about our Nativity scenes, but the Incarnation narrative as a whole is incomplete without understanding what they brought.  We Christ-followers may have meshed together some parts of His story over the millennia, but the basic components of that story remain as true as when they happened in real time, in real places, to real people, involving real gifts with real significance.

After two thousand years of telling and retelling this story, to have only the timeline get fudged is a pretty remarkable testament to its overall integrity.  Don't you think?

Like I mentioned earlier, a lot of evangelicals don't bother celebrating Epiphany, and the churches that do tend to lean on the liberal side of Christendom.  I attended a Twelfth Night service at a large Episcopal church in Dallas a couple of years ago, and the sermon was something about Christ coming to Earth to help us communicate better with each other.

Um, no; that wasn't the reason!

So, since the selection of theologically-sound Epiphany services near your home will likely be slim to none, I've taken my "virtual worship service" idea I had a few years ago for Christmas and tweaked it for a Twelfth Night observance.  It's shorter, since the repertoire for music about the Magi tends to be almost exclusively about three kings, which, as I also mentioned earlier, is more fiction than fact.  After all, it's not like we need any more folklore and legend in the account of God's Incarnation as The Christ.

Basically, just flow through the "order of worship" below, clicking on each link to open the videos from YouTube in a new window.  So, without any further ado, let us proceed with our virtual concert, complete with opening and closing prayers:

Bidding Prayer:  Oh great God, Whose divine providence has granted us salvation through Your holy Son, Whose birth we commemorate this season, we Your people bid Your help so as to worship You in spirit and truth, not just as we join in these praises to You, but as we celebrate Your many good gifts to us, not the least of which is our very reason to be joyful, our incarnate Savior, even Jesus, the Christ.

Opening Fanfare
J. S. Bach, "For the First Day of Christmas (Part 1)" from the Christmas Oratorio

The Narrative
"From the Squalor of a Borrowed Stable" by Stuart Townend

(Despite its sub-par audio quality and quaint aesthetics, I chose this video because the girls who are singing come from an African orphanage, helping to represent the global breadth of God's salvific plans through the incarnation of His Son.)

The Invitation
"O Come, All Ye Faithful"

"O Magnum Mysterium" from the ancient Matins for Christmas; this version composed in 1994 by Morten Lauridsen of Los Angeles, California

Latin text:  O magnum mysterium, et admirabile sacramentum, ut animalia viderent Dominum natum, jacentem in praesepio!  Beata Virgo, cujus viscera meruerunt portare Dominum Christum. Alleluia.

English translation:  O great mystery, and wonderful sacrament, that animals should see the new-born Lord, lying in a manger!  Blessed is the Virgin whose womb was worthy to bear Christ the Lord. Alleluia!

J. S. Bach, "Gloria in Excelsis Deo" and "Et in Terra Pax" from the Mass in B Minor

(Yes, we have South Koreans singing in Latin!  The Gospel isn't just for English speakers, is it?  I hope I don't need to translate, but just in case, "gloria in excelsis Deo" means "Glory to God in the highest," and "et in terra pax" means "and peace on earth.")

Benediction:  Eternal God, Who replaces our night of despair with the brightness of Thy one true Light, bring us who have known the revelation of that Light on Earth to see the radiance of Thy heavenly glory through Jesus Christ, Thy Son, our Lord, Who liveth and reigneth with Thee in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever, Amen.

Our Lord Christ, to Whom gifts from the magi heralded Thy royalty, divinity, and sacrifice, please fill us who are Thy servants with goodwill as partakers in Thy salvation, and with hope, and with exceeding gladness in sharing with others the gift of Yourself, the holy Babe of Bethlehem, Amen.

Gracious Holy Spirit, on behalf of those who mourn, who are destitute, or who otherwise need our ministry of compassion, we humbly beseech Thy bountiful mercy during this festival season, even as Thou dost direct us to be Thy hands and feet of goodwill to our neighbors.

And the blessing of God almighty, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, be upon Your people, both now, and forevermore.  Amen.

* Perhaps I should also point out that some explanations for Epiphany involve the presumption that the Magi were the first Gentiles to meet the Christ Child, and thus, their visit was the "epiphany," or revelation, of Christ to the non-Jewish world.  I have three problems with this view:  First, the fact that it introduces religion (not faith) into the Gospel narrative; second, that it seems to either subordinate Judaism or unduly elevate "Christianity" when God's Incarnation was nonreligious; and third, because there are a lot of schools of thought on the role of Jewishness in Christ's earthly ministry, and it's hard to know which is the right one (although I personally tend to side with John Piper's view).  So, for the sake of God's glory over mankind's theologizing, I prefer to minimize this aspect of Epiphany.

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