Epiphany used to be quite a big deal in the church. It still is, of course, but now it’s often eclipsed by Christmas. Yet Epiphany was around long before Christmas, it turns out. It was the third great feast day of the church after Easter and Pentecost. If Easter celebrates Jesus’ resurrection and Pentecost the coming of the Holy Spirit, Epiphany celebrates the early manifestation of Jesus to the world. In the early days of the church, Epiphany celebrated Jesus’ baptism since that was the beginning of his ministry—it was later in the western church that it became associated with the three wise men. Overall we might think of Epiphany as a hipster Christmas—the celebration of Jesus’ coming into the world before it was cool to celebrate Jesus coming into the world.
Yet what do we make of Epiphany? In these few weeks we celebrate so many moments in Jesus’ life that one can be forgiven for wondering what ties them all together—the three wise men, Jesus’ baptism, his transfiguration. What’s the link?
Start by thinking about the last time you had an epiphany. Imagine that moment when you are working on a project, perhaps at work dealing with a seemingly intractable problem or a home improvement project where things didn’t quite square up as you hoped, then suddenly you get it. The frustration and the exasperation seemed released all of sudden. In that moment we not only feel relieved, we feel free in some way. It isn’t just that the problem we’ve struggled with has been overcome, it’s that we’re freed from former constraints we felt from that problem. We think of an epiphany as a discovery that illuminates something, as a realization. Something hidden has become uncovered, or is seen with new light.
What would it be like for humanity to have an Epiphany? Think about the illumination, the release, and the freedom of your own epiphany, and now extend to that all human beings across time. Imagine an event carrying so much significance that it changed what it means to be a human being. What would it be like for human identity itself be discovered anew, illuminated with new radiance? Just when people thought they really knew something about being human, they discover something that changes everything.
This is exactly how the early Christians felt about their encounter with Jesus. His life was so saturated in divinity that it gave new meaning to humanity. Jesus’ humanity was so shot through with divinity that it changed everything they knew about being human. We get this sense in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians: he talks about Jesus as a mystery given to humankind that “in former generations was not made known.” Yet now human beings have seen and known Jesus, the ultimate paradigm of being human. God’s divine life has become accessible to human beings in ways never before known; in Christ, Paul says, “we have access to God.”
When one reads early church writers, there is a certain excitement in their prose, a sense of freshness and discovery. It’s been said they write as if they gesticulate with their entire being. I think it’s because they lived close enough to the life of Jesus that they felt the newness He gave to humanity. When 4th century theologian Athanasius said “God became like us, so that we might become like God,” this wasn’t old news, this was a revolution.
Jesus changes what it means to be human, he shows us that human life can be linked with the divine, each and every day. Amid our petty human concerns for status, amid our seemingly ceaseless jockeying for position, Epiphany shows us there is more to life. In that sense Epiphany brings hope: hope that we can rise above our worst human tendencies, hope that we can experience a life inspired by God’s Spirit, hope that just as God became like us, we might become like God.
The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog