COVER STORY – EPIPHANY
If we could travel back in time, one of the many things that would no doubt surprise us would be the changes that have occurred in ecclesiastical emphasis. Virtually all Christians today would, for example, list Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter as our greatest Christian celebrations. Yet church historians tell us that many Christians in prior centuries regarded Epiphany as the preeminent Christian event. The change is difficult for modern Christians to grasp, especially given the fact that Epiphany receives so little emphasis or notoriety today. What caused such a dramatic shift in emphasis? In two words, ignorance and entitlement.
Christians today have no trouble identifying the basis for our modern celebrations of Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter: Jesus was born, Jesus died, and Jesus rose from the dead. Not so with Epiphany. While many could explain that the word epiphany means “manifestation” or “appearance”—and might even be able to associate Epiphany with the arrival of the Magi, the baptism of Jesus, and Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding feast in Cana—few could articulate the importance of those events. In the minds of most Christians today, Epiphany is encapsulated in Christmas. Jesus manifested Himself on earth at His birth. It seems illogical to us that God would send His Son into our world, but then withhold the revelation of that Son. The three events that are routinely commemorated in connection with the Epiphany simply tell us how God revealed His Son also to the Gentiles (the star that drew the Magi), how the Father announced to the Jews that Jesus was His Son (His Baptism), and the revelation of the miraculous powers that verified Jesus’ deity (changing water to wine in Cana). Given all of that, Christians today still find it difficult to grasp the significance that prior generations recognized in Epiphany.
The root problem can probably be traced back to our modern sense of entitlement, a symptom of the larger problem of human pride. Of course Jesus came to save all mankind, Jew and Gentile alike, and of course He revealed Himself when He came to earth as our Brother. Yet sinful mankind has the right to assume none of the truths of the Gospel. It is by grace we have been saved, and grace is rightly defined as “God’s underserved love for sinners”—unworthy, undeserving sinners.
Maybe the reason prior generations of Christians placed such great emphasis on Epiphany was that they did not share our modern sense of entitlement. Prior to the Reformation, God was portrayed as angry, demanding, and vindictive—all of which created the impression that He was inaccessible to sinful human beings. Through the Reformation, countless souls were blessed by the Holy Spirit with a correct, Biblical understanding of the God Who loved them enough to sacrifice His own Son to pay their sin-debt. Filled with joy and peace by the revelation of the true Gospel, those souls seemed to have been blessed with an abiding appreciation of the impossible dilemma from which they had been rescued. They were acutely aware of the fact that they had no path, no road, no means by which they could access their God through their own thoughts, words, or actions. No such path existed. “But the righteousness based on faith says, ‘Do not say in your heart, “Who will ascend into heaven?” (that is, to bring Christ down) or “Who will descend into the abyss?” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).’” (Romans 10:6-7 ESV) They recognized that since we could not ascend to God, God had to come to us. This, to our forefathers, was the celebration of Epiphany—the celebration of not only the fact of the one-way path between God and man, but also the fact that our Savior chose to travel that path. To Christians in former times, Epiphany was not viewed as a part of Christmas; rather, Christmas was regarded as a part of the greater mystery of Epiphany. We could not go to God, but He has come to us.
However we choose to celebrate Epiphany, we pray for a greater appreciation that our Savior-God traveled that one-way path, and that He did what only He could do.
Michael Roehl is pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Bismarck, North Dakota.