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Reconsidering Epiphany

It is hard to deny that our celebration of Epiphany has fallen on hard times. For most Christians, both the day itself (January 6th) and the season of the church year that follows pass largely unnoticed. A reevaluation is in order, if for no other reason than that this was not always so.

Church historians tell us that early Christians placed much more emphasis on Epiphany than we do today. Their celebration is believed to have overshadowed even their commemoration of Christmas. The passage of time has obscured the reasons, which is not surprising. Time obscures everything that is not carefully recorded and consciously preserved—which is what God’s Word provides. All else so easily gets clouded and confused. Our beloved manger scenes are a case in point. Most depict three kings worshiping the Baby Jesus as He lay in a manger in a wooden stable, the star overhead, and the angels, shepherds, and farm animals looking on. The reality is that the “Magi” were almost certainly not kings, their number is unknown (as are their names), and they visited long after the shepherds had returned to their flocks—up to two years after Jesus’ birth, by which time Jesus’ family was no longer living in a stable but a house. It is also unlikely that the stable where Jesus was born was made of wood rather than stone, and that it was detached from the owner’s house. Finally, there is no mention in God’s Word of angels, shepherds, or animals being present when the Magi visited.

What we do know is that the early Christians focused on Epiphany because it represented not only Jesus’ “manifestation” or “revelation” to the world (the root meaning of “epiphany”) but also his revelation individually to every Christian, both Jew and Gentile.

We today find it inconceivable that Jesus would come to earth without revealing Himself. Early Christians did not seem to harbor that presumption. Their celebration of the Epiphany acknowledged not only their own unworthiness, it acknowledged the fact that their personal or individual recognition of Jesus as the Promised Messiah was itself a gift that had to be provided by God Himself. Theirs was, in fact, both a humble and Scriptural attitude. For mankind to benefit from Jesus’ incarnation, He had to be revealed to us. This was not a given. Recall how Mary was unable at first to recognize the risen Savior outside of the tomb (John 20:15-16). The two disciples on the road to Emmaus did not recognize Jesus as He walked and talked with them: “Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” (Luke 24:15-16 ESV) It was only after He broke bread with them that “their eyes were opened.” (Luke 24:30-31) When Jesus appeared in the upper room, His own Apostles thought they were seeing a spirit (Luke 24:37), and they again initially failed to recognize Him standing beside the Sea of Galilee (John 21:4).

Epiphany is the humble recognition that not only was mankind utterly unworthy to have Jesus enter our world as our Savior, it is the acknowledgement of His grace in revealing Himself not only to the world, but to us, personally and individually, as the Son of God and the fulfillment of the ancient Messianic Gospel promise. Surely this provides more than enough evidence for a change in attitude toward this season of Epiphany, as well as a worthy target for our praise, worship, and thanksgiving.

Michael Roehl is pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Bismarck, North Dakota.