This brief sketch of how the Feast of the Epiphany and its ensuing season work was written by Bishop Smith in 2013. We are glad to share it with you today, January 6, as we celebrate Epiphany:
From early time there have been two gospel narratives associated with the Feast of the Epiphany itself. First is Matthew’s telling of the birth of the Messiah, with the notable characters of the magi playing their part, and including the flight into Egypt. Luke’s story, the one with the shepherds and the angels, comes at Christmastime.
The second Epiphany narrative, and the one with greater emphasis in the Christian East, is the baptism of Jesus. We celebrate this aspect of Epiphany on the Sunday following the feast. Every year on Orthodox Epiphany, you can see photographs and television clips of Orthodox believers piously jumping into lakes and rivers, in recollection of Jesus’ baptism. This is no act for the faint of heart in the middle of an Eastern European winter! But Eastern Christianity teaches that when John baptized Jesus in the Jordan River, Jesus’ contact with the water there blessed all the water in the world, and for all time, a delightful piece of faithful imagination. Thus Epiphany becomes a feast for giving thanks for the gift of water, that basic stuff of life—and new life through baptism. So the hardiest among pious believers jump into the water.
The second Sunday after Epiphany takes up a third a note from the historic lectionaries for the season, namely the “signs” of Jesus as told in John’s gospel. The favorite among these narratives is the miracle of water-into-wine at the wedding in Cana.
Then for the rest of the season the lectionary takes up the narrative of Jesus’ life, teachings, healings, and miracles, and does so until the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, when the Gospel is always the Transfiguration of Jesus. After the Lent-Easter-Pentecost cycle, the narrative of Jesus’ life continues during the Season after Pentecost.
This sketch is, admittedly, not the stuff of flash and adrenaline-rush. But perhaps understanding how the season works, beyond the piece about wise men following the star to Jesus, can lead to a deeper appreciation for the season and its movements. Perhaps we can see how it has been put together, from long centuries ago, in order to draw worshipers into a deeper belief in Jesus as the Messiah and God’s only-begotten.
Bishop Wayne Smith