The Light of Epiphany

On January 6, the liturgical calendar marks the Feast of the Epiphany. We may know it best as the official end of the season of Christmas, which has twelve days, ending on January 5. The word itself comes from a Greek word that means “to manifest” or “to show,” and it was frequently used in pagan contexts to refer to an appearance of the divine. In the early Church, Epiphany was probably the more ancient celebration than Christmas. It is a festival of the Incarnation and brought together much of Jesus’ life, from his birth to the beginning of his public ministry. Among the events that were commemorated at Epiphany were his baptism and the Wedding at Cana.

With the rise of the commemoration of Christmas in the late fourth century, Epiphany came to focus on these other episodes in Jesus’ life. That focus continues to this day. All of the gospel readings used during Epiphany emphasize the divinity of Jesus Christ and the different ways in which his divinity was revealed to his followers and to the world. In the Episcopal Church, the season of Epiphany traditionally ends on the last Sunday before Lent with the reading of the gospel story of the Transfiguration.

Like Advent, Christmas, and Easter, Epiphany uses the image of light as a dominant symbol. From the star that in Matthew guides to the magi to the place of Jesus’ birth, to the celestial radiance that descends upon Jesus during the Transfiguration, light shines brightly in Epiphany. There is none of that darkness in which the Advent candles burn. The light of Epiphany shines on everything, transforming the world into the brightness of joy. Bach captures this idea in his lovely chorale, “Break forth, O beauteous heavenly light, and usher in the morning.”

I always experience Epiphany through the bright light of January. Among my favorite winter memories is walking through a woods on a moonlit night after a fresh snow. The light of the moon reflects off the snow and gives an eerie, heavenly light to the dark night. Sometimes it seems as if it were daylight. Then there is the brightness of a sunny day after the snow has fallen. The world always seems brighter to me in January. That, I suppose, is the message of Epiphany.

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