EPIPHANY: BRING LIGHT TO THE WORLD
BY John Armistead
Christmas isn’t over for many congregations in Northeast Mississippi until this weekend. Only now will they take the Christmas trees and red-ribboned wreaths out of their churches. For these Christians, Christmas isn’t a day. It’s a season. And, the Christmas season doesn’t end until Epiphany.
Epiphany comes from the Greek Testament word epiphaneia. This is the word the Apostle Paul used when he spoke of a crown of righteousness which awaits everyone who longs for Christ’s “appearing” (II Timothy 4:8), and from this word comes the name of one of the principal seasons in the Christian year.
Epiphany is celebrated on Jan. 6, the 12th day after Christmas, and commemorates the revealing of Christ to the Gentile (non-Jewish) world, represented by the Magi at Bethlehem. For churches which follow the Christian year, this day marks the end of the season of Christmas.
Epiphany is one of the three oldest festival days of the church, the other two being Easter and Pentecost. Originally, the word referred simply to the coming (“appearing”) of Christ (as in the Christmas carol “now in flesh appearing”) and making known his divinity at his baptism in the Jordan River and by his first miracle at Cana of Galilee. Later, Epiphany became associated with the Magi who came to the infant Jesus with offerings of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Epiphany, like all the special days and seasons of the church year, evolved as early Christians sought the most meaningful and effective ways to worship. They developed forms (or “orders of service”) to guide them. The forms (or “liturgy,” from the Greek Testament word for “service,” leitourgia) were at first based on Jewish synagogue worship since all of the original followers of Christ were Jewish.
These early Christians continued to follow the Jewish liturgical year although they saw the ancient seasons in a new light. Passover, the major feast in the Jewish religion, came to emphasize the death and resurrection of Jesus. Pentecost now commemorated the coming of the Holy Spirit.
Sometimes during the 3rd century, Christians in the east began observing Epiphany as a celebration of the nativity of Jesus. The date was set at Jan. 6. Shortly thereafter, Christians in the west began to celebrate the nativity of Jesus on Dec. 25. In time, Christians saw the 12 days linking the two dates as the Christmas “season.”
Other seasons such as Lent and Advent as well as special services on Good Friday and Easter Sunday morning evolved later.
Then, for the next thousand years, all Christians would follow the church year with its major festivals focusing on the life of Jesus Christ from his birth to his ascension and the coming of the Spirit.
Some gave up Epiphany
After the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, however, many newly formed churches developed revised forms of worship. Lutherans on the European continent and the Church of England retained the basic structure of the old liturgical year. In 17th century England, however, the Puritans (which included Presbyterians, Baptists, and Congregationalists among others) threw out the entire church-year system except for Sunday as the principal day of worship.
In time, Easter reasserted itself and came to be observed by most Christian churches. Likewise, in a few generations, Christmas found its way back onto the calender, and, much more recently, Advent and Lent. Today, it is not at all uncommon to find Baptist and Methodist churches lighting Advent wreaths and holding Christmas Eve services.
Bringing light to the world
“The major emphasis for us is to celebrate Christmas as a season and not as a day,” said the Rev. Shannon Johnston, rector of All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Tupelo. Epiphany, as the close of a 12-day Christmas, helps people remember this.
All Saints’ conducted a “12th Night” Christmas pageant last night. After the service, the congregation processed outside singing “We Three Kings.”
In that Epiphany recognizes Jesus manifesting himself as the “light of the world” to the Gentile Magi, who themselves had followed a star to Bethlehem, light has always been an important symbol of Epiphany.
Johnston encouraged the families of All Saints’ to keep their trees up until the end of the 12 days and then bring them to the church. Members stack the dried out evergreens into a huge pile, which is then burned. “The big bon fire on 12th Night and the bringing of the greens is an old tradition,” Johnston said.
The Rev. Steven Pawelk is pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in New Albany and of St. Christopher Catholic Church in Pontotoc. “We keep up the Christmas decorations till Epiphany,” he said. “Each week the three kings, which started at the back of the church, are moved a bit closer to the nativity scene. This Sunday they will finally arrive at the cradle.”
At St. Christopher after worship on Epiphany Sunday, Little Christmas will be celebrated. Each child will receive a gift.
“We really try to have the 12 days,” Pawelk said. “People are encouraged to play Christmas music and keep the trees up. We’ll sing Christmas carols right up till the 7th.”
First Presbyterian Church of Tupelo began something new this year to help its families keep the full 12 days of Christmas. “We handed out a surprise package to each family,” said the Rev. Ann Houston Kelly, associate pastor. “The family has a project for each day. On one day they make Mary and Joseph, on another Jesus and the star, then the stable. The last Wise Man is done on Saturday, Jan. 6.”
Advent as preparation
Most churches following the liturgical year do not celebrate Christmas during Advent, the four weeks prior to Christmas. “We don’t sing Christmas carols and we don’t put up a Christmas tree during Advent,” said the Rev. Tim Murphy, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Aberdeen. “Advent is a time of waiting, of hoping.”
As at many churches, one candle in the Advent wreath was lit each Sunday at St. Francis. Also, a banner was displayed on which was the question, “Are you ready?”
A season not a day
On the first day of Christmas at Aberdeen’s St. Francis, a second banner was placed beside the first in answer to the question posed by the first. The words “To follow His star” were sewn on the second banner. Both banners will remain before the congregation for the entire 12 days of Christmas.
“Christmas is more than just a day,” said Murphy, the church’s pastor. “It’s a journey. It’s more than a moment. It’s a lifetime. Epiphany means that Christ is among us. To find him we have to go out of the way to the vulnerable.”
Murphy appreciates the fact that the liturgical tradition gives people time to experience things as a community. Like the Magi, he says, people must journey in faith “to find the One who is our joy, our hope, our heart’s desire, love’s pure light.”
“That’s why it is more than a day,” he said. “We have to avoid the Herods of this world whatever that demands of us. I think that’s how this story can have meaning for us. No, Christmas isn’t a day. Christmas ends when the wise and the powerful come to the manger and kneel in the dust.”