Friday, January 6, 2012

Liturgical Musings

Perhaps one of the most misunderstood seasons of the year is Epiphany. It sneaks in at the end of Christmas, when most of the world is bemoaning the weight they gained during November and December and the amount of money they’ve spent in the past few months. It gets little notice, even in church, because we’re so worried about everything else that’s going on.

Epiphany falls on January 6th. It is the celebration of the Magi coming to visit Jesus, as recorded in Matthew 2. Epiphany is the celebration of Jesus revealing himself to the Gentiles. The shepherds were the first to know and pay their respects. But God then allowed the Magi to find out, and they also came to worship. Tradition holds that there were three wise men, known as Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar.

The first Sunday after the Epiphany is known as “The Baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ”. The Gospel readings are from Matthew 3, Mark 1, and Luke 3, and deal with Jesus coming down to the Jordan to be baptized by John. It is here that Christ is revealed as the Son of God: “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” (Mt. 3:17).

The next few weeks are known as “Ordinary Time”, and the color is green. The time is ordinary, not in the sense of being common or everyday, but in the sense of being counted. There are at least four Sundays and at most nine Sundays after the Epiphany. The number of Sundays varies by year and is dependent on the first day of Lent, called Ash Wednesday, which is in turn dependent on the date of Easter.

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) is set up so that each year, if Easter falls early and therefore the Season After Epiphany is short, those readings can be taken in the weeks following Pentecost (since that season will be longer in years when Easter is early). If Easter is later, however, more Sundays will fall between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday, and fewer between Pentecost and Christ the King, so the first few readings of the season after Pentecost are used in Epiphany. Confused yet?

Further, the Sunday readings all deal with Christ revealing himself to us. So we read about the wedding at Cana (Jesus revealing himself as the Son of God to his disciples through the miracle of turning water to wine), and so forth. Each Sunday deals with Jesus revealing himself to us as the Savior.

In Anglican, Lutheran, and those Protestant churches which follow the RCL, the final Sunday after Epiphany is known as Transfiguration Sunday. The readings are from Matthew 17, Mark 9, and Luke 9, where Jesus was transfigured before Peter, James, and John. Christ is again revealed as the Son of God: “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!” (Mt. 17:5) This is the ultimate revelation, the climax in our discovery of who Christ is. One of my favorite hymns for the day is Charles Wesley’s “Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies”:

Epiphany is about growth, about Christ revealing himself to us. Christ reveals himself to us as we journey through life. The question is whether we will recognize him and follow him.

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