The twelve days of Christmas came to an end on Friday, the Feast of the Epiphany, and we celebrated in our new chapel now called the Chapel of the Holy Innocents.
The events of Christ’s birth, this great God of love coming among us, form a kind of poem or painting that tells the story of the Incarnation and its meaning for us. We prepare for Christ’s coming throughout Advent, decorating our homes and singing carols. We gather for family meals on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, giving gifts and toasting Christmas. We go to church.
For many folks, Christmas ends on Christmas Day.
But in the Church it is only beginning. Throughout the twelve days of, after, Christmas we celebrate this great gift of God, until we come to January 6, Epiphany, the visit of the Wise Men, the Magi from the East, who bring gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
In the Gospels, this visit is recorded, but probably occurred much later in time than twelve days. But the visit is important, so tradition has collapsed time to place Epiphany in the same celebratory frame, the same poem or painting, as Christmastide itself.
For it is the Magi from the East who reveal the light of Christ. They are the ones who follow the star (possibly an angel) that lights their way to Bethlehem. Why do they follow? They want to see, to discover, to learn what this means. They want to be enlightened. And here we have the essence of Epiphany, that light lighting the darkness so that we can see out and in.
Epiphany comes from the Greek epiphaneia, to appear, to show forth, to see. We use this word to mean a sudden realization, a sudden burst of mental clarity, of light shining in the darkness of our understanding. When I have epiphanies it is as though I have tapped into something outside myself, as though the revelation has come from some outside source, suddenly inspired. In-spired comes from the Latin inspirire, to breathe into. To be inspired, to have an epiphany, is to have God breathing his life into me. He lights up my darkness.
This is the light of Christ. It fills all who welcome it so that they may in turn burn with his love and light. They become living flames to others. And this is what it means to be a Christian, to burn each day with love, with this light, and thus to enlighten our world.
Today at church, as I gazed on the crèche arranged in its bed of greens near the altar rail, I saw the three Wise Men kneeling before this humble baby, this king. Something new and miraculous had come to the earth, a being that would lighten their dark. The Gospel account in St. Matthew states that the Wise Men presented gifts, but we don’t really know how many. Tradition has made the gifts part of the poem and painting: gold for the child’s kingship, frankincense for his priesthood, and myrrh for his burial.
This visit completes Christmastide, for these foreign travelers represent us, those not part of the People of Israel at the time of Christ. All of us, the world, may now be part of this huge epiphany that happened two thousand years ago in a cave outside of Bethlehem, this real historical event.
Epiphanytide continues for four Sundays, and during this season we will see the other epiphanies of Christ. Today the Gospel spoke of the child Jesus speaking with the doctors in the temple, revealing his divinity. Soon we shall hear how his baptism revealed his divinity. We shall follow him to Cana, where he turns water into fine wine, revealing his divinity. Each Sunday shall be another epiphany of light, a burst of inspired understanding.
So God becomes man, lighting the darkness. St. John writes, “And the light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not,” so the church celebrates the poem and painting of Christmas, splashing the season with lots of light-filled epiphanies.