Ebenezer means "stone of help," and was the name of a monument raised by the prophet Samuel, saying, "Thus far has the Lord helped us." (1 Sam. 7:12) The hymn Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing includes the line, "Here I raise mine Ebenezer; hither by thy help I'm come." Through God's grace you and I have made it to today. Our job is to praise God for getting us here and trust him to bring us through tomorrow.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Epiphany for the Low Church

Matthew 2:1-2  “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’”

As I write this, a foot of fresh snow sits outside and the temperature is dropping below zero.  Despite modern portrayals, such was not the weather encountered by the Magi when they came to visit the infant Christ child.  And, just as the birth of Jesus may not have occurred in winter, we also have no idea when the Magi actually arrived to seek him out.  It may have been months later; some say up to two years, in fact.

Yet the day we now commonly set aside for remembering that occasion - Epiphany - occurs just 12 days after Christmas itself.  I've always had an interest in Epiphany, and this was magnified in 2005 when my grandmother passed away on January 6th.  The day has held more meaning to me ever since.  However, I have rarely been involved in a church that celebrated, or even recognized the existence of, Epiphany.  To borrow a phrase from across the pond, I have always been most comfortable in "low church" settings, in which liturgy and lectionary take a back seat to the Spirit and the people in the pews.  In such churches, however, Epiphany is largely unknown, or at least seen as a bit of a mystery.  So what are we to do with it?

First of all, it is important to recognize that Epiphany may be somewhat mysterious for a good reason.  It has a lengthy and varying history and has meant many different things to many different people.  In fact, it seems believers have celebrated Epiphany longer than they have celebrated Christmas, and depending on what era and region is in question, Epiphany has taken on differing forms.

Modern icon of the baptism of Christ
The important thing to remember is that Epiphany started as a celebration of the manifestation of Christ's divinity to the human race.  In other words, it commemorates the awesome miracle of God becoming flesh, and moreover, of God breaking into human history in the person of Jesus.  When we examine the Gospels, however, we see that this reality was made clear to people in more than one instance.  There is the birth of Jesus, in which angels announced his identity.  There is the visit of the Magi, when gentiles were introduced to the Son of God.  There is the baptism of Jesus by John, when those present witnessed the Holy Spirit descend upon Jesus.  And there is even the wedding at Cana, when Jesus performed his first miracle.  All of these happenings, and perhaps more, have been celebrated by Epiphany.

Today, Epiphany is widely celebrated by Eastern Christians, and the focus is upon the baptism of Jesus.  Among Western Christians, the focus is upon the visit of the Magi.  If you are part of a Western European tradition, that is probably the meaning of Epiphany with which you are most familiar.
"Adoration of the Magi" by Giotto, c. 1306

So what of us who are of the "low church" traditions?  What if Epiphany has never been a part of your church year?  What are we to do with it, if anything?  I suggest that even the low church should find ways to incorporate Epiphany into our life of worship.  It is not foreign or strange, but in fact celebrates the wonderful fact that God cared about us enough not only to dwell amongst us, but also to make his presence with us known.  For those of faith, that presence was a supreme blessing, as it still is today.  As I see it, Epiphany basically celebrates the Good News of Christ's incarnation itself, and therefore it is, in its broadest sense, a celebration of the Gospel.  Surely, we can set aside a day to recognize that, at least.

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