A fresh look at the ancient tradition of Epiphany

As I write this column, it’s Epiphany, a holiday on traditional church calendars that I’d never previously observed — though for most of my life I understood its meaning. Epiphany celebrates the visit by the Magi, or wise men, to the baby Jesus in Bethlehem, a story told in Matthew 2.

Although the gifts of the Magi tend to be linked by popular custom to Christmas, it has little to do with that tradition. The Magi traveled to Jerusalem led by a star. Seeking King Herod, they asked (as rendered the New International Version): “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.” Herod did not know to whom they were referring and inquired of the Jewish chief priests and teachers of the law what this meant. He was told the Messiah was foretold to be born in Bethlehem. Asking when they first saw the star, he was told the exact time. The Magi were asked to report back to Herod after finding the child. The star led them to Jesus’ house, where they bestowed upon him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh they’d brought him. Not returning to Herod, they returned home by another way after being warned in a dream.

Searching for Anchorage Epiphany services, I located only two references, both Episcopalian. When I asked the Rev. Leo Walsh of St. Benedict’s Parish about Roman Catholic Epiphany services, he replied, “Epiphany is celebrated in varying ways in various places. In the western states, we celebrate the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord on the second Sunday after Christmas. In other, less secular places, it is celebrated on Jan. 6, the traditional 12th Day of Christmas. In the Eastern Church, its celebration corresponds with our celebration of the Baptism of the Lord.”

I attended two Epiphany services Wednesday, a personally enriching experience. The first service was held at noon at All Saints’ Episcopal Church downtown. Though sparsely attended, it offered a rich liturgy. It seemed strange to be attending church on a midweek day. The liturgy, primarily spoken without singing was led by the Rev. Katherine Hunt from Christ Church Episcopal. Her brief extemporaneous homily underscored the meaning of the arrival of the Magi and its significance for Christians, mentioning that many of us go home another way after meeting Jesus. The Eucharist service followed, after which a healing prayer was individually offered by her for those remaining at the communion rail to receive it, a Wednesday tradition at All Saints.

An evening service at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church capped my Epiphany day. The service was more heavily attended than I anticipated. From beginning to end, the service was warm and welcoming. Rector Michael Burke explained various aspects of the service to keep all worshippers, especially guests, comfortable. Few local churches exhibit the practical hospitality I’ve observed at this fine church. Burke made sure members from another church that use St. Mary’s facilities weekly were welcome, along with other guests.

I was surprised to find the Rev. Martin Eldred — who pastors Joy Lutheran Church in Eagle River — had been invited to deliver the homily. (Lutheran and Episcopal churches enjoy a full communion relationship, where each can officiate in the other’s churches.) Martin’s extemporaneous homily began in Old Testament times when, post-exile, Jews rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem and created purity laws that were driving people away. He fast-forwarded to the New Testament, which found the people of Israel under the yoke of Roman oppression, yearning for the king foretold in Isaiah. Eldred described the shepherds, who celebrated the birth of Jesus, as being social outcasts. Later, the Magi came, found the young Jesus, and brought him their gifts. The embracing message of these foreigners visiting Jesus was that other cultures recognized the significance of his birth, coming to pay royal homage to him.

Walsh says we can draw two lessons from the visitation of the Magi: “First, like the Magi, one has to be looking for Christ in order to perceive him. Faith is about relationships. When our relationships are rightly ordered, then we can see God is at work. If not, then it is unlikely that we ever will. Second, we often want to understand everything all at once. But life and God’s plans unfold slowly. Life is a journey, and one for which we don’t have a map. Rather, the spirit is more like a GPS, which barks out one instruction at a time.”

Celebrating Epiphany, I found new meaning in the gospel narrative of the Magi. Theologian Walter Brueggemann, in his poem Epiphany, writes in part, “Give us the imagination like theirs to go home by another route on the path where foolishness is wisdom and weakness is strength and poverty is wealth. Make our new foolishness specific that the world might become — through us — new.”

It’s unfortunate that more local churches, which tend to pull out the stops for Christmas, don’t incorporate the lessons of Epiphany at this time of year, underscoring the universality of the gospel.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog,churchvisits.com.

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words toletters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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