Unlike Advent and Lent, the season of Epiphany doesn’t invite introspection or conscious spiritual development for many of us. And western Christians have ironically let this day of starlight be eclipsed by New Year’s and by a return to our post-holiday routines. Post-expectations, the light shines on us as we somewhat wearily resume our ordinary life-rhythms.
In the year 2000 I was with a friend in Manhattan whose family lived a block away from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine (an Episcopal church). So I snuck off one night for a vespers service that was on or near Epiphany — a beautiful quiet service by dim light. After the service even more lights were turned off, but to my surprise, no one got out of their seats. There was a long moment of quiet expectation instead. Then suddenly the organ burst forth with a wild jazzy improvisation on We Three Kings. I felt we’d suddenly been taken into a Phantom of the Opera live show, for these were not sedate kings but kings going to Mardi Gras. The organist was artist-in-residence at the cathedral then, Dorothy Papadakos. (I made a point of finding out and buying one of her CDs.)
I always remember just as much, though, the ripe silence before the sound, in a community that clearly was accustomed to a habitual sense of expectation after a vespers service. This seems right to me–to end our worship with open ears, listening for more.
Around Epiphany cluster images and stories of recognition. Foreigners follow astrological signs to find and worship Jesus as king; they leave gifts and depart, not needing to stay to hold onto Jesus or to witness the unfolding of his life. What an odd gesture, to travel so far for a mere act of recognition. I’d be tempted to remain, to stay near this child. Why do the wise men leave? It’s as if the star which brought them to Jesus signals also that it is enough for them to see Jesus once, and to leave behind tangible gifts which remind those who know the child Jesus that even Gentiles from the ends of the earth will honor him.
It seems overwrought to flash forward to celebrate Jesus’ adult baptism at or near the same time as Epiphany, but the intuitive association makes sense. Jesus’ baptism marks a public recognition that he is God’s anointed one, charged with mission. We do not honor an infant, but a person in whom time draws into a tight circle: a sudden emergence at birth, a sudden embarking upon his ministry at baptism, a sudden transfiguration before his disciples on Mt. Tabor, sudden glorification at the women’s shocking discovery of an empty tomb and a resurrected figure come to meet them.
Maybe the light of Epiphany — a light shining again in all the acts of recognition thereafter — is so bright that it is far easier for us to fathom the idea of just celebrating the birth of a baby and then leave it at that. Witnessing the birth of Christ is exhausting enough. Yet perhaps the most comforting thing about Epiphany is the starlight itself, shining persistently even when covered by clouds, or when our half of the earth is spinning to face another side of the galaxy.
Now that the incarnation has come, now that the Word of God made flesh is manifest and vulnerable in our midst, nothing in all of heaven or earth or the powers of bondage themselves can keep the star of the Anointed One from just being there. Our forgetfulness after Christmas doesn’t stop it from shedding light from its distant origin upon us all.