Epiphany Now

The extraordinary season is upon us

by:Diana Butler Bass

On January 5, the eve of Epiphany, I went for a night walk. We’d just had a big snowstorm in Virginia. The trees were still encased and frozen a silvery white, their branches sparkled in the moonlight against a deep blue sky. Everything was silent; the only sound was the cracking crust of hardened snow with each footfall. I wondered: Is this what it is like to dance across the stars?

And that is what Epiphany is--a season of stars. Magic. 

Of course, in more conventional use, Epiphany is a season in the Christian year — the weeks that follow Christmas until Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. In the northern hemisphere, it is the deep winter season, a time of starkness, cold, ice, and snow. Madeleine L’Engle once wrote that winter “reveals structure,” that which is behind the riot of leaf and flower of spring. Stripped down to the icy branches, Epiphany manifests a January spirituality helping us see what we cannot otherwise see.

Epiphany is not just a liturgical placeholder between two important Christian holy days. It may well be the most undervalued — and, in many ways, the most contemporarily relevant — season of the Christian year.

The traditional themes of Epiphany are light, glory, sight, revelation, and enlightenment. The seasonal cycle begins with the story of the Magi — three wise mystics — following a star, a journey that takes them to Jesus, God’s promise birthed into the world, wonder embodied as a tiny child. The most ordinary of human moments — birth — becomes extraordinary.

Epiphany is about seeing the extraordinary in the everyday. Some Christians call Epiphany “ordinary time,” but there’s nothing ordinary about it. Week after week, with each story presented in the yearly lectionary, what seems ordinary is revealed as something extraordinary. A baptism turns into a divine announcement; water becomes wine; reading holy words introduces a prophet of the Kingdom; a day’s laborious fishing breaks the nets with a great catch; the poor are blessed; and love, mercy, and forgiveness are offered not to friends but to those who seek to do us harm.

Epiphany is a cracking of the ice underfoot. The frozen world starts giving way to something else — the branches sparkle in the moonlight, a star leads to a barn, the beauty of the deep structure of things is revealed. We begin to wonder: Maybe every baptism announces God’s love. Maybe water always has been wine. Maybe we are all prophets of liberation. Maybe every day’s work holds abundance. The poor and sad and persecuted have always been the blessed. Perhaps we are always dancing on the stars and just don’t notice. Not until an epiphany. It is far more than a day. It isn’t just the “weeks following” Christmas or the Magi visit. This is the season of extraordinary time, the in-breaking of creation’s promise. This Epiphany, this seeing, this glory of the cosmos manifested here and now.

Indeed, Epiphany is best expressed through paint and poetry and imprecise preaching; it is the delight of theologians of imagination and children playing in snow. I suspect that is why it is largely ignored by those who have lost the sense that faith is magical and that miracles are real. But Epiphany is real. And you know it is real because of a single, powerful, and relevant truth: each of its miracles is met by a violent counterforce bent on extinguishing the extraordinary.

The Magi’s visit is followed by Herod’s infanticide. Jesus’ baptism happens in conjunction with John’s arrest. The miracle of water and wine is followed by an angry encounter with religious profiteers. Proclamation of the Kingdom results in a mob attempting to throw the prophet off a cliff. The great catch of fish causes the disciples to abandon their families and jobs. Blessings are followed by woes. And the call for mercy and forgiveness is countered with vicious rumors and the hatching of a plot to do away with Jesus.

This extraordinary season induces awe. It reveals that there is more to the world than what we accept as “ordinary.” And there are powers and principalities that will press against Epiphany with fear and great violence. To see the deep structure, to follow the star, to hear the breaking of the ice encasing the earth is threatening to those who benefit from “normal,” the accepted veneer of “ordinary” injustices and oppressions and indignities that bedevil and deceive the human race.

And thus: Epiphany is the season we need now. We need its clarity, its sharp starkness. Maybe our moment in history is an epiphany — the ordinary is being pulled back to reveal that which has been hidden from view. The mundane is charged with meaning — and epiphanies are everywhere. It is as if the universe has cracked open with truth — and terror. We live in awful and awe-filled times. For some of what we know as ordinary has become the gateway to glory; and some of what we’ve accepted as ordinary is only another guise of vainglory. It takes an epiphany to reveal which is which — to know the deepest love in the world and live in the tailings of the star

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