Epiphany: Notes on a forgotten season.


The Season of Epiphany seems to have almost disappeared from Western Christendom. It used to be a season; now it is only a single day. Our Roman Catholic brethren in the United States now celebrate only the DAY of Epiphany. And they don't even celebrate it on January 6th anymore: it has been moved to the Second Sunday after Christmas; Usually, the next Sunday is the Baptism of the Lord. Sometimes, the Baptism is bumped to Monday. And the whole thing from December 25th to The Baptism of the Lord is just ""The Days of Christmas."

And after the Baptism of the Lord, it's just called "Ordinary Time" until Lent. Not "Epiphany." Similarly, the Season of Pentecost has also become "Ordinary Time."

Something has been lost by doing this.

Epiphany and Pentecost observed as whole seasons are beautifully analogous to the two classic types of sacred life: Active and Contemplative. Whereas Pentecost - the Season - is about actively living out our faith by being the church in the world, Epiphany - the Season - is given over to the contemplation of who Jesus IS.

The word "Epiphany," of course, means "Manifestation," and the season is given over to focusing on many Scriptural revelations of the nature of Christ. As it follows Christmas, it almost seems as though the liturgy is saying, "Ok - so now we have this baby. So who IS he?" And the whole rest of the season is given over to answering that very profound question.

It starts with the first Manifestation to the Gentiles - the wise men from the East who came, bringing the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh that show that this child is King, God, and Sacrifice. Then it moves on to His baptism where the Spirit descends and the voice of the Father calls Him the Beloved Son. Then, in one out of the three liturgical years (it used to be in all three) the week following recounts his first miracle - Cana - the miraculous foreshadowing of the water and blood which flowed from His side. Then, the encounter of Paul on the road to Damascus. The Confession of Peter, where the Christ's identity is stated plainly. And the climax, of course, is the Presentation in the Temple, where we all can say - just like Simeon - that our eyes have seen the Savior.

In this context, I think the recent practice of commemorating the Transfiguration on the last Sunday of Epiphany is a good one. The Transfiguration is not only perhaps the most complete Manifestation of Christ before the resurrection, but a fitting prelude to Lent, just as in the Gospels it is the event that immediately precedes Jesus turning His face toward Jerusalem and taking the road to crucifixion.

And the readings of the other Sundays also tend to be miracle stories: Jesus healing lepers, the blind, the demon-possessed; calming the storm; walking on the surface of the sea.

Although some have changed the name of the Season, the readings have for the most part not changed. But by calling it "ordinary time," the character of the season now receives scant attention. Because of that, many Christians - even those who follow a church calendar - are probably unaware that the period between Christmas and Lent possesses a unified theme. Many are unaware that it is a time to examine, to think about, and to answer the most fundamental question of our faith:

"Who do you say that I am?"

- Carl Fortunato




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