Epiphany: A Crowded Holiday

If you’re following this blog or its Facebook page, chances are you know what Epiphany’s about.  After the twelve days of Christmas comes this holiday in which we celebrate the arrival of the magi, or wise men, bearing gifts for the Christ Child.  It is the beginning of the inclusion of the Gentiles in the worship of Jesus, the first fruits of “the wealth of the nations” flowing into the land of Israel.

But what fewer of you may realize is that this day has traditionally had three different points of focus, making it unusually “crowded” as a holy day.

Story #1: the adoration of the magi

The Communion service, being the primary liturgy in a given day, centers us on the story of Matthew 2:1-12.  This is what we normally think of when we look at The Day of the Epiphany.

Story #2: The Baptism of Jesus

At Morning Prayer, the New Testament lesson was traditionally from Luke 3, relating the ministry of John the Baptist, particularly highlighting his role in baptizing our Lord Jesus.  In the 1928 Prayer Book, this came to occupy the Communion Gospel for the 1st Sunday after the Epiphany.

Story #3: The Wedding at Cana

At Evening Prayer, the New Testament lesson was traditionally from John 2, telling the story of Jesus’ first miracle, turning water into wine.  In the Revised Common Lectionary (including our 2019 Prayer Book) this came to occupy the Communion Gospel for the 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany in the third year of the cycle.  That means we’ll get to hear it in just under two weeks!

Holding them all together

One might wonder what these other two stories have to do with the Epiphany.  I suspect that the more modern focus on the Magi and the inclusion of the Gentiles has muddied our ability to understand the more traditional Epiphany Day.  The central theme is noted in the very word epiphany.  It’s about the “showing” or “revealing” of God in the person of Jesus Christ.  It’s a holiday (and subsequent season) that focuses on showing us that this child whose birth we just celebrated is actually God-in-the-flesh.  The adoration of the Magi, with their symbolism-heavy gifts, shows us the divinity of Christ.  The baptism of Jesus is a break-through moment for all to see the Holy Trinity, including God the Son.  The wedding at Cana included the first “sign” by which Jesus would be known as the Christ, as God himself.

In our ACNA lectionary, it seems that we double up on the story of the Magi: it’s the Gospel at the Communion service as well as the New Testament lesson at Morning Prayer.  Evening Prayer gives us the Wedding at Cana.  The Baptism of Christ has been lost from the Epiphany Day celebrations.  But considering that we now celebrate it on the following Sunday in all three years of the Communion lectionary cycle, we aren’t missing much in omitting it on January 6th.  But it’s good that we have retained the Wedding at Cana reading, since that will only be heard at the Communion service on the 2nd Sunday once every three years.

What happened to the 2nd Sunday after Christmas?

As you look ahead, you see that this Sunday will not be “the 2nd Sunday after Christmas”, but the feast of the Epiphany.  Does this mean we miss the 2nd Christmas Sunday this year?

Yes.

This is not unusual; close to half the time that Sunday will be omitted.  In fact, Prayer Books before the 1928 didn’t include a 2nd Sunday at all.  In the event that such a 2nd Sunday occurred, the old way was to celebrate The Circumcision that Sunday.  The rubrics in our 2019 book, last I saw, allow for some flexibility: we’ll be able to choose precisely how to implement these Sunday and Holy Day Collects & Lessons in the latter half of the 12-day Christmas season and beginning of Epiphanytide.  Perhaps another year we can explore than in greater detail, when such a Sunday is available to us.

But this year, hopefully we should all be on the same page: this Sunday, January 6th, is the feast of the Epiphany.  Time to celebrate those magi worshiping Christ!

The Last Epiphany?

The Collect of the Day for this past Sunday, repeated throughout this week, is:

O God, whose blessed Son came into the world that he might destroy the works of the devil and make us children of God and heirs of eternal life: Grant that, having this hope, we may purify ourselves as he is pure; that, when he comes again with power and great glory, we may be made like him in his eternal and glorious kingdom; where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever  Amen.

In the classical Prayer Books, this was the Collect for the 6th Sunday after the Epiphany.  One might ask why this Collect should be re-purposed to almost the opposite part of the year.  What is an Epiphanytide Collect doing in November?  One might also look at the text more carefully, notice the eschatological content (its emphasis on the return of Christ, the last judgment, and our preparation for that), and wonder what it was doing in Epiphanytide in the first place.  Isn’t this more like an Advent theme?

It turns out this Collect did double-duty.  Depending upon the date of Easter, Epiphanytide and Trinitytide vary in length: when Easter is early Epiphany is shorter and Trinity longer; when Easter is late Epiphany is longer and Trinity shorter.  The 6th Epiphany Sunday, in the old calendar, was the last possible Epiphany Sunday before the Pre-Lent Sundays kicked in, meaning it was only rarely used.  And so instead the traditional calendar appointed the 6th and 5th Epiphany Sundays as extra Trinitytide Sundays to insert in November if and when the 24 Trinity Sundays ran out.

And so, very appropriately, this Collect, with its lessons (most noteably Matthew 24:23-31) served both purposes.  The Collect’s eschatological emphasis and Jesus’ discourse of the latter days in Matthew 24 served both as an anticipation of the Advent season at the end of the Trinitytide sequence, and as the “last” Epiphany.  In the historic lectionary, Epiphanytide was not the ‘ordinary time’ we have today; its lessons were not sequential but topical, exploring various epiphanies of the divinity of Christ.  The last of these epiphanies was this one, in Matthew 24, the final revelation of Jesus upon his return in great glory to judge both the living and the dead.

So enjoy this Collect today, and for the rest of the week.  Its connections way back to Epiphany and its anticipation of the coming Advent season serves us well at this time of year.