The end of the beginning
Are you having an Epiphany bonfire? Then your tradition goes deep. The January 6 church festival is about elementals: light, water, incarnation.
Street lights and Christmas displays mask our darkness. “We have lost a sense of how deep that darkness is,” says Benjamin M. Stewart, who teaches worship at Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago. Bonfires lit medieval Epiphany nights, he says, to celebrate returning light.
Epiphany came first, by the way. “Epiphany antedates Christmas,” notes Paul Westermeyer, who teaches church music at Luther Seminary, St. Paul. “It was a more important festival.”
Indeed, in Eastern traditions, Epiphany is still co-equal with Christmas and even Easter. “We go to church in the evening and have a a major liturgical service,” says Lois Farag, an Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Christian who teaches early church history at Luther Seminary.
Epiphany, she adds, marks the Baptism of Christ and the revelation of the Trinity. Says Farag: “I think that’s important.”
Naked in church
In the Old Testament, we look for theophany — God sightings. Abraham welcomes three strangers and receives the promise of a child. Jacob wrestles with — an angel? Or with God? Moses sees a burning bush. The being in the bush says: “I am that I am.”
Theophany is all quite mysterious. But in the New Testament, we get something else entirely: Epiphany — God here and now among us, as in the epicenter of an earthquake.
That makes Epiphany overwhelming. It is when we do what Christ’s followers have no choice but to do: figure out who Jesus is.
What happened at the Jordan River was an early clue, and baptism still matters deeply — but now the logistics preoccupy us. How do we get there? Where do we stay? Who holds the baby?
During one baptism, this writer had charge of the just-turned-three big brother of the soon-to-be-baptized baby. He was a little active, so I took him to the play room, where he didn’t quite make it to the toilet in time. And I had no replacement diaper.
I cleaned him up as his sister’s baptism neared. What should I do? Take him into church half-naked? Thank goodness for text messaging. A diaper from the front pew arrived just in time.
In the Old Testament, we look for theophany — God sightings. But in the New Testament, we get something else entirely: Epiphany — God here and now among us.
So I have a beginning understanding about the urgency of baptism, incarnation, and Epiphany. A baby? For heaven’s sake, what baby isn’t a miracle? And yet, this Christmas baby — dare God take human form? Some of our Muslim friends regard such an idea as blasphemous.
The aged Simeon, just and devout, had no uncertainties as he cradled the infant Christ: “Lord,” prays Simeon, “now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people.”
The widow Anna, a prophetess about 84 years old who “departed not from the temple but served God with fastings and prayers night and day” came in just then, according to Luke 2, and “gave thanks likewise unto the Lord, and spake of Him to all of them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem.”
Our own Epiphany observance leads us to a desert stream. Baptism then was also about logistics. In wintry Minnesota, it’s too much snow, not too little water. But where John preached, water was and still is life.
Once near Jericho, in overpowering desert heat, I saw a veiled woman beside the road, waving an empty plastic water bottle. I had two full bottles in my air-conditioned rental car. I was only a few minutes from Jerusalem.
Those were dangerous times, but I still regret not stopping. God forgive my choice. It was only a day’s walk from where the Good Samaritan would have done his brave work, and also just a day’s walk from where John baptized.
All Jerusalem, says Mark 1, walked a day or more to hear this John, clad in skins and living in the wilderness like the great prophet Elijah. John preached as Elijah did: Turn back to the true God.
Soon someone came for John’s baptism in this shallow stream, now scarcely more than a Minnesota creek, dividing the wary nations Jordan and Israel.
Back here in Minnesota — just in time — light returns. Here as everywhere, we constantly soil ourselves by what we have done and what we have left undone. We need help getting clean. Epiphany brings some urgency.
If you decide to have that bonfire, check with local fire officials to be sure it’s legal. Look out for overhead power lines. And then — bask in the light.
Tags: Anna, Baptism of Christ, Benjamin M. Stewart, Coptic Orthodox Christian, Epiphany, incarnation, Lois Farag, Luke 2, Luther Seminary, Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, Mark 1, Old Testament, Paul Westermeyer, Simeon, theophany, Trinity