Whether you think of it as the final word of the Christmas season or the first word of the new year, Epiphany propels the church from manger to mission—from rejoicing in the arrival of the Messiah (good new for us) to recognizing the significance of his coming for all people everywhere (good news for all). Traditionally the Three Wise Men are considered the first Gentiles to see and worship Jesus, so they are the primary cast of the Epiphany story. They remind us that the Messiah came first for the Jews and then for the Gentiles (Romans 1:16). The central image of Epiphany is light, particularly the star that led the magi to the savior child. Jesus is the light of the world himself, and He calls his people to be that light, too; to let their light “so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). Epiphany challenges us to take the star from the top of our Christmas tree and, instead of boxing it up until next year, to march it into the dark streets of our neighborhood.
Epiphany follows Christmas by two weeks because it tries to follow the biblical narrative of the birth of Christ. Most of us put the wise men in our nativity scenes at the beginning of the Christmas season. But the Scriptures indicate that the wise men didn’t arrive until Jesus was a “young child”—perhaps two (Matthew 2:11). Two years in history becomes two weeks on the church calendar. Many Christians worldwide (catholic, with a lowercase “c”) observe this by keeping the magi at a distance until Epiphany.
That’s the historical reason for the gap between Christmas and Epiphany. And I’m glad for it. Because I think many of us use up all our Christian imagination at Christmastime. It’s easy to see and sense the Savior when all is calm and all is bright. But in the darkness and chaos of post-holiday real life, he begins to vanish. He gradually recedes from view until we find him again—now an adult—in the season of Lent. Then he’s gone again until Advent. We need this one more flashbulb of divine light to remind us that though the world failed to see Jesus for who and what he was, the darkness did not swallow him up.
This helps us keep the darkness in perspective. The deep shadow of the Christmas Story that we seldom talk about is the death of the innocents. Insane with jealousy, Herod orders all the boys in Bethlehem two years old and younger to be murdered in an effort to snuff out the wick of the Christ child (Matthew 2:16). That story kept coming to mind during news coverage of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. While Christians were celebrating the coming of Christ during Advent 2012, evil was devouring the innocent, darkness was trying to gobble down the light. It’s always been this way.
In view of the such darkness, the light of Epiphany is comfort, yes; but it’s also a summons. Epiphany reminds us, in the first place, that we are the children of God—most of us Gentiles by birth—because the first fearful disciples refused to hide their light under a basket (Luke 8:16). It calls us, then, to march into the darkness around us with the light of Christ high above our heads and deep in our hearts to shine the Light down every lane and alleyway. From manger to mission. From treetop to mountaintop. Far as the curse is found.