The Church’s Calendar mark’s two kinds of celebrations. It marks celebrations that always occur on the same date each year, and celebrations that always occur on the same day each year. Each year we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany on the 6th of January. This is an example of a fixed date celebration. Each year we also celebrate the Baptism of Jesus on the second Sunday in the Christmas Season. This is an example of a fixed day celebration. Today is both the 6th of January as well as being the second Sunday after Christmas and so both the Epiphany and the Baptism of Jesus occur on the same day. According to the complex formula used for rating celebrations, the Epiphany takes precedence.
The arcane workings of the Calendar may seem tedious information, better suited to an Episcopal 101 class than a Sunday Sermon. Actually, I never discuss anything as tedious as the organization of the Church’s Calendar in EP 101. My point in raising it in the context of a Sunday Sermon is because the clash of Epiphany and Baptism of Christ, occurring on the same day, offers an opportunity to explore the inner and outer dimensions of our experience of God.
Epiphany is a Greek word that translates into English as showing. In everyday speech we sometimes report: “I have had an epiphany” to communicate that we have had something of an ah-hah moment.
I prefer the word glimpsing as a better expression of the meaning of epiphany. When we catch a glimpse of something we suddenly see through, or see behind, or see around, the usual way our experience of the world appears to us. In the event that Matthew records as the Epiphany, for only Matthew’s Gospel records this detail in the narrative of the birth of Jesus, God is giving us a glimpse of the bigger picture within which a fuller understanding of the identity of this infant is revealed.
In the Birth Narrative both Matthew and Luke report the details that set the birth of Jesus in its first century Palestinian context. Matthew’s addition of the arrival of the Magi, variously referred to as wise men or three kings, moves us beyond the everyday details of Jesus’ birth which is firmly located in a time and a place, into the bigger picture. In the bigger picture the muling and sucking infant we know as Jesus is none other than God’s anointed Christ. The arrival of the Magi bearing their gifts of gold for a king, frankincense for a priest, and myrrh for a death, offers us a glimpse into the larger world – a world that reveals to us the significance of the infant Jesus’s birth.
So the Epiphany is a point of intersection between the outer and inner dimensions of experience. Our burden as 21st century Christians is to struggle with a rationalist inheritance that since the Enlightenment has convinced us that what we see is all there is. This leaves most of us with feelings that echo the words memorialized by the singer Peggy Lee:
Is that all there is? Is that all there is? If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing. Let’s break out the booze and have a ball – if that’s all there is?
Our experience of living in a world where the appearance of things is all we think there is, is profoundly unsatisfying! We need to know that what we see is not all there is. What we often fail to notice is the way our lives unfold within a frame that encompasses more than the appearance of the external dimension of our day-to-day experience. This more than – we catch a glimpse of from time to time, when we connect with a sense of significance in our living. From time to time we catch a glimpse of a significance that lies beyond the mere appearance of events that unfold around us in the world. We catch it – and then the glimpse fades.
What can be done about this? In attempting to answer this question I turn to the Baptism of Christ. It’s interesting, that Mark who tells us nothing of the birth of Jesus begins his gospel with the account of his baptism. It too, is an epiphany experience. As John performs the act of baptizing Jesus the heavens open and the voice of God confirms that Jesus is the Christ.
To escape the burden of the way 300 years of scientific rationalism has reduced our ability to see the bigger picture by confining our vision only to that which is externally observable, we have to seek help. That help comes to us through our spiritual development. Spiritual formation opens us to those repeated glimpses of significance, of our lives unfolding within the frame of a bigger picture. Our spiritual formation chiefly results from our participation in the life of religious community.
Human beings are not meant to live alone. We need to gather and organize into communities. Communities provide the resources necessary for our individual flourishing. Tertullian, one of the Early Church Fathers said, one Christian is no Christian. Being Christian is the result of belonging to the community of Christ’s Followers. The Christian Community is much greater than the sum total of its individual parts because it is expanded by the inflowing of the Grace of God. In this moment of time we are more than a gathering of individuals, we are the very Body of Christ in the world at the corner of Central and Roosevelt, in down-town Phoenix, Arizona.
This morning we are welcoming seven persons into membership of the Body of Christ. We will promise before God to be the community within which they will be formed and sustained on their spiritual journey. Baptism is entry into participation in the community of faith. Participation shapes us so that we become more and more open to those moments of glimpsing the greater significance to our lives. For these six children and one adult, their baptism is their entry into the spiritual journey that we as the Body of Christ in the world are making together.
As individuals we catch glimpses from time to time of the divine significance that underpins our existence. These moments of epiphany offer snap shots of lives unfolding within a larger picture. These snap shots, these glimpsings, redirect and re-enliven us as we travel along the way. However, these are only glimpses. Epiphany is not for individuals, a continuous experience.
Through baptism we come to participate in the life of Christ’s earthly body – the Church. Here we join others and together become greater than the sum total of our individual selves. It is only from within the experience of being part of the Body of Christ that we become more open to the profound glimpses of the significance of our lives within the continual action of God’s dreaming us all into becoming.