What’s in Epiphany?

There is a strangeness to the power of a calendar. It has not the strength of a pagan deity. It does not circle the earth, give light or heat, nor energize the solar system. Yet it holds over the Western mind a need to observe, to chart, to catalogue. By it we can memorialize the past, anticipate the future, and understand our place in the present. It keeps our appointments, and it—we think—confirms our destiny.

St. Paul provides a new vision of time in Christ, a time that acknowledges days and seasons but is not bound by them (Rom. 14:5-6; Gal. 4:10). He liberates us from the constraints of chronology and spatial distance, allowing us to move—like the Spirit—in and out of human history, as from the microscope to the airplane and back again. And though we have the freedom to inhabit a cyclical view of time in which all days are identical, we often choose to return to a linear view of time that checks off each day as progressively toward some unknown end, helps us grasp our temporal moorings and experience life in a measured, predictive way.

It is difficult to say with any precision how “most” Christians mark time, as they vary by individual, family, and culture. Some choose not to celebrate days and seasons at all, and do so unto the Lord, and they have my respect. I find myself among those who celebrate enthusiastically, aware of each commemoration day in the liturgical calendar throughout the year. Others take a mixed approach, observing the high feasts only—and that in a low fashion. Some of them, for instance, vehemently protest Halloween’s presumably pagan origins, but they accept Christmas with its commercial customs; both holidays share some pagan roots, though not nearly as much as Christians and pagans popularly believe. Yet for the many American Protestants who celebrate Christmas, some of them religiously and some more secularly than the most ardent Modernist, most are unfamiliar with the earliest Christian holidays, of which Epiphany (January 6) was one of the first.

We should note that all Christians, regardless of their position on holy days, nevertheless celebrate and commemorate—through the weekly observance of the Eucharist, if nothing else. Early Christian practice shifted worship from Sabbath to Sunday (Acts 20:7), and the sheer number of Gentile believers by the mid-second century over their Jewish counterparts made such a shift nearly a foregone conclusion. The process of universalizing a Jewish sect for all peoples meant that Hellenistic culture would have an outmoded influence over its Hebraic roots. Similarly, Easter (or “Pascha”), like the Jewish Passover, was calculated then, as now, using the “computus,” which counts down days from the vernal equinox (the first full moon after the beginning of spring) and corresponds to Mosaic instructions (Ex. 12:2-3). Second-century Christians celebrating the resurrection used a more roundabout, though similar computation to celebrate Christ’s birth as well. This approach created some conflict for Christians even into the seventh century (see Bede’s Ecclesiastical History), a reminder of how pervasive the calendar’s influence even then.

The Gnostics, some of whom did not believe in a physical birth, believed instead in Christ’s manifestation through the Spirit (or “epiphany”), which occurred at his baptism. Clement of Alexandria (160-220) tells us of an Egyptian sect of Gnostics (Basilideans) who celebrated Christ’s baptism as a festival on the 11th day of Tubi in the Egyptian calendar (which is January 6, modern day Epiphany). A pagan holiday already existed on January 6—a festival of the virgin goddess Kore and her daughter Aion. Egyptian Christians may have been eager to skip out on pagan festivities and celebrate Christ instead.

They found support for this practice in their beliefs about time. Joseph F. Kelly in The Origins of Christmas (2014) articulates the complete years theory, a Jewish tradition that claimed biblical peoples lived for whole years—meaning they died on the day of their birth. So when scripture says Moses died at 120 years old (Deut. 34:7), he was exactly 120 years old when he died. The ancient mind’s capacity for symmetry in symbolism matches the modern mind’s only in its need for symmetry in science. Thus, the Basilideans may have believed Jesus was baptized on the day of his birth. The Western church fathers found this subject of significant interest as well. The Julian calendar places the vernal equinox at March 25. Hippolytus (170-235) places March 25, therefore, as the anniversary of creation and of Christ’s crucifixion; Tertullian (155-220) concurs with this calculation, and the complete years theory would support this claim. Sextus Julius Africanus (160-240) also agreed, but argued that Jesus was incarnated not at his birth but at his conception. Nine months before March 25 is December 25. This day, as all know, will eventually become the day Christians will choose for Christmas; and the Feast of the Annunciation becomes March 25. Epiphany was still very popular in the East in association with the Nativity, so Western Christians also came to practice it, though associating it specifically with the appearance of the Magi. Which, of course, is from whom we have inherited our tradition of gift-giving.

Epiphany, then, is the final chapter of the Christmas story each year and the movement into Christ’s ministry. On the twelfth night of Christmastide, Christians conclude celebrating the birth of Christ, looking forward to other elements of the Gospel story: Candlemas, Lent, Easter. The liturgical calendar reminds us of each milestone of the birth, life, death, and resurrection.

For those who overlook this holiday, those who turn off the Christmas tunes and take down their trees and decorations on December 26, Epiphany seems one more named feast day, along with the Feast of St John, St. Steven the Martyr, and Herod’s Slaughter of the Innocents. All must do what they have resolved to do in their hearts. It is surely true that the Gospel does not stand in need commemoration in days and seasons. Yet to stand against commemoration entirely as some vague spiritual principle runs against all human proclivities to the contrary. We eagerly mark days off of the calendar in anticipation of marriage, birth, and retirement. We eagerly celebrate our own birthdays, days of political independence, and federally approved vacations. Shall we not all the more so make our days of commemoration holy?

An Advent Prayer

In the terrifying dark of night’s lengthening shadows, we tremble

   Come quickly, Lord Jesus.

In the frigid winter wind, we pray

   Come quickly, Lord Jesus.

In the howling wind that rips away our hope, we whimper

   Come quickly, Lord Jesus.

In the hiding corners of hurting homes, we ask

   Come quickly, Lord Jesus.

In the bitterness of friends betrayed, we plead

   Come quickly, Lord Jesus.

In the ache of love forgotten, we wander

   Come quickly, Lord Jesus.

In the pain of wounds unhealed, we cry

   Come quickly, Lord Jesus.

In the thin comfort of tree, hearth, and blanket, we wait:

   Come quickly, Lord Jesus.

May the hearts of men bend their knees

   To your eternal reign.

May our spirits join in peace and amity

   For the good of one another.

May our hearts rejoice even in the bitter night

   With the expectation of joy.

May the hope of a waxing sun look forward

   To an empty grave.

May the love of the table spread beyond as we all sing

   Come quickly, Lord Jesus.

Voices of Iona

One of the immediate collisions my students suffer when encountering Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales for the first time is the inevitable why. Why risk life and fortune just to see a shrine? Many understand the desire to see Europe or to visit Washington or to take the family to Disney World. But few grasp what would compel people to a holy place when God is everywhere, as close as a conversation, as easy as turning on the television, as individual as listening to a podcast or playlist. They perceive input and feasting as the best avenues to spirituality, not knowing the blessings that come with quiet and fasting.

Pilgrimage is an experience far removed from the Modernist understanding. Many Christians and pagans alike find it a curious archaism at best, a fundamentalist madness at worst. The iconoclast, as cynical as he is unimaginative, casts it as a glorified vacation, while the symbolist, untethered in his philosophy, sees it strictly a metaphor. And, surely, there is a practiced homelessness in pilgrimage that appears to the outsider as a kind of madness. When we skeptically raise our eyebrows at the one who does not live in the world, does not strive after success or riches, we must recall that the Son of Man had nowhere to lay his head. The teachings of Jesus, however paradoxical, are too little practiced today in their literal form. Yet for the Christians of the Middle Ages, who sometimes sacrificed the figurative understanding for the literal obscurity, walking in the footsteps of the Christ or of the saints was a meaningful and life-changing journey. Indeed, it is in the sacramental character of pilgrimage that metaphor and reality meet.

In Britannia, off the west coast of what was then called Dál Riata, on the edge of the former empire, still rests a lonely isle. In the crosswaters of Scotland, Ireland, and England, it is central enough to be reached by merchants and raiders but far enough away from the concerns of the mainland—from a world just as busy, just as harried, just as confused and uncertain of its future as our own. Iona was founded as a monastery by St. Columba over a hundred years after Augustine’s picture of the everyman’s journey toward the City of God, and it became a sacred locus for pilgrims to find themselves and to commune with the Spirit. The modern traveler can see that it is an unideal location to start a church, but it is a perfect place to raise a shrine. Pilgrimage should bring about reflection, meditation, contemplation, illumination; Iona would offer all this and more—a place, as Chaucer’s Parson’s Tale reminds us, for transformation. A great cloud of witnesses, all those who came before, from St. Columba to George Macleod, would gather here to spur the pilgrim on to charity and to good works. Heaven and earth would meet on this humble island, and the invisible Kingdom perhaps never felt more tangible than in Iona’s magnificent rocks, its beige sands, and its paradisal, clear blue waters that stretch into an azure horizon.

In this collection of poems, I take as my central theme the experience of pilgrimage, realized in the island of Iona, the British Isles, and beyond. All of literature can be distilled to two stories: either a stranger comes to town, or a hero goes on a journey. Or so my English teacher once told me. If true, then all stories are about the transformation that occurs in the liminal spaces of the pilgrimage. With that in mind, I have tried to craft each experience as something unique to each pilgrim: some of them real and some mystical (though perhaps not less real); some are true and some fictional (though, too, perhaps not less true); and all of them are shared by someone who passed that way before. If the saying is accurate that we take something of a place with us when we leave, and we also leave part of ourselves behind in that place, then historical memory must be a fathomless well indeed.

I hope you will join me on pilgrimage.

JF