by Ken Sehested
There are three versions of what Epiphany (“Manifestation”) is meant to commemorate in the church’s calendar. One of those traditions is to celebrate Jesus’ baptism on January 6. Another tradition—Eastern Orthodox, using the Julian calendar—observes Christmas on January 7. Yet another tradition celebrates Epiphany as marking the arrival of the magi—of “We Three Kings” fame, the figures played in every Christmas play by children dressed in bathrobes. Yet the common element in each is the inauguration of a confrontation between God’s Only Begotten and those in seats of power.
Art ©John August Swanson.
As a baptismal occasion, this Manifestation inspired Jesus’ first sermon in the temple at Nazareth. The gathered crowd was so perturbed at his message of deliverance that the text says they “were filled with wrath” and attempted to launch him headlong over a cliff.
As a birth announcement, this Manifestation so infuriated the reigning regime that the “rules of military engagement” were expanded to include the execution of all male infants in the region. And the First Family was forced to flee as refugees into Egypt, seeking political asylum from Herod’s rage.
As an announcement of international import, this Manifestation threatened to implicate even visiting foreign dignitaries in the web of political intrigue, and they were smuggled out of town, on back roads, “by another way.”
In each reading of the narrative, the message is clear: The Manifestation of God’s Intent will disrupt the world as we know it. Those for whom this “world” is “home”—who profit from current arrangements, from orthodoxies of every sort—will take offense at this swaddling-wrapped revolt.
The bias of heaven is clear: The goodness of this news is evident only to “children,” to the defenseless ones, to the ones facing life on the road without provision, to the excluded and those judged unclean and unworthy.
Biblically speaking, when you talk about heaven you’re liable to raise hell. Such is the speech of evangelical announcement. Everything else is mostly sentimental drivel, designed to calm the powerful and control the weak.
But blessed are you poor, you mournful, you meek and merciful, you restorers of right-relatedness; blessed are you who are persecuted and accused in the cause of peace; for yours is the future, the riches of redemption, the solace of salvation, the bounty of the earth in all its goodness.
God will arise, says the prophet Isaiah (33), at the sound of suffering: of weeping, from the envoys of peace; of mourning, from the land itself. And so shall we.
Therefore, I say, rejoice.