Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.
Notre Dame Center for Liturgy
Editor, Oblation: Liturgy and Evangelization
This weekend, Catholic parishes in the United States will celebrate the Solemnity of the Epiphany with the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord following on Monday. Though I love that the Church was able to celebrate a full, four week Advent, I am always disappointed that the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord is virtually ignored when Christmas occurs on a Sunday in the Roman Rite. Yet, perhaps we may come to a deeper celebration of the Feast of Epiphany if we consider it through the lens of the Baptism of the Lord.
Of course, this is not a new idea for Orthodox Christians and Eastern Catholics. Among Eastern Christians, January 6th is the Feast of the Theophany. On this day, Eastern Christians celebrate simultaneously the birth of Christ in the manger, the presentation of Jesus in the temple, and the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River. And thus in each case, the manifestation of Christ’s true identity as the cosmic Word come to redeem all creation. One of the two kontakion (a thematic hymn, akin to a homily, to be sung at Orthos or Morning Prayer) reveal in poetic form the themes of the feast (translation from Fr. Apostolos Hill’s Cycles of Grace: Hymns from the Great Feast, Byzantine Chant in English):
Thou hast appeared today/to the inhabited earth/and thy light, O Lord,/has been marked upon us/who with knowledge sing thy praise/Thou hast come/Thou art made manifest/The light that no man can approach.
The infant in the manger suckling on his mother’s breast is the light that shines into the darkness. That infant presented to Simeon is the true light that comes to enlighten the human race. The man who descends into the Jordan River, who is proclaimed by the Father and enfolded by the Spirit, is the beloved Son. In each of these moments, the manifestation of the light shows itself in powerlessness. For Jesus knows the powerlessness of infancy, the incapacity to communicate our deepest needs and desires, except through the limited tools of tears and squirming. Jesus is brought by Mary and Joseph to the temple, handed over into the hands of Simeon, and then circumcised according to the Law. He is given over to the Law. Likewise Christ is baptized in the Jordan River as a submission to John’s baptism of repentance. The one born without sin lowers himself to receive a baptism of forgiveness that he might demonstrate to us what authentic humanity consists of: self-giving love. What can we do before such a manifestation beside worship? Beside giving our entire identity to the Son.
For everything that Jesus Christ touches is sanctified, made holy, is transformed and transfigured, bathed in holy light. Not according to what is visible but that invisible light that no one can approach. Jesus Christ in the depths of his identity is total and surprising gift. He is a manifestation to us that power and prestige is not the true light of the world; but true power, true prestige, true light is bestowed upon the one who hands oneself over in imitation of the very Triune life of God–this is the enlightened one. We call them saints.
So then let us turn back to the feast of the Epiphany in the West, the celebration of the moment in which the Magi come to Christ bestowing gifts. This is not a cute, saccharine affair (see the hymn, O Little Town of Bethlehem as an example of such sweetness). Rather, the Magi–pagan kings–perceive in the wondrous light of the newly shining star the true identity of the infant. But, they do not stop with the visible light. The Magi are themselves rulers, wise men, who know the truth that the infant born in a cave is the true king of the earth. And what do they offer this king but gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Gold the gift of kings. Frankincense the incense of priests. Myrrh for the healing of wounds. The Magi seem to know remarkably well the identity of the infant. For he is the king, who created the very cosmos. He is the priest, who will offer himself as the fragrant offering in expiation of our sins. He is himself the healing balm, whose passion, death, and resurrection will heal the human condition. What mystery in such gifts. On the Ephipany, it seems necessary that we in the West remind ourselves of this reality, making sure to sing the whole hymn “We Three Kings” (I invite you to listen to the lyrics in the video below):
So then, the feast of the Epiphany, just as the Baptism of the Lord reminds us that we must recognize Christ as the light of the world. And when we recognize the splendor of this light, we have no other option that to give ourselves over to it. To allow Christ’s sacrifice to become our own through the gift of the Spirit. To be taken up into the mystery of this enlightenment, this gradual configuration into the life of God.
For was this not the logic of the feast of Christmas in the first place? That our humanity, so small, often so painful, could become the site of redemption. In fact, as the Christmas season comes to a close this weekend, this mystery will continue to be proclaimed. For every deed of Christ that we hear in the Gospels is another way that the light shines into the darkness. Every celebration of the sacraments is a bodily participation in this light, a gradual reconfiguration of our memory, understanding, and will into the life of God. Every gift of self in acts of love to God and neighbor (especially ones unnoticed by the pomp and glory of the world) is a proclamation that the light shines into the darkness and the darkness will not conquer it. Every deed that the Church performs, through the members of the body of Christ, should be an epiphany for the world to contemplate.
But the only hope that the Church herself will become the Church of the Epiphany is following the path of Christ’s self gift–not of pomp and glory. To hand ourselves over into a life of invisibility, of love often gone unnoticed. Isn’t this the true wisdom of parish life in the first place? Small acts of love, small gifts of self, small deeds of worship, small prayers uttered for those in need. There are so many Epiphanies that take place each day in our common life together in Christ. A Blessed Epiphany to all those who seek to know, to love, and to become this small, invisible light for the life of the world.