Reaching Out or Drawing In?

A case for the missions emphasis of Epiphany

Some churches have Mission Emphasis service(s) in early spring, others in the summer, and still others in the fall. Is one time more "correct" than another? Probably not. The church always needs to be attentive to its mission character.

However, if we wish to have our church celebrations guided partly by the liturgical year, some times may be more appropriate than others. For example, the season after Pentecost—a season in which we remember the Spirit being poured out on all nations and as we see the beginning of witnessing "to the ends of the earth"— is an obvious time for emphasizing and celebrating missions. But there are other appropriate seasons as well. Eugene Heideman makes a case for the Epiphany season as a time for the church to remember that it is the "church in mission."

Pentecost or Epiphany? Which season has a greater impact on missions?

On Pentecost the Holy Spirit came upon the apostles and sent them out from Jerusalem to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth. The modern Protestant missionary movement takes its cue from Pentecost: missions are centrifugal ("moving away from the center") and modeled after the work of Christ. Through preaching, teaching, and healing, cross-cultural missionaries reveal the nature of the Christian calling.

In contrast, mission that takes its cue from Epiphany is centripetal ("moving toward the center"). Epiphany celebrates the manifestation of Christ, who attracts all humanity to his light and his salvation. The Holy Spirit who comes to rest on Jesus at his baptism anticipates that the church will gather around the manger, the baptismal font, and the eucharistic temple to worship him in all his glory. Epiphany celebrates the coming of the nations to Zion. It lifts up the person Christ, who "draws all men to himself" (John 12: 32). Persons who have entered profoundly into devotion to Christ—Francis of Assisi, Sadhu Sun-dar Singh, Dietrich Bonhoeffer—are models of epiphanal mission who are sought out by those who seek to know God.

Even when the pentecostal mission of Christian churches encounters resistance and open opposition, Jesus in his Epiphany remains surprisingly attractive to people of many nations. M.K. Gandhi in India often called missionaries to consider more carefully the attractive qualities of Jesus. He compared Christ to a rose with a fragrance that fills the room. He spoke of the "secret of the gospel of the rose. But the gospel that Jesus preached is more subtle and fragrant than the gospel of the rose. If the rose needs no agent, much less does the gospel of Christ need any agent" (Gandhi, Chris-Han Missions, p. 162).

Interestingly enough, Paul, who is strongly identified with the pentecostal mission strategy, often portrayed his activity in terms of Epiphany. He spoke of himself as the "fragrance of the knowledge of [Christ]" (2 Cor. 2:14, RSV). "For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing... For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God's word" (2 Cor. 2:15,17a, RSV). Moreover, his mission admonitions to the people in the churches were often in terms of Epiphany rather than Pentecost. "But now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light" (Eph. 5:8; cf. 1 Cor. 10:31-11:1; Rom. 15: 7-13).

A Servant Mission

In the last several decades churches in the Reformed tradition have begun to observe the pattern of the church year in their worship. Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost have become prominent seasons in the life of many congregations. However, consistent with the ancient tradition of the Western church, our churches have tended to restrict Epiphany to one Sunday—to the coming of the wise men—thereby subordinating this season to the pentecostal mission tradition. Fortunately, the recently developed Common Lection-ary has incorporated the Eastern church's wider tradition which includes Jesus' baptism and Cana miracle into its celebration of his manifestation.

Celebration of Epiphany as a season that provides time for the congregation to absorb the fragrance of the unveiling of Christ in the coming of the magi, the descent of the Spirit at his baptism, and the eucharistic air of the changing of water into wine at Cana continues the allure of the Christmas event that leads so many Gentiles to join with the church in its worship on that day. Focus on Jesus' teachings, his calling of disciples, and his mighty acts is a testimony of God's saving presence among us. Epiphany—the time of the year when the days are dark and the weeks depressing—is the season above all seasons when Jesus in all his winsome-ness, selflessness, and graciousness can be manifest.

In celebrating the coming of the magi with their wisdom, the church drops its guard against the wisdom and gifts from the lives of those who live outside the traditions of the Old and New Testaments. In a decade in which many persons have entered North America from the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, Epiphany can become a time for practicing hospitality with people of other traditions and faiths. It is a season in which the church can freely join in their adoration of the Christ child without a tri-umphalistic reminder that a Western Christ is Lord of their lords and King of their kings.

In commemorating the revelation of Jesus' divine sonship in his baptism, the fragrance of Christ's atoning sacrifice as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:36) entices those who know their guilt and need for forgiveness to kneel down and worship. As Christ's baptism suggests the suffering of his ministry on the cross (Mark 10: 38), so Epiphany suggests a ministry of Christ's mercy and forgiveness to the suffering in our world. When the church reveals Christ's forgiveness to the weak and fallen of its neighborhood, it prepares the way for personal, corporate, and societal repentance and renewal during Lent.

In celebrating Christ's manifestation in the good wine of Cana (John 2:1-11), all who have worshiped at the manger recognize that we can now have new hope in the One who makes all things possible. The taste of new wine refreshes all who come to Christ in his mission. The eucharistic presence of Christ that is first sensed in the church's liturgy can now be evident in the lives of people on every continent.

During Epiphany the servant ministry of Jesus sets the stage for the servant mission of the church. We bring Christ to a world in which some do not have water and where many must live without a wedding garment.

Without the centripetal, then, the centrifugal goes off on a tangent. Without the centrifugal, the centripetal collapses in on itself. Epiphany and Pentecost form that creative tension which by God's grace makes the world go around.

Excerpt
Litany for Epiphany

Let us praise God for the
manifestation of the Christ
in his mission on earth.
Let us praise God for the magi from
the East who were sent to
Bethlehem to teach us to honor his
star and to offer our gifts.

We praise you, O God.

Let us praise God for the
multitudes in Asia and Africa who
are today using the resources of
their customs and cultures in
developing new forms of
worshiping the Christ.

We praise you, O God.

Let us praise God for all those who
are presenting themselves to be
baptized into the name of Christ
and for all the parents who are
bringing their children to the water
of Christ.

We praise you, O God.

Let us praise God for the
manifestation of Christ in our own
time when the thirsty are given
something to drink and the hungry
are fed.

We praise you, O God.

Let us pray for Christ's continuing
epiphany among all who long for
his presence.
For your manifestation
among all who long for truth and
are educated and wise in this
world,
for those who conduct research and
those who teach,
for those who study the stars and
those who give counsel to kings
and rulers,

We seek your grace, O wisdom of God.

For your epiphany
among all who are open to your
presence in the water and the wine,
and especially among those who
have seen your star but not yet
heard your name,

We seek your grace, O Savior of the nations.

For your epiphany
among all who are suffering for the
cause of righteousness,
for all who are in prison,
for those who are oppressed,
and for those who are hungry,
thirsty, and homeless,

We seek your grace, O Son of God.

For your manifestation of your
glory
in the course of our daily lives,
in our homes, our schools, our work
places and our facilities for play
and entertainment,

Hear Our Prayers, O Lamb of God.

by Eugene P. Heideman

Eugene P. Heideman is secretary for program for the Reformed Church in America.