Manger, crown of thorns, and Bible
January 2, 2024

Reflecting the Gift — a Mediation for Epiphany

“The Twelve Days of Christmas” is not just a festive song about some extravagant (yet impractical) gift giving. They are days of the true Christmas season: the liturgical season of Christmastide, which brings us to Epiphany (January 6, by the calendar, with Epiphany Sunday celebrated on the 6th or the Sunday following it ), and the beginning of Ordinary Time, the period before Lent.

Epiphany commemorates the visit of the Magi and the manifestation of the Light of the World to all those in the world. (The word comes from a Greek word meaning manifestation or appearance.) The kings are individual characters, uniquely situated in time and history, but they are representative of the Gentiles and the truth that salvation through Jesus is available to all. The Gift came to us all because God loves us all.

In Eastern Christian traditions, January 6 is called Theophany and celebrates the baptism of Jesus, that moment when the Son of God was made manifest (and indeed the entire Trinity): “As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased’” (Matthew 3:16–17).

At the heart of Epiphany is revelation and reflection.

The Magi come to Herod seeking a king—a king they deem worthy of worship. The star reveals the fulfillment of prophecy, but it shines far beyond Israel, which reflects God’s love. Christ came to us because God loves us.

The gifts associated with the Magi are revealing too. Gold for a king, but not just any king. A king that would bring kings of the earth to seek him. “King forever, ceasing never,” in the words of the well-known hymn. Frankincense, proclaiming the deity of one who is worthy of not just honor, but worship. Jesus is Immanuel. God with us. And myrrh, the “bitter perfume” that foreshadows the “stone-cold tomb.” What? A divine forever king wouldn’t need a burial perfume. But this one will. And so the gifts reflect God’s purpose. Christ came and died for us because God loves us. And he rose again, conquering sin and death because he is the divine forever King.

Living in the light of the resurrection more than 2,000 years later, we have the perspective to see how those three gifts come together to tell the whole story. Though we haven’t “gotten to that point” in the liturgical year, Christ is risen! And so Advent people are Christmas people, Epiphany people, and Easter people. God is making all things new! Some of that is newness-inprocess. (Sadly, my “unfinishedness” is very much before me at times.) But the one thing that really matters is done. Christ said from the cross, “It is finished” (John 19:30).

But there are very good reasons we tell the story of faith through the church seasons, so let’s take a step back from Easter and plant ourselves firmly in that transition from Epiphany to Ordinary Time. Don’t let the name lead you to think there’s nothing special about this time. Living in the reality that Jesus came, the Light of the world came, is hardly ordinary.

The word “ordinary” comes to us from a Latin word which can be translated “ordinary” or “regular” or “usual.” But that Latin word group gives us another derivative: “order,” which might lead us to see a deeper purpose in Ordinary Time. It’s not just twiddle-your-thumbs-and-wait-for-the-next-big-holiday time. It’s orderly time. It’s a regular time of rhythm and routine. It’s time we can start rolling up our sleeves, so to speak, of figuring out what it means to live as people to whom the Gift was given. Did you know liturgical seasons have colors associated with them? The color of Ordinary Time is green. It’s a time to grow.

And we can do that, I believe, by thinking about the star over Bethlehem that called kings to that place. We’re called to the star, like the kings, but we also have a response to offer. We’re like the moon. We reflect.

I share the glorious words from Revelation 21:5, “I am making all things new,” with my Latin students on the day we return from Christmas break. The sentence begins (in Latin), “Ecce,” which means “Look!” or “Behold!” There are three exclamations that every one of my students remembers from Latin class, if they recall nothing else. The three exclamatory E’s: ecce (look!), euge (yay!) and eheu (alas!). I find them an interesting trio of words; to me, they encapsulate our human experience. Life presents us with something. We see it (or perceive it in some way), and we respond, usually in one of two ways: It’s good or it’s bad. We like it or we don’t. We’re happy or we’re not. Yes, there are shades in between, but our world very much operates on a “you’re on this side or that side” mentality. How different it would be if we move from a place of responding (or reacting—or more accurately, overreacting) to a place of reflecting. Reacting is us. Reflecting is about God’s work in us. We are like the moon.

How will you reflect the Gift? Maybe in a way that surprises you, hitting you like a sudden beam of light of that proverbial lightbulb over the head. To share what God is saying and doing in us, even in the mundane acts of life.  It can be a risky thing to reflect, to oneself and then to others. It makes us accountable and vulnerable. But it can also make us a blessing.

We are called to be light. In his sermon on the mount, Jesus said, “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14–16) Sometimes we shine because the brightness and joy around us makes it impossible for us not to shine. Sometimes we can only eke out a glimmer of light. But a sliver of a moon still cuts into the darkness of the night sky. A stark light cutting through a dark place catches our attention and imagination. If we seek to shine for the Lord, God will let there be light.

It’s January, and where I live in cloudy West Michigan, the trees are bare, and the fields are quiet. The “holiday season” is done and your life may feel very ordinary. But I suspect extraordinary things hit us every day, causing us to respond or react in the ways we ordinarily do. But the light of the Gift is always shining. It’s growing time—and glowing time.

Rebecca Tellinghuisen works at Trinitas Classical School in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she serves as a Latin teacher, communications assistant, and resident readers theater scriptwriter, having developed a love for turning classic works of children’s literature into twenty-minute plays. She also writes prayers and meditations for her church, Fifth Reformed Church in Grand Rapids.