A Baptist Epiphany: Wonder at the Incarnation

I work at an oddly liturgical, very ecumenical, Baptist church in Richmond, Virginia. Our sanctuary looks a lot like an Episcopal church. We follow the lectionary. We process and recess. But in the end, we are a group of mostly Baptists, with upbringings of varying shades of liturgy - from gospel singing altar calls to candle-lighting and robe-wearing. And we come together with our brothers and sisters from more liturgical backgrounds (like Methodist, Episcopal, and Roman Catholic) and worship in our own, unique way (that looks very Episcopal, minus the Book of Common Prayer and incense). We still have Baptist polity and independence, but we do not shy away from the beauty of traditional worship.

I love the differences this church has brought into my worship experience. This year, since Epiphany falls on a Wednesday night, we decided to do an experiment and have a separate Epiphany service instead of just celebrating on the Sunday before by finally singing "We Three Kings." This year, we are taking a moment to be intentional about celebrating something most Americans overlook, long after they've removed their Christmas decorations. Below is an excerpt of my homily for our little Baptist Epiphany gathering:

In my undergraduate days, I chose to major in Spanish. I had long studied Spanish and had fallen in love with its sound, its culture. I first encountered the celebration of Epiphany when I was just barely 20 years old, fresh from closing up the Christmas season and my third semester of college. I flew to Seville, Spain on January 2nd and moved in with an older woman nicknamed María Pepa. Her eccentricities were matched only by her indistinguishable Spanish, which made the culture shift extremely difficult. But there was still an air of celebration in this new place, which offered a much-needed distraction from my culture shock.

For me, the Christmas season had always ended just before the New Year. No one around me in my Southern Baptist crowd in Georgia celebrated or kept lights up any later than January 1. But in Seville, celebrations had only just begun.

In many Christian traditions around the world, this feast day is actually a bigger day than our Christmas Day. In Spain, Epiphany is the time of the year that presents arrive overnight in the shoes the children have left out for the wise men and the time for family to gather and eat sugary food (in Spain, this was called roscón de reyes, like the King Cake you might have at a French-style Fat Tuesday celebration - baby inside and all!). This was a time of multiple parades (cabalgatas), candy-throwing (¡carmelos!), and late-night fun for all ages.

I enjoyed the celebration immensely and began to wonder about its origins. I decided to dig a little deeper, and found some strong reasons we might reconsider our lack of celebration at Epiphany.

The scriptures for Epiphany (Isaiah 60: 1-9 and Matthew 2:1-12 are stories of light and salvation. In Isaiah, we read of the Israelites returning from exile to find ruins of their homeland, yet with the promise that the glory of the Lord would shine on their land. God's covenant was strong and bright against the backdrop of darkness. "Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you."

In Matthew, we read the well-known story of the three magi coming to visit the infant Jesus days or perhaps weeks after his birth, bringing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Note: not kings in the traditional sense; more like three astrologers guided by a star in the night sky - three foreigners who practiced another religion, but who nonetheless were reached by this special light. This is familiar - wise men have probably been in our Christmas pageants and nativity sets since early December. But we often forget how subversive this story was and is - it says God incarnate reaches beyond limits of religion and into the world at large; it says God incarnate is the light of the glory of the LORD Isaiah promised; it says God incarnate is something to wonder and marvel at, guiding the wisest from the ends of the earth to a new faith in this "King of the Jews"; it says God incarnate is something the powerful and deadly rulers fear as undermining their selfish power.

Epiphany is the end of one season (Christmas), and the beginning of another (Epiphany). This new season is one that reminds us of some important reasons we believe as we do as Christians. This is a season of wonder.

Here are three main reasons for Christians to wonder during this season of Epiphany:

1. God With Us. The truly miraculous act of God coming to live among us is no small event. While the birth of Christ is often the chance for American Christians to gather and celebrate the wondrous even of God becoming human, the season of Epiphany begins to follow the life of the incarnated Christ - we see him live as a refugee in a foreign land, grow up, get baptized, start following his calling and ministry.

2. God With All of Us. God had made a covenant with Israel with whom God held a special relationship. With the coming of Jesus Christ and the bright star leading the foreigners from the East to visit him, the power of God's light reached beyond the little crowd of Israelites to the whole world, Gentiles and Jews alike.

3. God Among Us. The season of Epiphany focuses on the birth, growth, baptism, and ministry of Christ. Jesus' 30 year ministry is summed up in just three few weeks of liturgy leading to a season focusing on his death and resurrection. In this season, we take time to follow the life of Jesus as he ministered among people just like us. People hurting. People making bad decisions. People learning to love one another. And we learn the heart of God through this beautiful soul.