I’m sure you have enjoyed many greetings & well-wishes both in person and through the mail over the past several weeks, and like us, you might even have an entire beautiful collection of Christmas cards displayed in your home from friends far & near. With Christmas behind us, the greetings have turned to a default, “Happy New Year!” which seems to be as good a way as any to start a conversation with folks who we are seeing for the first time in 2017 as we settle back into a regular routine after days off from work & school.
Well, we do indeed hope that you have a healthy, happy and wonderfully blessed 2017, but we timed the arrival of this season's newsletter intentionally to be able to extend another specific blessing to our friends and family — “Happy Epiphany!” “Epipha-what?” you might be asking. I confess that growing up I was only familiar with the word epiphany in the generic sense, as in “a moment of sudden revelation or insight.” I think the first time I heard of it as an actual date on the calendar was when we enjoyed an Epiphany Bonfire with our friends in Vermont one very snowy January 6th— everyone brought their dying Christmas trees with whatever needles remained to throw into a community bonfire to light up the night and keep sled-riders and hot chocolate drinkers plenty warm. That is likely when I started to become more curious about what Epiphany was, and wondered what I might be missing out on.
Here is what I learned - For those who aren’t familiar with Epiphany specifically, you have probably at least heard the song “The 12 Days of Christmas.” Ever wonder why there were 12 days? Well, there are 12 days between Christmas Day and January 6th, and although your nativity set likely insists upon including the wise men in the scene of Christ’s birth, factually we know them to have visited Jesus at a separate time and place when he was described as a “child” not a newborn baby. So while his birth is celebrated at Christmas, and even for 12 days following, Epiphany recognizes the visit of the magi bearing their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Let me tell you some of the reasons that I have come to love Epiphany, and maybe you will come to appreciate it and decide to embrace some of these celebration ideas for you own household. First, the winter season that follows Christmas can often be a difficult time. The days are shorter, you or someone you know is quite possibly fighting a nasty cold or the flu, and while there was the brightness of holiday decor for many weeks, the dullness left behind when those decorations are taken down often accentuates the internal bleakness that can accompany winter’s external barrenness. Plain ol’ winter can feel like a painful letdown after the Christmas season. Recognizing Epiphany has given us a way to extend our holiday celebration and preserve our thankful hearts for the sweet gift of Immanuel. When we pack away our Christmas decorations, we often keep up some of the lights and add to them paper star garlands. If we failed at making those plates of Christmas cookies for friends, we might make & decorate some star-shaped cookies as an Epiphany gift. From year to year we might spread ourselves between home and out-of-town family for Christmas celebrations, but we are always back home and settled in by Epiphany. This creates a default bonus opportunity to invite friends or neighbors over for a celebratory meal, topped off with a dessert that hides a baby Jesus figurine inside for one lucky person to find.
This idea is one that is harder to do, but one that I cherish — my very favorite Christmas seasons have been the years when we have opted to wait to give our kids their gifts until Epiphany. It has always been the tradition in our family that each child gets 3 gifts — why should they get any more than Jesus got when the point of the holiday is to celebrate HIS birthday? As parents trying to raise kids in a materialistic and disposable culture, it is a challenge to make Christmas about Jesus, but holding off gifts until Epiphany has helped with that. It has shifted the focus of the Christmas season to spending time together as a family and toward and recognizing the incomparable gift of God-in-flesh. (And practically, you can purchase much nicer things for much less money AFTER Christmas!)
One of our family’s very favorite holiday traditions is visiting a Living Nativity hosted by a church nearby. This year was our 8th year going! In years past, the kids will start asking as early as July, “When are we going to the living nativity?” It’s a really beautiful production that doesn’t just include a single scene of Christ’s birth, but that tells God’s story of love and redemption from before creation, and depicts the life of Jesus all the way through his ascension into heaven. The kids have always liked the “Boys in the boat” scene — the story of Jesus calming the stormy sea after he has been sleeping in the boat.
There is a different scene which is my hands-down favorite, and this is where we get back to Epiphany. True to scripture’s telling of the story, the magi don’t show up at the manger to see a newborn baby Jesus along with the shepherds, but instead, as they approach the house that the star led them to, out the door bounds a toddler Jesus ready to receive their gifts and their worship.
Even in the midst of our family’s favorite December tradition, I am already turning my mind and heart toward Epiphany — the reality of “toddler Jesus” utterly thrills my heart. I mean truly, how absurd, right? It is one thing to imagine a serene sleeping newborn lying in a manger and to say “That is my God, with flesh just like mine.” But a toddler? Hang out with a toddler for even an hour, and then tell yourself, “Immanuel, God with us, God-with-flesh-on means that the Almighty put himself into a toddler’s body.” A toddler — with all of the silliness, inappropriate sharing of observations, freedom with their bodily functions and total disregard for the concept of an adult’s personal space. The incarnation, God coming near to humankind, to me, to you … it is really too wonderful to bear the thought of when it’s fully pondered. And I love how toddler Jesus, how Epiphany, pushes me to consider the beautiful absurdity of God’s grace and redemption even more.