I love all kinds of Christmas music, from simple acoustic folk stylings like Ed Sweeney’s Inside Fezziwig’s to the glam metal band Trans Siberian Orchestra and their glitzy annual tour. TSO has a song from their Christmas Eve and Other Stories narrative that really grips me. “Old City Bar” tells the story of an angel’s visit leading to a bartender cleaning out the cash register so that a young girl could get home for Christmas. The song includes these lines:
If you want to arrange it,
This world, you can change it,
If we could somehow
Make this Christmas thing last.
By helping a neighbor,
Or even a stranger,
To know who needs help,
You need only just ask.
Making Christmas cheer last through the bleak days of winter is a common problem where I live in Michigan. Maybe we can find some help for this by consulting the church year calendar. Christmas in not just a day, but the season of Advent. Advent leads to Epiphany, and understanding Epiphany may be just the thing that will make Christmas last. Let’s see about that.
Epiphany in Everyday Lingo
When someone who suddenly “gets it” says, “Omg, I had an epiphany,” they are describing a powerful, quasi-religious moment of clarity, illumination, or understanding. Whether we’re religious or not, we’ve all had, or at least wish we could have, such “epiphanies.” But these moments are as undependable and unpredictable as they are illuminating—we need much more than “aha moments” to make Christmas last.
Epiphany in the Church Year
Everyone has heard about the partridge in a pear tree and the other odd gifts in the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” right? In western churches which follow the Gregorian calendar, those twelve days span December 25 to January 5, with Epiphany beginning on January 6. In eastern church traditions, based on the Julian Calendar, those twelve days run roughly from January 6–19 this year. With a tradition going back at least to the fourth century, Epiphany is the day when the Church celebrates the magi visiting Jesus (Matt 2), or in some traditions the revelation of Jesus as God’s Son at his baptism (called Theophany in Eastern Orthodoxy). In Latino circles it is sometimes called “Three Kings Day” (el Dia de los Tres Reyes). In some protestant churches “Epiphanytide” is the season from Epiphany Sunday until the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday, this year from January 5–Feb 26.
Traditional Epiphany celebrations of the visit of the magi focus on the heart of God for all humanity, Jews and Gentiles alike. The magi were the first Gentiles to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah. How they learned of the Jesus is ultimately a mystery of God’s grace. Matthew (e.g. 24:14; 28:20) and Luke (e.g. 4:24-27; 24:47) especially emphasize the God of Israel’s plan for all people to hear of the Messiah. Luke provides the keynote for all of Luke and Acts in the words of the prophet Simeon about the infant Jesus, who comes as “a light of revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel” (Luke 2:32, echoing Isa 42:6; 49:6). Certainly Christmas signals God’s love for all people, whatever their ethnicity. Focusing on this love motivates us to make Christmas last by telling the story over and over again to those who haven’t heard the good news. What will sustain us as we do this?
Epiphany in the New Testament
Making Christmas last starts with getting what it truly means, and that meaning has to do with the presence of God in Jesus Christ. The angel Gabriel told the virgin Mary that the Lord was with her (Luke 1:28). Mary’s son Jesus would be called Immanuel, meaning “God-with-Us” (Matt 1:22, quoting Isa 7:14). Paul used the word epiphany (in Greek it’s ἐπιφάνεια) to describe the visible and glorious presence of God in the person of Jesus. In 2 Timothy 1:10 the word refers to the powerful, life-changing appearance of Jesus on earth:
For God saved us and called us to live a holy life. He did this, not because we deserved it, but because that was his plan from before the beginning of time—to show us his grace through Christ Jesus. And now he has made all of this plain to us by the appearing of Christ Jesus, our Savior. He broke the power of death and illuminated the way to life and immortality through the Good News. (NLT)
Paul used the word epiphany more often to describe Jesus’ promised return to the earth for a final judgment leading to his reign. Jesus appears to reveal his power and glory by judging evil (2 Thess 2:8). Anticipating Jesus’ future appearance on earth motivates his followers to live obediently (1 Tim 6:14) and faithfully bear witness to the gospel (2 Tim 4:1). Those who long for the presence of Jesus will share with Paul in the rewards that accompany his appearance (2 Tim 4:8). According to Titus 2:11-13, Christ’s appearance and future re-appearance teaches Christians to live godly and hopeful lives as they anticipate the glorious blessings that await them:
For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good. (NIV)
Epiphany in Biblical Theology
Unpacking the life-changing power of the presence of God takes us on a journey through the whole Bible, from Genesis to Revelation:
- Our first parents Adam and Eve were defeated by Satan’s lies and had to hide from God’s presence (Gen 3:8). But Jesus emerged victorious from his encounters with Satan, providing a way for humanity to live once again in God’s presence (Matt 4:1-11). As followers of Jesus we enjoy renewed fellowship with God through the Holy Spirit. In Christ, whatever our circumstances, we are more than conquerors (Rom 8:37). We have the capacity to defeat Satan’s attempts to destroy our lives (Eph 6:10-18; Jas 3:17).
- As he received God’s instruction for Israel, Moses experienced God’s presence and once caught a special glimpse of God (Exod 33:1-34:6). As great a display of grace as that was, in Christ we see the ultimate revelation of God’s glorious transforming presence. Jesus shows us the glorious grace and truth of God—when we look at him we see the Father (John 1:14-18; 14:9).
- The prophet Isaiah realized his own unworthiness when he personally experienced God’s holy presence and responded to God’s call on his life (Isa 6:1-7). Perhaps that experience led him later to speak so profoundly of the transcendent God who dwells with sinful yet repentant humans: For this is what the high and exalted One says—he who lives forever, whose name is holy. “I live in a high and holy place, but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite. (Isa 57:15 NIV).
- In Christ our individual stories make sense when we understand how we fit into God’s grand story. Our lives are bracketed and defined by God’s two epiphanies in Christ. We make meaning of our human existence when we remember the Lord’s death until he comes as we take the bread and the cup at the Lord’s Table (1 Cor 11:26).
- In Christ we are energized to enter God’s presence in prayer because we have a great welcoming high priest who has been where we are and knows our human weaknesses (Heb 2:14-18; 4:14-16).
- In Christ through the Spirit we have begun to experience the presence of God. One day we will live in the renewed heavens and earth when these words come true: “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Rev 21:3-4 NIV)
Epiphany Every Day- Living in the Light of God’s Presence
This grand story of God’s presence from Genesis to Revelation shows us that “making this Christmas thing last” isn’t primarily a matter of what we will do but of what God has already done. God’s action at that first Christmas set in motion the events that led to the cross, the empty tomb, and the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. As Immanuel Jesus promises to be with us all the days until the end of the present age (Matt 1:23; 28:20). He has not left us as orphans (John 14:18). We are not alone. He has provided power through the Holy Spirit to sustain us for all of life and ministry. Our three-in-one God has done everything to make Christmas last. Now it’s up to us to believe what God has done and act in the power of his presence to serve him faithfully.
Michael Card said it well in his song Immanuel:
A sign shall be given, a virgin will conceive
A human baby bearing undiminished deity
The glory of the nations a light for all to see
That hope for all who will embrace His warm reality.
Immanuel, our God is with us
And if God is with us, who could stand against us?
Our God is with us, Immanuel.
So, when it comes to making this Christmas thing last, it doesn’t really matter if we’re skeptical about an angel visiting an old city bar. That’s just a heart-warming Christmas story with some biblical precedent (e.g. Heb 1:14; 13:2). How we respond to the Gospels’ story of Jesus is another story altogether. This story has been changing countless millions of lives over the last two thousand years. Will it change your life in 2020?