I always imagine Christmas to be like the night. The whole world knows this even if they know it unconsciously. Spicy incense, twinkling lights in the midst of darkness, it all speaks to the paradox of incarnation, the unexpected surprise of God arriving in the form of a child. The world seems to revolt against itself. Regal decorations crop up amid the blanket-cover of snow. Lit-up trees. Every house incubating that infant spirit of warmth and cheer as if to make war on the outer cold. Advent and Christmastime is twilight and night. It is a time to contemplate the divine mystery of incarnation, the paradox of it. The nativity of God. The impossibility of it all.
If Advent and Christmas are the twilight and silent night of the incarnation, then the epiphany is the dawn. The epiphany is the season of revelation, when we see the glory of Christ in its fulness. The shadowy mysteries of the night have been dispelled by the glory of Christ. His dawn has come, and we live under his sun. It all begins with the Magi at the manger–which is the recognition of Christ by the nations– then at Jesus’s dedication at the temple, the prayer of Simeon, the old faithful man whose dying wish was to see and recognize the Messiah. He prays a criminally underquoted prayer, one that will be on my lips as I die.
Sovereign Lord, as you have promised
Do now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation
That you have prepared in the sight of all people.
A light of revelation to the Gentiles
And glory to your people, Israel.
“In the sight of all people” is quite a revolutionary quotation. There’s nothing that keeps a religion artificially alive quite so effectively as mystery. If you think you’ve found the secret truth behind all reality, it’s probably a good idea to keep it a secret, and many religions use the power of secrets to their advantage. Siddartha Gautema became the Buddha by sitting by himself under a tree. The prophet Muhammad received his revelations alone in a cave. Our own homegrown American prophet Joseph Smith was led by an Angel to a buried set of golden plates on which he did not allow anyone to see and that only he could read by placing a “Seer stone” in the bottom of a hat and placing the hat over his head so that the mysteries of the engraving would be revealed. Most recently a prolific Science Fiction author has told us that his research has concluded that we are actually all extra-terrestrial spirits called thetans who have been tricked by a malevolent lord into thinking that we are material beings, and, well, things just get more obscure from there.
But Jesus goes down to be baptized. There are many people around him being baptized. One would think that God, descending upon such a paltry symbol as baptism would not have taken the time for the ritual. The above prophets certainly didn’t think they needed anything like that. They were possessors of secret knowledge. But Jesus goes down to be baptized. He is recognized by John the Baptist as too good for it, but Jesus goes through with it anyway. He may have even had to wait in line.
Only after the baptisms have been completed to the heavens open, and when they do, there are no discs or scrolls or secrets. Instead, the nature of God is revealed in an outpouring of true love meant for everyone around. What words are holier than these? “This is my beloved Son. In him I am well pleased.” Here the nature of God is plain. He is true love made plain so that all may see and accept him. His salvation springs from that love, his life and ministry both bear witness to and wield the power of that love, his passion and death are expressions of that love. His resurrection is the victory of that love.
Even the oft-criticized exclusivism of the Church, which is really only to say that there is a Church at all, is evidence of the impartiality of Jesus Christ. The risen Christ did not appear on high or to everyone at once, but a select few, and in so doing, allowed for human participation in the divine plan. Christ comes to the world in the Holy Spirit through his people; the plainness of their testimony and the humility of human charity. Considering the humble life of Jesus, how could it have been otherwise? Those waiting for earth-shattering displays of divine supremacy and power (either earnestly or skeptically) were disappointed.
This is what we are meant to see today. This is the witness we bear to our friends and family and co-workers. This is what animates our kindness, our joy, our happiness even in the midst of the confusion, anger, and misery of this fallen world. To know that God has revealed his inmost nature to us through the beacon of his son Jesus Christ who never hid truths under bushels, but revealed them in their fulness in the sight of all. “He who has ears, let him hear.” Jesus so often tells us. It’s not a high bar for admission. You need no enlightenment or special scrolls. Only the eyes to see the dawn of his reign of love and the ears to hear his laws and a heart to accept him as your own. “If you want, me come to me. If you hunger for me, come and eat me. If you love me, enter the holy of holies, for I have rent the veil in two.”