We live in a world that is constantly changing and evolving, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worst. Of course the most obvious change these days is technology—where one thing is constantly being replaced by another. But change also occurs in other ways, particularly in some of the things we hold dear. And the church is not immune to those changes. After all, Christmas these days has become a major festival. But as little as two hundred years ago it wasn’t celebrated much at all.
The question today, though, is: Do we want to accept and adopt all the changes? Or do we want to hang on (or even revert back) to the things that we might consider valuable?
Now in the church, there used to be an important day in the calendar which was considered far more important than Christmas—Epiphany, celebrated on the sixth of January each year. But it is a day that for many, these days, comes and goes largely forgotten. But Epiphany has been celebrated since at least the third century AD, and had as its original theme: the revelation of God to the world in Jesus Christ.
The theme was based on the story of the baptism of Jesus—the story of Jesus revealing himself to the world as he began his earthly ministry. And with the introduction of Advent, which at its peak was a six week period of reflection and preparation for baptism, Epiphany marked the final day of the festival. Indeed it was at Epiphany that those who had prepared for baptism during Advent would be baptised, having proved that they were genuine in their beliefs and that they were ready for the Second Coming and Judgment Day.
Epiphany, then, was a very important festival in the life of the church. Indeed the church’s calendar was based around the three important festivals of Easter, Pentecost and Epiphany.
Unfortunately, with the adoption in the fourth century of the celebration of the birth of Jesus, Epiphany and Advent became confused with Christmas. And in the Western Church, Advent was shrunk to four weeks, and became a time of preparation for Christmas. Meanwhile Epiphany became confused with the visit of the wise men.
When we consider the world in a constant state of change, then, even the church has not been immune. Consequently Epiphany has lost its original meaning, and today is hardly considered an important festival at all.
But should that be? Because up to the third century the early church’s emphasis was on the work and ministry of Jesus, and the establishment of the church. Consequently Epiphany celebrated the beginning of Jesus’s ministry, Easter celebrated his death and resurrection, and Pentecost celebrated the promised ‘another counsellor’ and the establishment of God’s church. In other words, the early church was not interested in making a major celebration of the nativity at all.
Of course, Matthew has written down the story from Joseph’s perspective, and Luke has recorded Mary’s. But it was only because of the need to rid Roman Society of the worship of the sun God, around the twenty-fifth of December, that the birth of Jesus was added to the calendar at all. And that should suggest to us that the motivation for adding the celebration of the birth of Jesus to the Christian calendar was not thought through properly as it should have been. Indeed, the emphasis on Jesus’s adult life and the life and the work of God’s church has suffered.as a result.
Of course, in order to return the calendar back to its original balance, there is a need to reject what Epiphany has become, wind back the clock to a time before the introduction of Christmas, and restore Epiphany to its former glory. But this would then restore Epiphany to its original meaning: recalling Jesus’s first recorded adult public appearance, with his baptism by John. The emphasis then would be restored to the event that triggered off the commencement of Jesus’s ministry, with all his teaching, miracles, and the calling of his disciples. In other words it would restore the model of ministry on which we should shape much of our lives.
But if we do that, where does that leave the wise men? After all, learned men, specialising in astrology, probably from Babylonia (or modern day Iraq), is an important part of the nativity story. And their gifts are nothing to be sneezed at either: i.e. gold—a symbol of ultimate value fit for a king; frankincense—an expensive perfume burned in worship and on important social occasions fit for a deity; and myrrh—a luxurious cosmetic fragrance associated with suffering and death. Indeed they are gifts of the affluent; gifts suitable for a king. But we have to remember that the story of the wise men is just one story, in a book of important stories. And it is neither possible, nor sensible, to have days to celebrate them all.
Indeed, the wisdom of the early church was to choose two or three events for special celebration—events which were pivotal in helping people on their spiritual journeys. As a consequence they chose Epiphany, with the celebration of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry; Easter, with the celebration of his death and resurrection; and Pentecost, with the celebration of the gift of the promised ‘another counsellor,’ and the establishment of God’s church. Lent and Advent were then added as times of reflection and preparation for baptism, leading up to either Easter or Epiphany.
The current emphasis in the church on the birth of Jesus, then, I believe, is a mistake. But it is a mistake that began in the fourth century AD, in an attempt to wipe out the worship of the sun. The sad thing is that we are now living with the consequences.
Now, of course, we can choose to accept what has happened, and continue to celebrate Christmas on the twenty-fifth of December, or we can restore the calendar to what was originally intended. And if we do the latter, yes it means eliminating the celebration of Christmas—at least in its current position. But it also means restoring Advent to its earlier six week period, with its emphasis on the Second Coming and Judgement Day. To me this is the best option.
But what about those who would like to continue to celebrate the birth of the Messiah? Well I suggest that a (minor) celebration of the nativity could still be included in the church’s calendar. But perhaps it could be in September—away from the Advent/Epiphany period—at a time when many experts tell us is more likely to have been Jesus’s actual birthday.
Posted: 16th October 2016
© 2016, Brian A Curtis