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Season of Epiphany

The Season of Epiphany.  The season of Epiphany encompasses the time from January 6 (the end of Christmas) until Ash Wednesday, which is the beginning of Lent.  Most people associate this season with the wise men, or the three kings, but this is only a small aspect of all the season entails (One of the most famous Epiphany hymns is “As with Gladness, Men of Old,” which is a narrative of the visit of the wise men.)  The term “epiphany” means “manifestation,” and refers to the visit of the wise men, Jesus’ presentation and teaching in the temple and His gradual growing in stature in the “eyes of God and man.”  Notice that the paraments have become green once more—this green is symbolic of growth (as in plants and nature) and reflects Christ’s growth from the babe in the manger to the young person who astounds the scholars in the synagogue with His knowledge.   Listen to many of the hymns during the ensuing weeks—many deal with “light” and “brightness,” which obviously refers to this “enlightenment” of humankind through the teachings and works of God’s Son. 

            But it is no coincidence that we associate Epiphany primarily with the three kings.  The Greek (gentile) Church originally related well to the wise men because the wise men were not Hebrews but gentiles, and their reception by Jesus (young as He was) represents God’s embracing of the gentiles as well as the Hebrews.  This was a comforting thought to the Greeks—and to the later Church as well—who certainly did not come from a Hebrew environment and could not claim strictly the promises of God to His “chosen priesthood” in the Old Testament.  Therefore, our Western Church emphasizes (perhaps subconsciously) as well this “revealing of God” even to the Gentiles.  Many of the oldest hymns we have are Greek hymns which deal with Epiphany.

            In the early Church (as the church year was developing during the first couple of centuries), the most important liturgical festival (after Easter) was Epiphany.  Epiphany was so important that a six week period of preparation (Advent) was added to coincide with the six week period of preparation (Lent) for Easter.   When Christmas was added later, this cut off two weeks of Advent, and Advent was then viewed as a preparation for Christmas (which is our current tradition as well.)   Orthodox Christians—Greek, Coptic, Russian, etc.—still celebrate Epiphany as we celebrate Christmas.  To them to this very day, Epiphany is the most important nativity celebration. 



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O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.   This is one of the most beloved of Advent hymns, and it dates back to the ninth century, to the time of Charlemagne. If you reference hymn 357 in your hymnal, you will see on the other side of the page the “O Antiphons” from which this hymn is derived, so called because each ascription to Jesus begins “O,” even in the original Latin. These “O Antiphons” are ancient, probably dating from the earliest centuries of the Church, and were typically chanted and prayed the seven days prior to Christmas Eve. (Hence, there is a date preceding each of the antiphons in the hymnal.) These were so ubiquitous it was even a legitimate question to ask one if they had “kept their Os.” You will also notice on the bottom right page of the hymnal the references from Isaiah. This hymn is meant to connect the Old Testament prophecies with their fulfillment in Jesus. Following are several:

Key of David:  Isaiah 22:22: "I will place the key of the House of David on his shoulder. When he opens, no one shall shut; when he shuts, no one shall open.”  In both OT and NT contexts, the key has been the traditional symbol of kingly authority.  Through this “key,” the power of heaven is held or loosed.  In Matt. 16: 19, Jesus states, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven;  whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

Rod (or “Root”) of Jesse:  Isaiah 52:13, 15; 53:2: "See, my servant shall prosper...So shall he startle many nations, because of him kings shall stand speechless. ...He grew up like a sapling before him, like a shoot.”  Christ is David’s descendant in that He was both genetically related to David, and He is also inheritor of both the earthly (David’s) and heavenly (God the Father’s) kingdom.

Dayspring from on High:  Isaiah 9:1: "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone.”  Interestingly, “dayspring,” also translated as “rising dawn” or “morning star,” refers to an object which is not so luminescent in itself than it reflects a light greater than itself.  This emphasizes Jesus’ divinity as a reflection of His Heavenly Father and reminds us that Jesus’ does not stand alone but with the Heavenly Father regarding our salvation.

Wisdom from the Most High:  This ascription comes directly from apocryphal (not directly biblical for most Protestants) sources, although Christ as “Wisdom” is referred to in John 1:1.  He is the Logos (“Word”) or Wisdom who is present with God before even the beginning of time.

Emmanuel:  Isaiah 7:14: "Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.”  “Emmanuel” means “God with us.”  Christ has taken on human form so that we might relate to Him.  He is not a stranger to us—He is no god who sits idly back and watches the world from afar.  He was active in it in a very physical and real sense, and we should expect that He is no less involved in the world today.  Christ has become one of us;  but, as the other antiphons remind us, He is still Almighty God! 

The mystery of Advent and Christmas is that this Almighty God became manifest in our world for our salvation.  Christianity teaches that Christ is completely God and yet completely human.  How can this be?  The essence of our faith is that Christ somehow accomplished this for our benefit, and it is not necessarily for us to understand.

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