Christmas blogs usually post by…well, Christmas. But today is Epiphany, a holiday associated with Jesus’ birth, so it counts. We did not observe Epiphany in my faith tradition but I was vaguely familiar with the celebration. My first real encounter with the celebration occurred during seminary when I was in Israel. The tour plan took us to Bethlehem on that day so we got to experience the Epiphany celebration there and visit the Church of the Nativity. It was and is a treasured experience.
Christmas, Easter, and Epiphany are celebrated annually by Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, and other Orthodox churches (dates differ between Eastern and Western Orthodox churches). Epiphany, sometimes called Three Kings’ Day, Theophany, or the Feast of the Epiphany, is a Christian holiday that celebrates a variety of events in the life of Christ. Along with His birth, this holiday also commemorates the visit by the Magi, the baptism of Jesus, and that Jesus was both fully God and fully man. It’s a lot to celebrate, and that day in Israel they did. There were parades, children dressed up, smiles were abundant, and joy was palpable as people gathered to celebrate.
My visit to Bethlehem on Epiphany allowed me to celebrate Christ’s birth with brothers and sisters from across the world. Our group represented several seminaries and faith practices: Roman Catholic, Methodist, Luthern, Anglican, Independent Christian, and others. The crowds included Greek Orthodox and a variety of other faiths that visit or live in Israel.
One aspect of Epiphany relating to the Magi’s visit highlights that the Jewish Messiah was also providing salvation to the gentiles and pagans. That day in Israel, I saw people from many countries and Christian faith traditions celebrating our common savior – a Jewish Messiah, born to bring salvation to every person. Christ came for everyone.
Even though my faith tradition doesn’t directly observe Epiphany, this celebration of Christ for all mankind was demonstrated in the manger sets I use to decorate for Christmas this year. I have one simple set that features Joseph, Mary, Jesus, and one lamb. Because the figures are breakable, this set is for display only. For my grandchildren, I purchased a Fisher-Price Little People nativity set and also own a set inspired by Charlie Brown’s Christmas with characters that were remarkably similar to the Fisher-Price brand. This past Christmas, I was unable to keep the two sets from mixing. Since we also own a Fisher-Price house and barn, these characters made an appearance too.
In this nativity, kings ate with shepherds, people from every walk of life interacted, and…if you look closely, you will see that even Wile E Cayote appears next to an angel by the sheep. Isn’t that the gospel message after all – everyone is on equal footing and welcome in the family of God. No matter how “angelic” you act or how “bad” your actions have been – we all need the grace and mercy that God bestows.
A few years ago, the nativity sets took on a different arrangement. When one of my granddaughters came over, she almost immediately rearranged every character to face Jesus.
Reflecting on the nativity arrangements from years ago and this year, I was struck by the realization that they represent the two great commandments. In the circles, everyone focuses on Jesus. In the very mixed set from this year, community is demonstrated as individuals from every walk of life connected in conversation and meals.
How different would our culture look if we focused on connecting with Christ and treating others with respect and dignity, no matter their race, religion, culture, or political affiliation?