Embracing the season of Epiphany can lead us to discover the true joy of Christmas, where we experience the presence of God in Jesus.
REV. FAITH TIMMONS
Elder, Michigan Conference
Christmas is easy to celebrate, with the giving and receiving of gifts. The spotlight shines brightly on the preparation of and expectations for the season. We focus on our children and families. At church, we are wrapped up in the busy planning of our worship services and holiday programs. And finally, we have the nativity scene set and all the characters in place.
But then we arrive at Epiphany, the season that can lead us to discover the true joy of Christmas. It’s a realization that I first learned some 20 years ago.
As director of Christian education, I was preparing for our children’s Christmas Eve pageant. This was a major event for the church. I was new on staff and earnestly sought to honor their treasured traditions with a few creative twists.
This particular year, Tammy, the new church secretary, had just given birth. The arrival of her two-month-old son seemed the prime opportunity for a real baby Jesus to grace our program, or so I thought. There was only one problem: I was excited, but everyone else was inquiring about the “doll baby.” I could not believe it. Who would want a doll in the manger when you could have a living, breathing child wrapped in swaddling clothes?
Yet, week after week, people kept asking if I was going to use the “doll baby.” “It’s tradition,” they said. “We’ve had a doll every year!” For the life of me, I could not figure it out.
Finally, the senior pastor came to me, stressed and concerned. He pulled me aside to explain that the “Dahl baby” was not a doll; furthermore, Mrs. Dahl (whom I’d yet to meet) was quite upset. In fact, she was threatening to leave the church.
You see, almost serendipitously, Mrs. Dahl had given birth every year for the past five years. Her youngest child was a newborn girl, the last of her crew and presumed heir apparent to the baby Jesus role. It’d become a tradition. For four years and running, a Dahl had been carried away to the manger by a little “Virgin Mary” for their debut as the baby Jesus!
In the four months that Tammy and I had been there, we’d not met or heard of her. Nevertheless, the Dahls’ participation was a widely anticipated event, not merely an expectation, but a given. Unfortunately, as the pastor explained, if her baby didn’t get the role, they were moving their membership.
Tempers began to flare, and feelings were hurt. Tammy felt undervalued. The Dahls were miffed, and I was deep in prayer. Thankfully, the dark cloud hanging over our Christmas Eve pageant dissipated quickly. A simple solution was found: Baby Dahl would make her debut, just as her siblings had in the past. As the program began, with spotlights shining down, she was carried into the sanctuary by a young “Virgin Mary” processing up the main aisle. Discreetly, during the manger scene, the two babies were switched. Then Owen, Tammy’s baby boy, was carried out during the finale as the jubilant congregation sang “Joy to the World.”
The Dahl baby started the program off with a bang, and the secretary’s child was the highlight of a celebratory recessional!
So, what was my epiphany? What was the newfound spiritual awareness that occurred in me?
It is easy for us to lose sight of Christmas and what it signifies until we embrace Epiphany. Jesus came for the whole world. Often depicted as men from far-off lands, the wise men represented people from different walks of life. Yet, their anticipation and acknowledgment of the Christ child was far superior to that of those living in the town where Jesus was born. The wise men, or magi, understood and celebrated God’s precious miracle that many others missed.
In the same way, the “Baby Jesus Brouhaha” nearly eclipsed the celebration of Christ’s life and the invitation into the presence of God in our church that year. No one seemed to stop and ask where God was in the midst of it all as they prepared to take sides in the brewing baby battle.
According to Matthew 2, the magi fell and worshiped Jesus when they saw him. They came prepared with gifts for the child. They recognized him as a king appointed by God, not the people. They had an epiphany, a sudden insight, into the true nature of something divine.
Epiphany celebrates the experience of the magi when they followed the star to Bethlehem. When they saw Jesus, the magi realized they were in God’s presence. The birth represents the significance of God enfleshed, God’s physical presence among us.
And this incarnation of God, the person of Jesus Christ, had arrived for the sake of all people—Jews as well as non-Jews, Gentiles.
The magi were Gentiles, but they were on the lookout for God. They were searching scripture, listening to the words of prophets, and watching for signs of God’s revelation on earth. And through Christ, they were able to become God’s people as well.
Unlike Christmas, when it’s easy to focus on our own expectations and preparations, the season of Epiphany leads us to open our hearts to find the true joy of Christ’s presence. It’s the kind of joy we want to share with others. True joy would have immediately invited baby Owen and his mother into the church’s activities, rather than raising doubts and fears. True joy shines that light on God’s presence in Jesus rather than us, hence alleviating pecking orders and innate privileges that only serve to exclude others.
Epiphany is very much like looking at life through the eyes of a child who is so excited about the Christmas story that he can’t contain himself. Or it’s seeing the events of the day through the eyes of travelers, like the magi, who journeyed many miles to find something new and precious.
Because that Christmas Eve pageant ended well, Owen and his mother and father joined their first church as a family and remain active believers to this day. They felt that they mattered; God was there for them, too. Tammy later mentioned how happy she was to be acknowledged as a person rather than an employee, hired merely to meet the parish’s needs. Their participation in that pageant was a turning point. They knew that this parish was their church, too. It was like the magi, who realized that Jesus was their king, too! So much so that they went out of their way to yield to him, bringing him the praise he deserved, even if others did not. Recognizing that Jesus is King is a life-changing epiphany that anyone can have.
That’s a lesson for all of us, I believe. Watch for any and every opportunity to offer others that experience by inviting them into the presence of God and the glory of Jesus Christ rather than ignoring them. Include them, rather than turn them away. Put your focus on acknowledging where and how God is moving in our midst. Every obstacle presents an opportunity to extend and embrace God’s grace each day, especially during Epiphany.
Rev. Faith Timmons is a United Methodist elder and a member of the Michigan Annual Conference. She spent time as a journalist before pursuing full-time ministry.