Although for many churches, the celebration of Christ’s Nativity is over for another year, for many others it is yet to come. They will celebrate the Feast of Epiphany on January 6th and on into the Sunday that follows. In part it will mark the visit of the Magi to worship the infant Jesus; but overall it will provide further opportunity to reflect on and rejoice in the Incarnation itself.
The key to the significance of this Feast Day is, of course, in its name: ‘Epiphany’ – signifying a ‘manifestation’ or ‘appearing’. The English word is a transliteration of the Greek word that sounds almost the same and captures not just what actually happened when Christ entered our world, but also all that is bound up with it. It is a declaration of gospel hope and it conveys the depth and wonder of how the hope of the gospel uniquely meets and answers the hopelessness and despair endemic to our race since Adam’s fall.
Part of the hopelessness that grips our lives stems from the fact we seem to be caught up in an unbreakable cycle of despair. So much so that even our greatest joys and best experiences are overshadowed by the failure, sorrow and death that surround us. And there is nothing within the cycle that allows us to break free. We see this in the Bible in the grim record of Genesis 5 with its genealogy of death which in turn is punctuated by the even grimmer verdict in the next chapter: ‘The LORD saw how great man’s wickedness on earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time’ (Ge 6.5).
God makes it clear that, if there is to be any hope at all for this world, it must come from outside this world. And that is precisely where the hope of the gospel is found. A hope that crystallises in that moment in time when there was the ultimate ‘manifestation’ that would penetrate and break the cycle of despair.
Paul uses this language of epiphany in his letter to Titus, which, interestingly, was intended to address underlying issues that were hindering the growth and witness of the church on Crete. Not once, but twice he reaches for the language of epiphany (Tit 2.11,13) to speak of the divine intervention that changes everything – not just for the immediate situation on Crete, but for all time.
The apostle teases this out in the immediate context of what was happening in the churches Titus had been sent to help. He reminds them that the grace of God they needed was not something they were still waiting for; but, rather, ‘the grace’ that not only ‘has appeared’, but has appeared ‘to all men’ (2.11). It was not as though they needed some kind of divine remedy that was bespoke to them and their needs; but that God had provided the ultimate remedy, once and for all, bound up with the epiphany that altered history.
Paul’s point is that the significance of that once-and-for-all event more than met the present needs of the Cretan Christians, because it was the grace that brings salvation.
This is a pertinent challenge to the mentality of many Christians through the ages that is inclined to diminish the greatness of the salvation that broke through into our world almost 2,000 years ago. The attitude that says, ‘Yes, that was wonderful; but we need something more special for what we’re facing now’. The apostle rightly reminds us that there is nothing that can surpass that moment of epiphany of the past either in the present or the future in terms of what it has secured and guaranteed.
Paul takes this thought further in what he goes on to say. The hope for the present that flows from the epiphany that has already taken place also underpins our hope for the future in the epiphany that has yet to take place. He acknowledges that God’s people have not yet arrived at their intended destination; they are still waiting for something. And the apostle identifies this as being ‘the blessed hope – the appearing [epiphaneian] of our great God and Saviour’ (2.13). The hope provided through the gospel reaches into the future.
We are given a vital clue to what that hope looks like when Paul goes on to define it as being God’s promise ‘to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good’ (2.14). Those words would have resonated in a very particular way with the churches in Crete that were all too conscious of how much still needed to be ‘straightened out’ in their shared life (1.5). Like so many Christians through the ages, our present imperfections are demoralising. So we need this timely reminder that there is a final denouement in the epiphany of God’s saving grace – one that is intimately bound up with what has already appeared – that will be revealed at the end of the ages.
The key to grasping all Paul is teaching here is found in the way he leads us to Christ. The ‘great God and Saviour’ whose epiphany brings such glorious hope is, of course, ‘Jesus Christ’ (2.13). Just as the first stage of his epiphany brought light into this dark world and brought representatives of distant nations to worship him, so its fulfilment will be marked by a ‘glorious appearing’ that will be witnessed by all nations and indeed by all who have ever lived.
One of the beauties of the Feast of Epiphany is that it is located at the beginning of the year. A time of hopes and dreams when people look forward expectantly to what may lie ahead. In that sense it encourages us not only to look back to the hope bound up with Christ’s Advent in the incarnation; but it reminds us that the fullness of his Advent has yet to be seen. And one day it will be seen in the Epiphany that will usher in the restoration of all things. Therein lies our hope, not just for the year ahead, but for the future in its totality!