Epiphany: The Light Shines in the Darkness

When cartoonists illustrate a character having an epiphany, a bright idea, they show a light bulb above the person’s head. This is a good choice. The Greek meaning of “epi-phanos”is “to shine a light upon.” In the Church, Epiphany is one of the oldest festivals, centering on the New Testament concept (with Old Testament roots) of Christ as “The Light of the World.” As nature’s cycle returns longer light to the earth, it suits the season.

In the first millennium, Epiphany was universally observed. But presently it suffers from a fatal flaw. Because it is a fixed date, it rarely falls on Sunday. Americans, and the western church in general, divide time into two categories, secular and sacred. The latter only includes Sundays and Christmas. Poor Epiphany is a sacred festival on a secular day and therefore destined to be celebrated only by a handful.

Some churches give in to the culture and move Epiphany, and other important weekday festivals, to the nearest Sunday. But to do so distorts the created order. Secular time is an illusion. There is no such thing. Very early in the creation process, Genesis reports God’s creation of time (see Gen. 1:1-5), connecting it to creating light where there had just been darkness. God saw that the light was good, Genesis notes. Thus, both time and light have been God’s from the beginning. The relegation of God’s Kingdom to Sundays only would have surprised Christians in earlier centuries. They observed Sunday as the Day of Resurrection but all days as sacred. The cycle of festivals which grew up were celebrated regardless of what day of the week it was. Only Easter was specific to Sunday because of its connection to Resurrection.

Since all days are sacred, daily worship comes naturally and predates Christianity. The first Christians simply continued daily prayer from their pre-conversion practice. The rise of monasticism several centuries later further refined this for each day in the context of worship, prayer and praise. Each day had the dual purpose of “ora et labora,” pray and work, both sacred activities.

Yet in the Middle Ages, this way of life was gradually relegated to only the monasteries. It continues to separate modern man, including Christians, from a life where work (=stewardship) and prayer describe one’s entire life. Liturgy, literally “the work of the people,” should saturate all of life, eliminating the false notion of “secular” life and time.

One of the under-reported achievements of the English Reformation was the restoration of daily prayer to the parish community. Rites for morning and evening prayer were adapted from monastic services and installed in parishes, where people gathered at the sound of the bell to integrate their prayers with their work in the performance of their daily liturgy. The Lutheran Reformers developed similar rites, observed in the household or the parish (remember households generally had far more people than currently). Sacred time once again drove out the secular illusion, as in early centuries.

Sadly, we once again have evolved to a place where secular and sacred time are divided. Many factors contributed. The rise of pietism, which stressed individual prayer, discouraged community observance, and saw rites as “dead formalism.” The rise of a Puritanical worldview, which not only suspected rites, but separated work from liturgy, and stewardship from the Eucharist, saw only the Sabbath as a day for religious observance. Nineteenth century rationalism saw little need for worship at all, celebrating instead man’s own cleverness and productivity. Industrial society’s mobility removed most away from earshot to the parish bell. The industrial factory’s long workday had no room for parish prayer anyway.

Thus, we arrive at today. Most people live lives of de facto atheism, going about their work, play and family all week with no thought of time as sacred, or God’s presence as continuously in their lives, or a Eucharistic offering of their life’s work, or of doing life as a liturgy, a work offered to God.

It is precisely Epiphany, January 6, at this moment, when we focus on the creation of the light, and the rhythm of the day, that we can recover all of time and offer it to the Light of the World. There is a Nigerian saying, “The English all have watches, but they never have time.” Can we recover time from the secular illusion, the “chronos” of our clocks to which we are enslaved, the appointments which must be kept, planes to catch, deadlines to be met? Can we live instead in “kairos,” the Day of the Lord, when time is not a master but a gift of a loving God? Then we bathe in the “phos hilaron,” the gracious light, even the hilarious light, the light God saw was good.

Time, “chronos” time, the type that circles the dial on our watches, has marched us into another year of the 21st. century. It deposits us in a world where we can’t hear the call to prayer of the parish church bell. Mankind’s journey, instead of bringing us ever closer to home, pushes us further into exile. Yet, for those who have ears to hear, “church bells are still chiming and calling,” to quote the great Grundtvig hymn. God’s creation is the same. Our response, too, can be the same, to do our liturgy 24/7, to offer our work and life in the Eucharistic oblation, to transcend chronos and enter kairos, the blessed Kingdom beyond linear time.

In the daily cycle of community prayer shared by Christians this very day around the world, in monasteries, in jails, in hospitals, in nursing homes, in war zones, in offices and factories, farms and oilfields, homes and schools, even a lucky few in parish churches, we proclaim in the words of the ancient rites, that the Light of Christ still shines with the same primal glory of the sunrise of creation’s first morn. We are together in small groups, we are on this website of “thetrinitymission.org,” we are in churches and seminaries, we are with family in the kitchen, we are alone in remote places. But we are all united in the Body of Christ regardless of whether we pray alone or in local community.

As such, we reflect the shining light, the Epiphany. It is a lantern to our feet until, not the end but the kairos maturation, when we shall stand in the city that “has no need of the sun or of the moon to shine on it, for the glory of the Lord has illuminated it and its lamp is the Lamb,” (Rev.22:23-24).

This Epiphany, renounce the illusion of secular time apart from God, and come into the light of the Lord. Live the rest of your days doing your liturgy for others and offering your moments to the Lord in Eucharistic gratitude, until the Day of the Lord when darkness and chaos are no more.