The following reflection on the unifying theme of the Christmas season, in which we are still immersed as Catholics, was first published in the Texas Catholic Herald last month.
Despite the fact that stores have been selling Christmas since October (or even earlier), almost every Catholic is aware that liturgically the Christmas season begins (and does not end) on December 25. Most Catholics also know that Christmas is a liturgical season lasting several weeks and not just a day. A few might even be able to remember that the Feast of the Epiphany is somehow a part of the Christmas season. A very few might be able to correctly state the Christmas season concludes on the first Sunday after January 6 (i.e. the Sunday falling between January 7 and January 13, inclusive). But these technical details do not begin to explain the Church’s actual focus during the Christmas season and how it relates, but is not limited, to a remembrance of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem.
The overall theme of the Christmas season is epiphany. That wonderful Greek word comes from the verb phaino (meaning to shine) and the preposition epi (meaning on, upon, at, near). The word which literally means to “shine upon” takes on the meaning of “showing, becoming apparent, or making an appearance”. In everyday speech, a person can be said to have an epiphany if they come to a new insight or understanding about something that was previously confusing. In theological language, an epiphany is almost always a reference to God’s self-revelation, to God becoming manifest or apparent in some fashion. Therefore, to say that the Christmas season is centered on the theme of epiphany is to say that it is centered on the ways in God is made manifest to the world, is revealed to the world, in the person of Jesus Christ. The Christmas season celebrates this manifestation by recalling in particular three great moments in the life of Jesus: his birth, the witness of the Magi, and his baptism in the River Jordan.
The celebration of Jesus’ birth on December 25 is a celebration not so much of a cute little baby, but a celebration of the way that God is revealed through the incarnation. In the midst of winter darkness, the Opening Collects of the Christmas masses during the night and at dawn speak of God’s light breaking into the world. The Prayer over the Offerings for the mass during the day is explicit in the use of this key word, “…when you manifested the reconciliation that makes us wholly pleasing in your sight…” In the Christ-child, the Word-made-flesh and born of Mary, we see something of the very nature of a God who breaks into human history.
Given that epiphany is the overall theme of the season, it is somewhat confusing that the next moment is celebrated in a feast simply named the Feast of the Epiphany. This celebration recalls the witness of the Magi. We do well to remember that, though we often put figures of the Magi next to the newborn infant in our Nativity scenes and we celebrate the feast less than two weeks after the nativity, as Matthew’s gospel tells the story, this is a distinct event occurring nearly two years after Jesus’ birth. The significance of the event, the manifestation of Jesus’ true nature, lies in the symbolic gifts the Magi present to the child: gold (representing Jesus’ royal identity as the legitimate heir of David), frankincense (representing Jesus’ identity as the true high-priest), and myrrh (representing Jesus’ identity as the Paschal victim, the Lamb of God).
The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord recalls the event in the life of the adult Jesus which inaugurates his public ministry. Jesus is baptized in the Jordan River by John. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke all testify that as Jesus came up from the water the heavens were opened, the Spirit descended on him in bodily form, and the Father’s voice identified him as the beloved Son in whom he is well pleased. This, then, is the third great moment in the cycle in which Jesus’ identity is made manifest to the world. He is the beloved Son the Father who does the Father’s will in the power of the Holy Spirit.
As Catholic Christians then, we take a season to remember the ways that God is made manifest to the world in and through Jesus Christ. But for us, remembrance is never simply about bringing to memory some event of the past. For us, for whom history has passed over into mystery, it is about bringing the power of those past events into our present reality. Therefore, this Christmas season, as we remember the ways God was made manifest in the person of Jesus Christ in history, let us also come to an awareness and reflect on the ways in God’s presence through Christ has been made known in our lives. Let us allow this entire Christmas season to be an occasion for us not only to remember a baby born far away and long ago, but also a God who continues to break into our world and into our lives. And let us let the power of the Christmas season be a power to transform us here and now just as the world was fundamentally transformed by the manifestation of God-in-Christ.