|He Qui -- Adoration of the Magi,|
|John baptises Jesus -- Jesus Mafa (Cameroon)|
Pictures courtesy of the Jean and Alexander Heard Library
The Feast of the Epiphany and the Baptism of Christ are major celebrations in the Christian year. The modern calendar makes it a little difficult to celebrate them both, especially when Epiphany (January 6th) is close to the following Sunday, as it is this year. There is good reason, however, to consider them together, since they are equally important as ‘epiphanic moments’ or occasions of ‘manifestation’
The brief and mysterious episode of the Wise Men, which only Matthew's Gospel relates, has long exercised a fascination on the Christian imagination. Whatever its basis in history, deep layers of theological meaning have been found in it. This is especially true of the gifts that the wise men leave in the stable. Each has symbolic meaning. Gold is a traditional gift for a king, frankincense carries overtones of priesthood, and myrrh presages death – a strange gift for a baby. More importantly perhaps, these travelers are foreigners, the only Gentiles to be present at the Incarnation. This signifies, right from the start, that the story of the birth, ministry, suffering and death of Jesus has a meaning far beyond the confines of Jewish life and culture. The episode reveals that the Gospel is a Gospel for Gentile as well as Jew.
The Sunday immediately after Epiphany is now widely observed as a commemoration of John the Baptist’s baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, an event recorded in all four Gospels. This year the Lectionary uses Mark’s version, and in it John makes it plain that while he offers a ‘washing away of sin’, the coming of Jesus will complete this with spiritual transformation. By submitting to John’s baptism himself, Jesus shows repentance to be a pre-condition of this transformation, and in that very action he reveals his divinity.
The descending of the dove is the ‘epiphany’ of this story, one of those times when, quite suddenly, something of the greatest importance is revealed to us. At the Feast of the Epiphany and then at the Baptism of Christ, we are invited to celebrate two epiphanic moments. In both of them the person of the historical Jesus is revealed to be the eternal Christ.