One of the many highlights of my time as Bishop of Tonbridge was spending Epiphany (5th – 6th January) in Palestine. I was taken to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem on the evening of the 5th to attend the Greek Orthodox Epiphany service to celebrate the revealing of the true identity of Jesus Christ to the world at his baptism. Epiphany (which means ‘manifestation’ or ‘revealing’) is a major celebration in the Eastern Church and the service I attended was akin to the Western Church’s Midnight Mass: Epiphany is also a major feast in the Western Church where, again, Christ is revealed to the world as God’s Son, but the focus is on the visit of the wise men to Jesus’ home in Bethlehem.
When I arrived at the Church of the Nativity, I was invited by the Greek Patriarch of Jerusalem to process with him to the cave at the heart of the Church which Christians across the world revere as the place of Jesus’ birth. As we processed, candles in hand, through the packed church, we were joined by the Palestinian President Abbas accompanied by a myriad of security personnel – in the melee, I was pushed forward, candle in hand, and inadvertently set fire to a security man’s hair….but that’s another story.
The President (a Muslim) came with a small group of us into the cave to worship, to revere the place of Jesus’ birth and to listen in wonder to the story of God’s love for the world personified in Jesus Christ. As I reflect upon that night, I realised that the events that the Church celebrates at the time of Christmas and Epiphany, when shepherds, people of power and people from afar came to worship Christ, was happening again in the same place where God’s miracle of love and reconciliation first took place.
Epiphany is a reminder that God’s love is for the whole world and not just for a few and the Good news of Jesus Christ will draw people of all faiths and none. It is the calling of the Church to ensure that we work with the Spirit of God to encourage this to happen rather than put conditions and demands on those who are wanting to respond. Our calling is to enable God’s love and grace to flow rather than to bottle it up.
Epiphany also speaks deeply into the current political climate of fear and conflict in two particular ways. First, at the heart of both Epiphany and Christmas is the celebration of difference. Jesus’ identity as fully God and fully human is affirmed. For centuries there have been disputes about whether it is possible to hold together full divinity and full humanity in one person, but the Christian faith points to Jesus Christ as the living example. In a world where difference is feared and sometimes hated, the celebration of Epiphany puts it on a pedestal and worships it.
Secondly, the journeying of people of power and of no power, people from afar as well as those from nearby in order to wonder at the miracle who is Jesus Christ, is a reminder of his reconciling nature. Whenever and wherever reconciliation is taking place, Jesus Christ is present and active.
Epiphany is a major feast in the Eastern Church and although it is regarded as a principal feast in the Western Church, it is rarely celebrated as such. Would that its significance for the world as well as the Church was celebrated more widely and more fully.