A number of winters ago, an interesting post-Christmas commercial appeared. In this commercial, a dejected man stands looking at his suburban home, adorned with the brightest Christmas lights imaginable, complete with music and moving Christmas characters. In an act of sad resignation, the man unplugs his loud display: Christmas is over. But then, his neighbor delivers a message of joy: there are still Christmas deals to be had at the stores! (A particular electronics store of course!) Christmas goes on! And, with new purpose, the man plugs everything back in.
Although kitschy and consumeristic, this commercial has stayed with me as a reminder of how we postmodern folk mark our Christmas-time. Even more surprisingly, this advertisement seems to align with our liturgy’s invitation: that we allow Christmas to linger and then lead us into the rest of the year.
Is it possible that, after years of hawking “Christmas deals” in October, the advertising calendar has – in its own way – caught up with churchy calendars, where the Christmas season stubbornly hangs on well into January? In my own Roman Catholic tradition, the Christmas season continues through the Solemnity of the Epiphany, and indeed not wrapping up until the Solemnity of the Baptism of the Lord. Likewise, many Christians in other denominations will retain the name “Epiphany season” until the season of Lent begins with Ash Wednesday. What sense can we make of this, we who have already boxed away our Christmas decorations, or who really should, and are looking forward to the seasons called “NFL playoffs” or “Spring semester” or even “Valentine’s Day?”
A look back might help: In earlier Christian centuries, the December 25 Christmas, popular in western Christianity, was complemented by a January 6 celebration of Christ’s birth and “Epiphany,” popular in eastern Christianity. In fact, this eastern celebration of Christ’s Epiphany was, and is, a celebration of the several “manifestations” or “epiphanies” (in the plural) of Christ to the world. These include not only his birth and appearance to the travelling star-led magi but also, in a special way, his baptism as an adult in the Jordan, a model for our own rebirth in the waters of baptism. The Epiphany tradition even manages to include a third story of Jesus introducing himself by turning water into wine at the Cana wedding (as festive a story as any other!).
Over time, the Christmas and Epiphany traditions influenced one another, giving many Christians in both east and west the opportunity to celebrate the birth of baby Jesus on December 25, and Christ’s “epiphanies” to the world on January 6 (or, for many of us, the closest Sunday). But western Christians have tended to place Epiphany’s focus on the journeying magi and the star that guided them, and pushed the celebration of Jesus’ baptism to the following Sunday (in some years, due to calendar issues, the Solemnity of the Lord’s Baptism is instead celebrated on a Monday). As for the Cana wedding story: this event is featured every third year – but not this year – on the second Sunday of Ordinary Time (for Roman Catholics) or second Sunday after Epiphany (for those who use the ecumenical Revised Common lectionary).
There is wisdom in this stretching of Christmas and Epiphany-time, giving us the room to linger in our re-introduction to this Jesus, not simply as precious babe in a manger, but as the beloved Son of God, baptized for ministry and mission. Like the searching magi, we seekers rejoice in Jesus whose light of hope stretches to all peoples of our troubled world, and maybe even to us. Like the puzzled river-goers at the Lord’s baptism, we baptized but bumbling believers begin to wonder what it would mean to wade deeper into the waters with Jesus, embracing the life of Christ. And like the stunned wedding guests at Cana, we festival-weary folk experience Jesus as God’s overflowing love that transforms water into wine, darkness into light, and death into life. These epiphany stories persistently remind us that, though the Christmas season may be ending, we are in fact just getting started: with our year, with our celebration of Jesus, and with our own mission as Christ’s disciples.
And so perhaps it time for us, like our friend plugging back in his Christmas lights, to get “plugged back into” Christ our light, and to get plugged back into his mission. As we move from Christmas into the rest of the year, we will hear more about this mission and why it is good news for us and for our world. We know we have much to do if we are to address violence and injustice in society; if we are to heal the brokenness and distrust in our families and communities. We know how hopeless the darkness sometimes seems. Our world often seems clouded in darkness (Isaiah 60 – Epiphany lectionary reading), and our lives in grief and despair. Sometimes, it may seem as if we can do nothing, as if all hope is gone.
And yet, hope is not gone. In these moments of darkness, let us heed the wisdom of these days: let us center all that we do in Christ our hope – the light that shines upon us and within us. Like Jesus at his baptism, may we be energized by the Holy Spirit for his mission of peace, justice, and healing. In the year ahead, may we be a light of hope for our families, our communities, and our world.
This reflection is a companion to a prayer found in another post. Earlier versions of this reflection originally appeared in the Our Lady of the Brook parish bulletin (Northbrook, IL) in 2010, and on this site in 2013 (updated 2019).
For Your Consideration:
See my book, Baptism: Alive in Christ, which offers a way to reflect on our baptismal identities using three New Testament readings, including the epiphany story of Jesus’ own baptism in the Jordan.
Text: Copyright © 2013, 2019 Justin Huyck. All rights reserved.