‘Why is the tree still up?’
‘Because it’s bad luck to take it down until Epiphany.’
‘It’s the end of Christmas.’
This conversation, or something like it, happened every Christmas in my early childhood. Our tree would sit in the living room for twelve extra days after Christmas, the wreath stayed on the door, the cards stayed hanging on the walls. It was strange quirk for my very non-religious parents to be such sticklers for this one old school church tradition.
Today I’m much more of the opinion that Epiphany is celebrated not really to protect us from bad luck but to help us transition from Christmas to the rest of the year; reshifting our gaze from our intense focus on the incarnation up to see the whole glorious person of Jesus and everything he did. At Epiphany we mark the day that the wise men came from distant lands to worship Jesus. They had come a long way, travelling for up to two years; now they have finally caught up with the Christmas story and we meet them as our own Christmas celebrations draw to a close.
The wise men read the stars and somehow knew more about Jesus’ identity than the Jews that Jesus was to be king of. Epiphany picks up on this theme of stars and light and illumination, of seeing the truth and knowing the truth and worshipping the truth. Epiphany is the day that says “YES!” to all the good news of the Christmas story. It’s the day that gives us space to join the dots and knit the pieces together, to see who Jesus really and truly is. It’s the day for seeing all the ways that Christmas shows us Jesus’ humanity and divinity. It’s the day for seeing all the ways that Jesus’ birth foreshadows his death and resurrection.
It’s the day for moving back into ordinary time.
May God bless you this year with a deep love for and knowledge of his Son. Thank you for celebrating with us.
The third day of the New Year also marks the third last day of Christmastide. It may well be that after the rush at the end of the year with the sudden change in gear at Christmas that you are feeling tired and exhausted. And after ten days of Christmas feasting, there may well be a fatigue setting in that not even Advent has prepared you for. If that is you, we hope you find today’s resources helpful for taking time to pause and reflect anew on the Christ whose birth we celebrate. From a sermon that was produced under similar circumstances, to an ancient Greek hymn reflecting on the wonder of the nativity, from a recent album release to a Bible reading practice designed to slow you down to think and mediate, take the time this Saturday to ruminate again that God became man.
Also, a New Year also brings with it its own series of habits and practices, least of all the concept of New Year’s Resolutions. This practice has a long history, and was used by Christians in England and North America in the 16th and 17th centuries to stimulate reflection on the year that was and provide direction for growth in the year ahead, particularly as a way of moving from the feasting of Christmas to the return of ‘ordinary time’ that followed Epiphany. If you’re looking for inspiration for your resolutions this year, you may find inspiration with Natasha Moore from New England theologian and pastor Jonathan Edwards over at the Centre for Public Christianity.
The Circumcision of Jesus | New Year’s Day
Happy New Year! Did you stay up for the fireworks and then party through to the wee hours of the morning? Or did you head to bed early to watch the sun rise? It is surprising that what might be the world’s most widely celebrated public holiday also coincides with one of the most obscure feasts on the Christian calendar: the Naming and Circumcision of Jesus. Partly this is because of a quirk; until 1752 in the English-speaking world New Year’s Day was widely observed on March 25, coinciding with the feast of the Annunciation. Yet today is the eighth day after the birth of Mary’s child, the day on which Jesus was named and circumcised according to Luke.
Christ’s circumcision has been seen by theologians such as Calvin and Barth as a proleptic sign foreshadowing his death. At the very least it was part of Jesus Christ, the true Israel, the true adam, participating in our humanity for the sake of our salvation. As Paul writes: ”For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.’
In moving the New Year from Annunciation to Circumcision, Christmas became a festival spanning two calendars. The result was that years now end as they start: a celebration of the one named Jesus, who saves his people from their sins (Matthew 1.21). As you celebrate today, remember that it is this one who’s name is written over the year ahead.
Today’s post features a distinct patristic flavour. The second century bishop Irenaeus is widely regarded as the first Christian theologian following the apostolic era. Drawing on Paul’s image in Ephesians of all things being summed up in Christ, described in today’s reading as the first born of creation and new creation, Irenaeus argued for a unified vision of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ, who in the Incarnation sums up in himself the entire history of salvation, humanity and all creation: “He, as the eternal King, recapitulates all things in himself”. Where Adam failed, Jesus obeyed with trust and humility. This theme is continued in the Byzantine Hymn of the Only-Begotten Son, credited to the fourth century Alexandrian bishop Athanasius: the Word of God became flesh to renew the bearers of God’s image. Of course, this isn’t a peculiarity of the early church; it is the theological foundation of Christmas, the basis of our salvation.
As we reach the mid-way point of the Christmas season, we offer you these ancient and modern reflections on the incarnation of God the Son so that we might become sons of God.
Holy Innocents Day | The Sunday after Christmas
On the morning of Christmas Day 1626, the Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral London rose to preach. He said these words:
The whole life of Christ was a continual passion; others die martyrs, but Christ was born a martyr.
The fourth day of Christmas is another reminder of this truth. Etched into the church calendar for today is the feast of The Innocents, remembering the children slaughtered in Bethlehem by order of Herod in his search for the infant messiah (recalled in the Coventry Carol), and the Son of God was taken into exile. A refugee. It is a day that quickly shatters idealized accounts of the peace proclaimed at Christ’s nativity. Instead we learn that this is a peace which will be wrought through Christ’s victory over the powers which effected such suffering in Bethlehem, and continue to rage this day.
By circumstance, today is also the Sunday after Christmas. Within Christian tradition, Sundays have always been a little Easter, the day of Christ’s resurrection from the dead and triumph over the powers. By bearing the whole Christ event in mind, we are able to celebrate and feast, even on this day.