Epiphany season (approximately the month of January) seems to be a time when one might be forgiven for getting thoroughly confused in the narrative of Jesus life. In the gospel readings each Sunday, we jump back and forth: from baby to adult, to youth, and back to baby again. It might be compared to a movie, flicking along a character’s timeline. For those unused to such a device, or unfamiliar with the story, it can be incredibly difficult to follow!
The season of Epiphany is about revelation – about things being revealed and seen for what they are. Hence we find ourselves with the wise men arriving to visit the baby Jesus, revealing his divine and kingly nature to those observing. We find Jesus being baptised in the river Jordan by John, when he is revealed as the son of God as the holy spirit descends upon him. We have the story of Jesus as a youth in the temple, when his parents come up for a particular festival, and Jesus is left behind when the family group depart for Nazareth. His terrified parents go searching for him, and they find him in the temple with the religious teachers and leaders, engaged in learned debate. And of course we have the gospel passage from last week when Jesus performed his first public miracle, turning water into wine at the wedding at Cana.
This week we take a huge step backwards some 30 years, and find ourselves with Mary and Joseph presenting their 40 day old baby in the temple, according to the law of Moses, making a sacrifice of thanksgiving to God for their firstborn son.
As happens so often around Jesus, things do not proceed simply, anonymously, or according to plan. Mary and Joseph are accosted by Simeon and by the prophet Anna. Simeon is an old man, who faithfully believed in God’s word, and has been waiting for many years to see God’s Messiah. God has promised him that he will not die until this has happened. This gives rise to Simeon’s most famous words, often used funerals and at evening prayer each day: “now Lord, lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word.” And the prophet Anna speaks of God’s redemption through this child.
It must be almost impossible to imagine what Mary and Joseph must have thought and felt on this occasion. For this was no private gathering. The temple would have been absolutely full of people – all kinds of people, from all kinds of places – all going about their religious business. They would no doubt have drawn a crowd. And although Mary and Joseph might, perhaps, have been not wholly overwhelmed, having had the shepherds visit them most unexpectedly immediately after Jesus’s birth, this would surely not have been without and unease and embarrassment in front of so many people. Even knowing that your child is special and sent by God would surely not make such public moments any easier!
All of these stories that come together in Epiphany are showing us different aspects of the nature, person, and work of Jesus Christ. All of them set the stage for what will later follow in his public ministry, in his death, and in his resurrection. Very shortly we will leap forward into Lent, and the 40 days of testing and meditation which Jesus faced in the wilderness, the period of time to prepare him for the public ministry which would follow. Strict chronology would place it between Jesus’ baptism by John and the miracle at Cana, but that is not how the Church’s year structures it.
Sometimes the best way to look at a narrative is not a linear structure, but rather one that is cyclical and spiral. The Church’s year, which may at first glance seem slightly incomprehensible and illogical, is actually all about thematic groupings to help us to a greater and more intimate understanding of the nature of Jesus, and of God as revealed through him. Sometimes to be able to look at things thematically grouped by type rather than simply by chronological order, allows an insight and depth to reflection which is sadly missing if one is insistent upon purely logical and linear progress. The very process of reflection and of seeing repeated patterns allows us to learn from the past in the present moment and to walk forward with greater wisdom and confidence into the future.
It has often been said that the one who does not know history is condemned to repeat its mistakes. Surely this is true on a personal level as much as on a national or global level. In this Epiphany season, what perhaps is coming to light now? What patterns may we be seeing, beginning to emerge in the light? And what perhaps could we take as wisdom to light our path as we travel forward together into this New Year?
With peace and blessings,