earth's manifest

Given the priority of Christmas on our mid-winter calendars it is not surprising that Epiphany is muted. Advent is well rehearsed as a four candle journey to the manger. The need to rediscover the “true meaning” of Christmas is proclaimed in a multitude of sermons. But the ancient holiday of Epiphany barely registers, submerged as it is in the New Year’s festivities of the surrounding culture. We are intrigued to learn that Epiphany predates Christmas as a Christian festival. Yet we too easily surmise that Epiphany lingers as a quaint liturgical artifact when, instead, it occupies a central location on the map of our communal pilgrimage.

Since the sale of its church building in 1985 University Hill Congregation has worshiped in the Chapel of the Epiphany at the Vancouver School of Theology. This is akin to a congregation worshiping in the Christmas Church or the Easter Sanctuary. Perhaps only Pentecostal churches are accustomed to worshiping in a sanctuary named for an event on the Christian calendar. In a sense every Sunday is Epiphany Sunday for University Hill Congregation. This weekly marking of Epiphany is, over time, teaching us three vital habits of the heart.

First, whenever we gather in the Chapel of the Epiphany we do so on behalf of the world. In a culture that defines individuals primarily as consumers we are greatly tempted to imagine that worship exists to meet our needs, to satisfy us and even to entertain us. But the Epiphany of God in Christ is not about us so much as it is about a green and blue globe shrouded in despair. Epiphany is about a world on the verge of environmental catastrophe, calamity and collapse: “For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples” (Isaiah 60:2). Christmas announces the promised arrival of God’s redeeming, saving One. Epiphany notices that the darkness has not yet been overcome. A congregation of the Epiphany worships not to escape the darkness, but to pray that God will soon show up in the terrifying abyss.

Second, worship in the Chapel of the Epiphany trains us to be on the watch for God. The dictionaries tell us that an epiphany is a “manifestation”. As a ship’s manifest details what is to be found in its hold, so the biblical narrative alerts the church to the God it can expect to meet in the Risen Christ in every age. An epiphany is literally a “showing”, a revealing of what has been hidden. For Christians the ultimate Epiphany is the astounding news that the earth’s manifest destiny is worked out in the heart of its deepest darkness. When asked to portray Epiphany for the Salt of the Earth Christian Seasons Calendar in 2006, artist Bruce Leslie Thomas portrayed three kings under a cross rather than a star. He called the drawing “Star of Wonder”. This cruciform foreshadowing of the extinguishing of the Light of the World provides Christian community with the type of memory that enables it to live with astounding reserves of courage when all around succumb to the apathy that is the fruit of despair. Resurrection hope shapes a people who are unafraid to immerse themselves in the world’s trouble, because they trust in God’s creative power to save the world from death. This is the Epiphany that the world longs to believe.

Third, life as worshipers in the Chapel of the Epiphany teaches us that we are all newcomers to the faith. As Advent prepares us for Christmas the congregation slowly builds a nativity scene. Each Sunday brings the ceramic figures of Mary and Joseph closer to the crèche, until their arrival at the manger on Christmas Eve (having moved, Sunday by Sunday, from the Narthex to the Choir and then to the Communion Table). To one side of the chancel the children keep watch over a ceramic flock of sheep, with shepherds at hand for their part at Christmas. But the Magi do not arrive in time for that great celebration. These well worn figurines slowly make their way to the Holy Family, finally arriving on Epiphany (it is our custom to mark Epiphany on the Sunday nearest the day of Epiphany - January 6th).

A people shaped by worship in the Chapel of the Epiphany now see our part in the drama. With the travelers from the East, we are newcomers to the gospel – even those of us who have been long schooled in the ways of the church. If the truth be told, we are still foreigners to the ways of God as revealed in the Epiphany of Jesus Christ. We are strangely drawn by the compelling cruciform star that points to a king who is crowned with thorns. We come from a world shrouded in darkness, to worship and serve the One who leads that world – and us – through death into life. That wondrous and terrifying journey is the one that Jesus invites us to take each week between visits to the Chapel of the Epiphany – the place where God’s manifest destiny is revealed and our hope is renewed.

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