A birth, a baptism and a wedding

No, it’s not a clumsy title for a follow-up to Four Weddings. Rather, these are the three defining events of the Epiphany, which for want of a better translation, and continuing the films of yesteryear theme, we might render as The Shining. And in a way, I suppose, God does stick his head through the broken door of the world. “Here’s Jesus!” 

Epiphany was not an original Christian term. The stories of the ancient pagan gods were full of their epiphanies. Zeus’ are probably the most famous nowadays. He would appear as a shower of gold, or a swan, or a bull, generally to get up to some naughtiness with a pretty lady. But while his motives may not have been pure, you’ve got to admit that those – um, entrances – were pretty spectacular. 

It’s rather harder to imagine Zeus appearing as, say, a baby in a grotty old cave round the back of a pub, even if he was visited by gift-bearing wizards of the Orient. Or to picture him as a distant relative at a local wedding, quietly turning water to wine without drawing any attention to himself. Or to see him queuing up on the banks of a river waiting to be baptised with the poor and sinful. 

Make no mistake, God had revealed himself in fire and cloud to the Israelites before, in all his transcendent splendour. But now, he gives a more intimate insight into His inner life. The light shines in the darkness not with the fulness of all its burning intensity, because that would blind us. Instead, it flickers in the half-light and invites us to huddle round and share its warmth. 

So who is this God? 

The Magi’s gifts are our first clue. Gold for a king, incense for God – but also myrrh, for one who is destined to die. The immortal takes our mortality into Himself. His light consumes our darkness. The Magi had followed the light of a star, but they found the Light of the World hidden in a manger as a human child. 

Then the baptism, when Jesus was about thirty. As Jesus rises from the water, he hears the Father’s voice proclaiming Him Son and sees the Spirit hover over the waters in the form of a dove. This is the same God who made everything by His Word and Spirit, and now makes everything anew, entering creation and sanctifying it. So doing, He reveals His nature as Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And more, He invites us into His inner life. The Father offers us adoption, by baptism in the waters blessed by the presence of the Son and the power of the Spirit. 

And last, the wedding. Ordinary water becomes the finest wine. We are given a taste of the Kingdom of Heaven, that eternal feast prophesied by Isaiah. The kiss of a newlyweds, anonymous to this day, becomes the sign of the marriage between God and humanity, heaven and earth. 

An ordinary baby reveals the light of the world. Ordinary water becomes first, the medicine to cleanse our sins and give us eternal life; then, three days later, the new wine which presages the delights of eternal bliss. But none of this is without cost. For as Jesus approached the river Jordan, He was revealed to John as the Lamb of God. The heavens opened for a moment at His Baptism in water, but the door would only be permanently broken through at His Baptism on the wood of the Cross. Only then would the child born in Beth-Lechem, the “House of Bread,” be able to give Himself finally and completely to us as daily bread, the food of eternal life. 

This is the God whom Jesus reveals at the Epiphany. Nothing like the kind of god that we would dream up, a Zeus-like god who likes to flaunt his gold and sex appeal. A God who breaks doors down not out for lust or vengeance, but for love of us; not to destroy us or to abuse us, but to take what we are, in all our ordinariness, and make us more like Him. 

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