The Advent of Revelation
…they set out and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. Matthew 2:9-10
Although we do not know the actual birthdate of Jesus of Nazareth, the date originally selected was that of the winter solstice, which had long been a celebration of light entering the world. The winter solstice, in the northern hemisphere, occurs when the sun reaches its lowest point in the southern sky and begins its six-month travail to the north. It marks the time of greatest darkness – the darkest night if you will – and celebrates the return of light to the world. On the Gregorian calendar in use today, the winter solstice occurs a few days before December 25, the day we identify as Christmas. On the calendar in use at the time the day of Christmas was appointed, the Julian calendar, the solstice and Christmas were the same.
As the current Christmas story unfolds, Jesus is born on December 25. That begins the 12 days of Christmas, which run until January 6 which is designated as the Epiphany. In my culture, December 25 is the day of the big celebration, and the Epiphany is an obscure blip on the post-Christmas calendar. In other Christian cultures, Epiphany is the day of the big celebration, with the 12 days between Christmas and Epiphany being the days of preparation and anticipation. In those traditions, Christmas day is a relatively minor celebration. In some cultures it is the Three Wise Men who bring presents to children on Epiphany as opposed to Santa on Christmas day.
The difference between what is represented by Christmas day and by the Epiphany is interesting to explore. The first is an event – the birth of a child of God; the latter is the recognition of the significance of that event. They are separated by a period of time, partly because we only recognize and understand the significance of events in hindsight. An epiphany is an insight received about something of significance or the revelation of a previously unseen truth. In Christian tradition, the Epiphany represents the arrival of the Magi (wise men from the East) to pay homage to the baby Jesus (see Matthew 2:1-12). The 12 days between the event and the revelation is likely more of a symbolic than a specific number of days. Twelve is a significant and recurring number in the Bible, typically representing God’s authority and power. We see this in the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 disciples, to name two familiar examples.
In the Christmas story, the Magi see something of significance reflected in the night sky. In the ancient science of Astrology, the heavens and the earth are understood to be interconnected and thus what occurs in one has a simultaneous and related occurrence in the other. For those educated in reading the movements in the heavens, the child’s star rising meant that the king of the Jews had been born, and they traveled from their land to pay homage. While the heavens told them something big had happened, they traveled some distance in order to see and affirm this occurrence for themselves.
Just as it took the disciples some time – days or weeks – to recognize the resurrected Christ and to draw the connection between his teachings about his own death and resurrection and the reality they were experiencing, so it took time for the connection between the birth of this child and the prophesies about the coming Messiah to be understood. If, as has been postulated in these Life Notes over the past weeks, the birth of the Christ-child is an internal event awakening us to the presence of God within, then the time between the birth and the epiphany represents the time required to more fully grasp the significance and meaning of God with us, Emmanuel.
The linking of the birth of the Christ-child with the winter solstice holds a profound message for us. In the natural cycles of our earthly seasons there are times of greater and lesser amounts of sunlight. Similarly, in the natural cycles of our spiritual lives there are times of greater and lesser awareness of God’s nearness to and with us. Just as the sun is no less present in the long dark nights immediately preceding and following the winter solstice, so God is no less present during those often-extended times when God seems noticeably absent. We can only wait and prepare – the essence of the season of Advent – trusting that our awareness of God will return in its time, both as an event of rebirth and as a realization that God is with us.
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