Next week Christians around the world will turn their hearts and minds–and foreheads–to Ash Wednesday. Inside seven days of Ash Wednesdays, people begin pondering and discussing what their Lenten practices will be this year. Worship pastors and musicians select hymns and worship songs to ensure we have plenty of ‘alleluias’ before that word of praise goes silent for forty days. Your weekend grocery shopping may include a few more indulgences before fasting season begins. King cakes and pancakes will pile high on Shrove Tuesday in churches across the land.
With such a major season around the corner, it would be easy to miss the final days in the season after Epiphany. Yet within the Sundays and feast days in February, the Church has been preparing her members for Lent. Seeing what lies behind us in time helps us begin the spiritual journey ahead of us.
Epiphany–More Than an Ordinary Season
Before exploring that topic further, a confession: I don’t particularly like the title, “The Season after Epiphany.” It seems like the Season of Epiphany is more fitting for the days between Christmastide and Ash Wednesday. I’m certainly no liturgical scholar, so perhaps I’m missing the theological and spiritual purposes of the official title. It may sound picky or an obsession with prepositions, but I have other reasons for seeing the Sundays and feast days within, not “after,” the Epiphany. Candlemas (the Feast of Christ’s Presentation in the Temple) occurs on February, which is 40 days after Christmas Day. Think there’s symbolic significance there? Sure there is. And there’s a major epiphany that happens on Candlemas, too. More on this in a moment.
For now, think about the following events in the lectionary that unfold themes of epiphany and revelation. In the weeks prior to Lent, the Church celebrates the Baptism of our Lord, the calling of the disciples, and the Sermon on the Mount, each revealing the implications of Jesus’ Incarnation. Just as the sun doesn’t shine in fullness at dawn, so the Light of the Incarnation increases by degrees. The Church arranges these events so that we follow the full arc of the Epiphany season, to see the impact of Jesus’ Incarnation upon individual lives, upon Israel, upon Israel’s Scriptures, upon the Gentiles, upon the whole world.
The essence of the Epiphany season is seeing and experiencing the glory of Christ. When you experience the glory of Christ in his baptism, his teaching, his signs and wonders, your eyes are opened to see the One who sets his face steadfast toward Jerusalem and the cross at Gologtha–the Son of God.
Glory in the Temple and on the Mountain
There are two events in the Epiphany season that specifically prepare the Church for Lent: Candlemas and the Transfiguration. When Mary and Joseph present Jesus in the Temple, Simeon sees the glory of God in Jesus–glory that is not reserved for Israel alone, but for all nations. After Simeon praises God in his lyrical hymn, (Luke 2.29–32; known as Nunc Dimittis,) Simeon addresses Mary about her son’s future. Her son will be a light for the nations and the glory of Israel, but ‘a sword will pierce [her] heart.’ It is the foreshadowing of Jesus’ passion and death–at the mere age of 2 months. Epiphany teaches us to see from the beginning of Jesus’ life that glory and suffering will be intertwined.
In the final Sunday of the Epiphany season, the Church rehearses Jesus’ transfiguration on a mountain with Peter, James, and John. The Transfiguration of Jesus has its own feast day–August 6th. But the transfiguration readings are included for the last Sunday in Epiphany. It forms an inclusio on this season just as Christ the King concludes Ordinary Time, preparing the Church for Advent.
When Jesus ascends the mountain with his inner circle, the Lord is transfigured, his face ‘shines like the sun, his clothes white as light.’ Christmas Day begins with Light and Glory and the season of the Incarnation concludes with a scene of Jesus’ glory. The Father reveals the glory of the Son so that we will see that he forsook his glory, embracing the cross so that He might ‘win many sons and daughters to glory’ (Hebrews 2.10).
A Bridge in Time
The season of Epiphany constructs a bridge to the season of Lent. We need Candlemas and the Transfiguration to help us see, hear, and feel the dramatic turn toward the cross. Epiphany concludes with a sharp pivot, descending with Christ from the mountaintop of glory to the city that rejects her King, Jerusalem. It is a vision of Glory that leads us to walk the way of the Cross.
As the Church gathers for worship on this final Sunday of the Epiphany season, I pray that the Transfiguration will be not only an occasion to experience Christ’s glory on the mountaintop, but also an opportunity to see the full arc of glory that Christ revealed through these weeks of Epiphany. We bowed the knee at the manger. We marveled at the beauty of his Baptism. We stood at awe at Jesus’ signs and wonders. We glorified and learned from the Teacher who proclaimed the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount. We worshipped Jesus alone on the Mount of Transfiguration.
It is this vision of glory that helps us pass over from Epiphany to Lent, preparing us for the great Passover feast when we sing blessing and honor and glory and power to the Lamb of God who died for the sins of the world.