Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
I Epiphany: Baptism of Our Lord
“You are my Son, the beloved.” (Luke 3)
If the truth be told, Epiphany doesn’t really mean much to most of us. For starters, we’re not even sure what the word means, and to be told that is comes from a Greek word meaning “showing forth” isn’t terribly inspiring. Even its main characters—the Three Wise Men—nowadays seem borrowed from Christmas, giving the whole season a kind of leftover feel, a kind of filler between the excitement of Christmas and the drama of Easter.
All that, I think, is the backdrop for why over 30 of us last week went on pilgrimage to the Jemez Pueblo, to participate in their Epiphany ceremonial and see if there was not something more to be gotten out of it.
The day’s events are amazing, from start to finish. At dawn (long before we got there), the deer and elk dancers come down out of the mountains, linking the days events to the natural world with which the pueblo has living in harmony for generations. Mid-morning, the dances begin in the plaza, with dancers representing buffalo, deer, elk, and antelope—all moving to the sound of a drum chorus that lays down a beat for a primordial celebration of the oneness of creation.
About the same time, mass begins in the San Diego Chapel. The signal to begin is the arrival of a procession from the “crib house,” where the figure of the baby Jesus has been sheltered for all 12 days of Christmas, with the house open 24 hours a day, and food available for anyone, anytime, who comes to prayer before the crèche.
The mass concludes with the blessing of the canes—symbols of authority that are passed annually from one year’s tribal leaders to the next, including a cane first given by the King of Spain when this part of the world was Spanish, a second given by the President of Mexico following the Mexican Revolution, and a third given by Abraham Lincoln during the 1860s.
Following mass, a second procession returns the Christ Child to the crib house, and hundreds of people come to visit—and all are fed around a large communal table piled high with food.
The dances, meanwhile, continue, interrupted only by breaks for the men of the drum chorus to come to Crib House, where they are met with dancing in the yard followed by a visit to the crèche and the requisite meal.
What to make of all that, especially as outsiders who were nevertheless warmly and even enthusiastically welcomed in? The word that has finally stuck in mind as emerging after the intensity of the day, is “connection.” For me, the day was about celebrating connection: the connection between the natural and the human world; the connection between the catholic and the native expressions of the oneness of God; the connection between native and Anglo people; the connection between generations. As Fr. Larry, the Franciscan friar who received us, put it, “the dances aren’t just for them, they are for the whole universe. They dance for the good of all creation.”
And so, it seems to me, we might rename the Season of Epiphany, the Season of Connection. It’s the season in which the child Jesus, born of the house of David, is connected through the Wise Men to the wider world. And through them, it’s the season when peoples of all faiths, and of no faith, are connected to one another. It’s the season when Jesus is connected to God, as in today’s story of his baptism, when he is first identified as God’s “beloved.” It’s the season when the human family is connected to one another, as we realize that God’s embrace of Mary was God’s embrace of us all. And yes, it’s the season when the Christmas story, with all its simplicity and naiveté, is connected to the story of Jesus’ passion, as he (and we) begin to understand what is at stake in his life.
How different, then, this narrative of connection is to the rhetoric of division, fear and separation that have dominated our national news this week. While the Christian church is observing the drawing together of all things into one, the political realm is hell bent on driving deep wedges of separation. Where God sees one, it seems to be our determination to see many. Where God would unite, we divide.
And it is in that context that I would like to share a piece of news of importance to us all. We received word over the Christmas holidays that our asylum family (Armando, Bela, Armanda, and Gabriel), have made their way out of the United States to Canada, where they hope to receive a more favorable hearing for their application for asylum. The news was a bit of a surprise, but also a sign of the boundless hope and determination that drives those who seek a place of safety and opportunity. And speaking of connection, we as a parish have been bound to them by fate, and we remain hopeful and supportive in their continued journey toward a place to call home.
But let’s go back to where we began, with the word Epiphany itself. The root verb in Greek, “phanein,” means to appear. It’s a word that can be applied to the dawn, for instance, when the first light appears on the Eastern horizon. As you may know, in many native traditions, that first light is the most sacred moment of the day: the time when the mystery of life is renewed through the approaching gift of a new day.
“There was a house made of dawn. It was made of pollen and of rain, and the land was very old and everlasting. There were many colors on the hills, and the plain was bright with different-colored clays and sands. Re and blue and spotted horses grazed in the plain, and there was a dark wilderness on the maintains beyond. The land was still and strong. It was beautiful all around.”