Of all the seasons of the church year, Epiphany is probably the most overlooked. It lacks the anticipation of Advent, the cultural appeal of Christmas, the excitement of Easter, the contemplation of Lent, and the sheer length of Pentecost. It is undoubtedly for this reason that Epiphany is the one season excluded from the Lutheran Outdoor Ministry summer camp curriculum. Functionally, it fits just fine as a parenthetical to the Christmas season. This reflects the practice of our congregations, whose annual Christmas pageants almost always include the Magi presenting gifts to the child in the manger. It is simply easier to tell the story this way rather than explaining that the Magi actually came to visit Jesus months or years after his birth and the baby (toddler?) was no longer in a manger but living in a house (Matthew 2:11). Easier to understand though this approach may be, I think there is something unique to the Epiphany idea that is more than just a bridge from Christmas to Lent and has special significance for those who work in outdoor ministries.
Christmas is about celebrating the coming of God into the world as a human being. The incarnation, God taking on human flesh, is one of the most important concepts in Christian theology. It is the church’s way of proclaiming that the Crucified One is the Incarnate One. If Christmas is about God coming into the world as a human, then Epiphany is about the realization of this event. Whether we recognize it or not, God has come into the world. God loves and redeems humanity even if people do not see God lying in the manger or hanging on the cross. Epiphany is the making known, the shedding light on who it is lying in the manger, and this is incredibly important for our faith. Jesus’ disciples went to their deaths for the gospel message because Christ revealed to them who he was. So while the incarnation of Christmas is key to understanding salvation, the manifestations of Epiphany are key to understanding discipleship.
We tell congregation members and camp attendees that God loves us, became a human for us, and died on the cross for us, but actual belief in this crazy story takes place through encounters with God. When they tell their faith stories, people I speak with often describe this as the time when they “owned” their faith. They encountered God in some unique way, through some unique movement of the Holy Spirit, and they had an “epiphany.” Epiphany is a Greek word that means “appearance” or “manifestation.” In ancient times, it was often used to describe theophanies, or direct experiences of God. We use it in a similar way during our liturgical year. Epiphany is the season when we hear about Christ being made known in the world. The traditional Epiphany stories include the visit of the Magi (when sages from foreign nations recognized Jesus as the king), the baptism of Jesus (when the dove descended and the voice from heaven proclaimed Jesus the Son of God), and the changing of water to wine at Cana (Jesus’ first public miracle). Epiphany texts also include the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, when people first saw him as the great teacher and healer of the sick. In the Lutheran, Methodist, and other liturgical calendars, Epiphany concludes with the festival of Transfiguration, the ultimate moment of epiphany when Peter, James, and John saw Jesus in his divine glory on the mountaintop.
Maybe it is becoming clear why I consider Epiphany such an important concept at camp. People often describe camp as a “mountaintop experience.” For many campers, they encounter God in a new and unique way at camp. The experience of intentional community in God’s beautiful creation gives people space to consider their faith in a new way. It is not that Jesus shows up at camp and not other places. As the incarnation tells us, Jesus is there the whole time. However, camp participants often recognize this amazing truth for the first time. Peter, James, and John had been hanging out with Jesus for three years before the transfiguration, but what happened on the mountaintop forever changed their perspective on life. The camp experience has the power to do that because at camp, Christ is made known. That incredibly powerful experience does not happen to everyone who comes to camp, but we certainly create the space for the Spirit to play. This summer, keep an eye out for moments of Epiphany. They can lead to lives of discipleship.
For more on the LOM Curriculum on Christmas/Epiphany, see my webinar presentation at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bjRwqSmf3yA.