The next big celebration

Ian J Elmer

In the Church’s liturgical calendar, the feast of the Epiphany signals the end of the Christmas season. In the secular world, Christmas is seen as an end-of-year celebration of success and good fortune. The monetary value of our presents is seen as a measure of our financial success.

Like all good ‘hero myths’, the secular version of the Christmas story ends with rewards for those who have triumphed over adversity. However, in the scriptures, Christmas is the start of a different hero story and, accordingly, its celebration presents us with a different vision of success.

In the gospels, the story of Jesus is told in the tones of an antihero. Born in obscurity, known only to poor shepherds and foreign stargazers, Jesus was not a success by the standards of the world. His ministry was limited to the hill country of Galilee and the back streets of Jerusalem. His audience were poor farmers and fisher folk who eked out a bare living from the soil and the sea, most of which was taken for taxes or tithes. His words were strange and unconventional. His followers were marginal people.

In terms of success, Jesus owned little but the clothes on his back. His family thought he had gone “out of his mind” (Mk 3:21). The authorities thought he was dangerous. His life ended on a cross and the ignominious death of a criminal. Yet, as Paul says in Philippians, “God raised him up and gave him a name that is above all other names” (Phil 2:9).

Today’s readings remind us that, while Jesus is a hero, his heroic quest is not what one might expect. In the gospels, Jesus’ quiet heroism in the obscurity of backwater first-century Palestine holds out a fresh vision of what we should consider ‘success’ to be. It is not found in money, big cars, fancy houses, expensive presents, or a huge table of festive fare.

True success is found in the dedication and commitment we display amidst the consumerism of popular culture. It is found in the moments of healing we bring to others by our concern and care. It is found in the courage we give to our family and friends with simple words of support and encouragement.

The feast of the Epiphany marks the end of Christmas, but it also points forward to Easter. The wise men give gifts that include myrrh, an aloe used for anointing dead bodies (Matt 2:11), and a jealous secular king orders the massacre of innocents to try to destroy the “newborn king” (Matt 2:16-18).

The birth of Jesus derives its full significance from his ultimate death and resurrection. For it was only in the light of that experience that Jesus’ followers eventually came to see that Jesus was God incarnate and that his birth was the centre-point of history.

Ian J Elmer

© Majellan Media 2021