Eco-Reflections on the Season of Epiphany in Year C
for Preaching and Devotions
By David Rhoads
Epiphany is the season of the church year following the season of Christmas. The season of Christmas celebrating the birth of Jesus is of course the foundational epiphany in the church year as the manifestation of God in the appearance of the child Jesus. Epiphany follows as a season that demonstrates how the appearance of Jesus in his adult life manifests the power and love of God.
Epiphany as a season extends from the day of Epiphany (celebrating the arrival of the magi), which does not often fall on a Sunday, until the Sunday of the Transfiguration. There are eight Sundays after Epiphany beginning with the Baptism of Jesus and following in the annual calendars until the Sunday before Transfiguration. The season does not always include all eight Sundays of the Epiphany Season.
In order to offer some care for creation reflections on the season of Epiphany in Year C, I will make general observations about the season that includes specific references to the various Gospel lessons occur during this season and some overall reflections about the Gospel of Luke.
The color white: Light of the world. First, we note that part of the epiphany season makes use of the color white: the day of Epiphany, the Baptism of our Lord, and the Transfiguration. Among other things, the color white emphasizes light, because the season of Epiphany is a manifestation of God through Jesus. Jesus is “the light of the world,” “the true light that enlightens everyone [which] has come into the world.” This light “shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.” In Jesus, “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness, on them light has shined.”
The light of our physical world is produced by the sun by day and the moon reflection of the sun and the stars by night. The sun generates light, energy, and heat, all of which make life on earth possible. The true light of the world lies behind this universe of light as the one in whom all things were created. This true light makes life possible in a more profound sense and makes abundant life possible for humans and all creation. Epiphany season represents the way in which the true light of the world, the creator of all things, has become manifest to redeem life and bring life to its fullness.
During the winter months, many of us suffer from “seasonal affective disorder” due to light deprivation and need additional light to overcome sadness, depression, and the loss of energy. In the midst of this geological season of the deprivation of light, Epiphany reminds us that we too may suffer from “Christ deprivation disorder,” that we may lack the light of Christ in our personal lives and in our communal lives together. The celebration of Epiphany enables us to bask in the light of the glory of God manifest in our world in Jesus.
The encounter with the light of the world is not just for some. It is for all. This is “the light to enlighten the gentile nations.” In the Lukan Gospel lesson for the Third Sunday after Epiphany, Jesus announces his mission in the synagogue at Nazareth, and the people are delighted because, as their hometown prophet, he will bring all these benefits to them. But then, Jesus declares that a true prophet does not benefit only his own, but reaches beyond boundaries to the” others.” He gives the examples of a Gentile widow being given food and a Gentile leper being cleansed. The community is enraged by this. But Jesus and his movement will not be deterred. The light of the world will cross all our human boundaries, as happens with Jesus during his lifetime and with the mission of the followers after his death. And now, also, the light of the world is for all of Earth community. This is the boundary we need to open so that we see other animals and plants as our kin and our companions in living a life in which all can thrive together. The light of the world shines on all of the world.
The color green: The flourishing of nature. Second, we note that for the rest of the season of Epiphany, from the second Sunday after Epiphany to the Sunday before the Transfiguration, the color of the season is green. Green represents the flourishing of the natural world as an expression of the creation. In this regard, it is interesting to see the relationship between light and the greenery of the world, because it is precisely the light of the sun that has created and that nurtures the flora of the world, in particular, the trees, which in turn create food and energy for the sustenance of animal and human life.
Sometimes, the choice of green for the season of Epiphany is connected metaphorically with spiritual growth. In this reflection, we prefer to talk about the lush greenery of the earth at a literal level. This gives us an opportunity to talk about the seamless continuity between the God whose grace brings forth life on this planet and the God of grace whose son brings redemption and new life to the human community and beyond. We cannot talk about one without talking about the other. All of creation represents explicit or implicit epiphanies of God’s reality.
Furthermore, our human relationship with the rest of nature is not just an analogy with spiritual growth. Rather, nature is a major source of our spiritual growth. Many studies have shown that human health and the wholeness are nourished and deepened by a close relationship with the rest of the natural world. We can speak in Epiphany about the ways in which we have degraded and destroyed the life of trees, shrubbery, flowers, vegetables, and other green plants by our human activity. In so doing, we have suppressed the epiphanies of God in the natural world. Epiphany is an opportunity to talk about our commitment to restore of this natural world—for ourselves and for God!
In our worship life during the last two millennia, we have focused almost exclusively on nurturing our human relationship with God and our relationship with other human beings. Epiphany is an opportunity to talk about God’s relationship with the rest of the created order, our human relationship with the rest of the created order, as well as our human relationship with God in and through the rest of the created order. In this way we will see, as Joseph Sittler has said, that all of “nature is the theater of God’s grace.”
The natural world as vehicles for epiphanies. One of the key ways in which we can celebrate all of creation in the season of Epiphany is to notice the ways in which nature interacts in the Gospel lessons assigned for this season. More could be said about the Old Testament lessons, the psalms, and the epistle lessons for this season. However, let me focus on the Gospel lessons and invite you to apply these observations to the other lessons as well.
- On Epiphany Day, at the birth of Jesus, the light of a star guides the wise men to the birthplace of Jesus. Here we see how all creation is responding to the new life brought by the appearance of Jesus.
- On the First Sunday after Epiphany, the day that celebrates Jesus’ baptism, it is an astounding observation that the Holy Spirit, in Luke’s depiction, descends upon Jesus in bodily form as a dove. Here the dove is more than a symbol. Instead, we see a form of incarnation of the spirit in a bird. Might not this understanding of doves having the potential to bear the divine presence lead us to think differently about doves in particular and birds in general? Should this not lead us to preserve endangered birds and foster the flourishing of bird life? Should this not lead us to treat with reverence birds that we irreverently pack together as an economical way to raise food for humans?
- On the Second Sunday after Epiphany, note how Jesus takes an ordinary element of life, namely water, and transforms it into wine for celebration at a wedding. Cannot we reflect on the notion that in our day we have so defiled water that much of it is undrinkable, let alone being fit to be turned into wine? How much might this appreciation of the value of water lead us to preserve its purity?
- In the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Jesus refers to the prophets who multiplied grain for the widow of Zaraphath in a time of famine. This act anticipates Jesus’ feeding of crowds in the desert area where there is no food and people are hungry. The arrival of the kingdom manifests an abundance in nature and calls us to share the abundance of food when there is famine and hunger.
- In the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, we see how a lake produces an abundance of fish in the presence of Jesus. When the disciples have fished all night and caught nothing, Jesus is able to draw from the lake of Galilee such an abundance of fish that the nets threaten to break. Does this not lead us to recognize the ways in which we have so depleted and polluted our rivers, lakes, seas, and oceans that no such abundance is possible? Are we not called by God to nurture and protect our waterways so that marine life will thrive and teem and flourish? Just as humans and other animals are to multiply and fill the earth, so also are fish to multiply and fill the seas with life.
- Finally, in the Transfiguration, the clothes of Jesus made from natural materials manifest the glory of God by becoming dazzling white. And a cloud overshadows them manifesting the divine presence and the voice of God, leading us to see how every dimension of the natural world is a place for the divine to be manifest.
In all of this, there is an affirmation of creation as good, as part of God’s redemptive world, and as capable of manifesting the glory of God. “The whole Earth is filled with God’s glory.” Were we to take this declaration of the psalmist seriously, we would see that God is present and manifest in all of life, not only in the dramatic events surrounding the appearance and activity of Jesus.
We would also see that these dramatic events are not interventions in nature nor are they contrary to nature. Rather they are dramatic expressions of the potential there in the natural world when God is at work in special ways. In the biblical materials, these wondrous events are not referred to as “miracles” contravening the laws of nature but as “acts of power” or “powerful acts of nature.” Far from being supernatural, they are super natural. As such, they affirm the goodness and potential of all creation to thrive in abundance. And they affirm the capability for all of life to be filled with God’s glory.
In addition to these manifestations of God in nature, we also note the various references to nature throughout these Gospel lessons that reflect wisdom drawn from the created order. References to snakes, roots of vipers, trees that produce good fruit, rotten trees, grapes, bramble bushes, and so on reveal that the people depicted in this story live close to nature and find insight and wisdom from their close observation of creation. Again, we are encouraged to draw closer to the rest of God’s creation not only as a source of personal renewal but also as a source of wisdom.
The Earth is filled with God’s glory. This is the affirmation that lies behind the special manifestations of God in Christ. In my own Lutheran tradition, Martin Luther considered that God was present in and through all of creation, from the most beautiful to the most hideous and threatening parts of nature [such as a crucifixion]. As the psalmist has said, there is no place in creation where one can hide from God’s presence. Here is Luther’s astounding affirmation that all the Earth is filled with God’s glory.
God is substantially present everywhere, in and through all creatures, in all their parts and places, so that the world is full of God and He fills all, but without His being encompassed and surrounded by it. He is at the same time outside and above all creatures. These are all exceedingly incomprehensible matters; yet they are articles of our faith and are attested clearly and mightily in Holy Scripture…. For how can reason tolerate it that the Divine Majesty is so small that it can be substantially present in a grain, on a grain, through a grain, within and without, and that, although it is a single Majesty, it nevertheless is entirely in each grain separately, no matter how immeasurably numerous these grains may be? …And that the same Majesty is so large that neither this world nor a thousand worlds can encompass it and say: “Behold, there it is!” . . . . His own divine essence can be in all creatures collectively and in each one individually more profoundly, more intimately, more present than the creature is in itself, yet it can be encompassed nowhere and by no one. It encompasses all things and dwells in all, but not one thing encompasses it and dwells in it (Luther WA: XXIII,134.34-23:136.36).
To say that God has been and always will be fully present in all things is a life-changing realization. God is embodied in creation. How can we see God in all things? How can we change our perception so that we see Christ not only in the faces of one another but also in the faces of animals and the leaves of plants? How can we see the world around us as valuable for its own sake—apart from our human use of it? Epiphany invites us into relationship with this manifestation of God’s glory.
The point of Epiphany is that we when we experience the glory of God, we will be transformed by it. There are no disinterested observers, because it is precisely those who have eyes to see who experience them. Thus, epiphanies elicit responses, the new purpose in life; a bright star led sages on a pilgrimage; the Spirit as a dove anoints Jesus for mission; the new wine leads Jesus’ disciples to believe in him. Perhaps the experience of Peter in response to the overwhelming catch of fish shows it best. In response, he falls to his knees recognizing his sinfulness and in awe of Jesus. He will never be the same. The biblical stories themselves have taken countless generations into their grasp. Epiphanies are therefore transforming events. The season of the Epiphany allows us to see and be changed.
The nature of the God of epiphanies: Compassion. And what is the nature of this God who is manifested in these epiphanies. The lessons of epiphany from the Gospel of Luke make it very clear that this God is marked most profoundly by compassion. As expressed in Jesus teaching on the seventh Sunday after epiphany, Jesus urges his listeners to be compassionate as God is compassionate. We see this compassion expressed in the ministry and activity of Jesus as marked by his inaugural appearance in the synagogue of Nazareth on the Sabbath. He states:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives,
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Throughout the Gospel narrative, Jesus liberates people from the tyrannies of illness, demons, and sin. The centurion’s slave, the widow’s only son, the sinful woman who anoints his feet, the Samaritan who attends to the stricken traveler, the father who welcomes the prodigal son, the tax collector who is was justified, the thief on the cross. There are a host of vulnerable people who populate the society depicted in Luke’s story to whom Jesus brings healing, liberation, forgiveness, and wholeness.
Compassion for the most vulnerable. To encounter God in this story is to meet and be changed by the mercy of God. The compassion of God bends toward the vulnerable, the sick, the disabled, the poor, the hungry, those who mourn, those who are despised, the “sinners”, the unclean, the possessed, the outcast, the marginalized, and the lost. To express this mercy is the entire purpose of Jesus. As he says in response to the conversion of Zacchaeus, “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” Epiphany is an opportunity to bask in the light of God’s mercy and the activity of Jesus’s compassion—and to be transformed by.
Now we need to become profoundly aware not only of God’s compassion for suffering humanity but also of God’s compassion for the most vulnerable in all of nature. It is critical that we love the most vulnerable of animals and plants and ecosystems. They are like canaries in the mine. When they become endangered and extinct because of the degraded state of nature at the hands of humans, the people in the mine are at risk too. If we ignore the most vulnerable and think we can ignore the warning of their sacrifice, we do so at our peril and the peril of all Earth community. So God’s glory goes to the most vulnerable as the way to save all. And it will not be enough to care for the Earth just to save humans. We will not do enough. Rather, we will only restore humanity adequately if we follow Luke’s vision and love all creatures for their own sake, out of the compassion of God for all of life.
The call to show compassion. In the light of God’s reflective glory manifested in Jesus, we see our own failures in compassion. In the Sixth Sunday after epiphany, Jesus pronounces woes on those who have wealth because it has not been shared, on food because it has not been distributed, on power because it has been the source of laughter at the oppressed, and on the love of honor, because it has been the basis for arrogance and the neglect of and disregard for the lowly.
At the same time, in the presence of the compassion of God, we see in Luke’s Sermon on the Plain [in the lesson for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost] how we are called to show compassion to others:
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat, do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great and you will be children of the most high; for God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate.
This is mercy expressed in extravagant and counterintuitive ways. These acts are done with generosity, humility, and empowerment. They are done in ways that go contrary to our natural instincts. They are done totally apart from what we ourselves might get from it, even what we might get back from it. They are done unilaterally, without depending on others doing it with us or upon favors being returned. They are done because we have seen and experienced the gracious love and compassion of God for us and for the vulnerable around us and we want to extend that compassion in the words and actions of our own lives as well. This is our calling on behalf of all of Earth community. In this way, we too become vehicles for the epiphanies of God’s compassion.
Epiphany leads to Lent. Because the manifestation of God’s compassion leads to a lifting of those who are lowly and outcast in the society, because the message challenges the lifestyle and values of the leaders of the nation, and because Jesus actions call for a dramatic transformation of the political economic and social forces of the society, yet the manifestations of God in Jesus and his followers lead to conflict, opposition, and suffering. We see this foreshadowed in the opening inaugural announcement of the kingdom of God in the synagogue at Nazareth. Those who heard that the compassion of God extends not simply to those who are part of the in-group—the village of Nazareth, the territory of Galilee, the nation of Israel—these people are deeply offended by the fact that the manifestation of God’s glory will extend to a widower and a leper in Gentile territory—Gentile nations outside of Israel, indeed one’s enemies. The villagers of his hometown seek to take Jesus and throw him over the precipice near their village. Clearly the episode foreshadows the ultimate fate of Jesus. Such opposition, rejection, and suffering may also await those who extend the boundaries of our responsibility and our compassion to the larger arena of the natural world.
The Transfiguration leads to the journey toward Jerusalem for Jesus and his followers and a journey in Lent toward Good Friday. The Transfiguration is a response to the interaction between Jesus and his disciples that preceded this event. Jesus had told the disciples that he would be rejected and executed by the leaders of the nation. Speaking on behalf of the disciples, Peter resisted this declaration and opposed the idea that Jesus [or they] would suffer for the kingdom of God. The Transfiguration forms an apt conclusion to the Season of Epiphany. On the one hand, it puts a frame around the season by having God speak to the disciples to affirm the divine identity and mission of Jesus as God had spoken to Jesus in the baptismal event of the First Sunday of epiphany. At the same time, the glorification of Jesus in the Transfiguration affirms for the disciples that the one who would in fact be rejected and executed will also indeed be the one who is ultimately glorified.
And so, our opportunity to bask in the light of the world in the Season of Epiphany now leads us to sober reflection on the consequences of his life and of our discipleship—on behalf of humanity and the entire created order.