It’s January, and in case you hadn’t heard, it recently snowed a lot in the American northeast, where I live. By this point the snow has lost its charm and is becoming an ugly inconvenience. That’s often how January goes around here: it’s cold, dark, gross, and boring. It’s also Epiphany, a tricky little season that’s sandwiched between and probably often overshadowed by Christmas and Lent. But that name – Epiphany – is dazzling. In our common vernacular, epiphany means a realization. It’s ideas, thoughts, and observations coming together in a meaningful way. It’s a sigh of relief as something is resolved. It’s a convergence.
Which is kind of perfect, right? Because Epiphany the season is all about Christ – the convergence of God and man – here and in action. While the rest of the church calendar tends to focus on our hearts, our church, and our future, Epiphany points us toward God, revealing himself in the life and work of Jesus.
Epiphany is bookended by two big, cosmic, and mysterious revelatory events. The first is the Baptism of Christ. In case you’re not familiar, baptism is an ancient ritual still practiced in churches today that usually looks like this: after saying some prayers and maybe reciting a liturgy, a person spills some water on another person. (The details are subject to change, and are shockingly controversial). Jesus’ was just like that, except also that the sky split open, the Holy Spirit descended like a dove, and God the Father said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17, NIV).
Coming full circle, we also have the Transfiguration, which was basically when Jesus went camping with his buddies, hiked up a mountain, transformed into a radiant God-man, was joined by a couple of long-dead Israelite forefathers, and then God said again, “This is my Son, whom I love, with him I am well pleased. Listen to him” (Matthew 17:5, NIV).
In Christ’s baptism, the Holy Trinity presents itself plainly to humankind, in a rare and profound moment. In the Transfiguration, the past (Moses and Elijah), present (God), and future (Peter, James, and John – the church), meet on a hilltop. There’s also Jesus, living and acting as the union of the divine and the temporal, the fallen and the perfected. And in both moments, we hear God the Father saying “This is my Son, whom I love, with him I am well pleased.” This sounds simple, but it’s an incredibly layered statement. Right now I’m fascinated by the very first layer: This is.
There’s an ancient Christian doctrine spearheaded by St. Thomas Aquinas, which states that God is pure act. When I first heard that phrase, I pictured God (whatever my Western post-reformed perception of the personified God looks like), running around with maybe a Blackberry or something and getting a lot of stuff done. As in, God is active. Incidentally, this is not what St. Thomas meant. Very, very basically, this doctrine means that, unlike the rest of creation, there is no potential in God. Here, potential means exactly what you think it means: that which could be. And the opposite of potential is actual: that which is. The Christian understanding of God has always leaned heavily on the notion that God is perfect (i.e., complete) and changeless. That’s why dear St. Thomas argued that God can’t have any potential. Things with potential aren’t perfect, and, because that potential turns into something else, they aren’t changeless either. Therefore, God must be fully actualized. Thus, God is pure act.
This is why, in the Old Testament, when Moses encountered God in the burning bush and asked his name, God said, “I am.” There quite literally aren’t words to describe God. Since God is fully actualized, he doesn’t have parts or attributes the way that you and I do. God just is. God is in all spaces and places. God is in all times, always. God is relationship. God is goodness itself. God is creator and redeemer.
So when the Father looks at the Son and says, this is, it’s bold and meaningful. This is God. Wading in a river, standing on a mountaintop.
That’s why Epiphany matters. Infinity, reality, pure act and being tangibly intersected with our little world and was and is at work. In this season, we’re invited to humbly observe, to rest in knowing that this is, to dwell in this sweet existence, and be present in the things that are.