We are now midway through the Twelve Days from Christmas to Epiphany. Epiphany is a Greek word that means “appearance.” The feast celebrates three manifestations: the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, the first miracle at Cana, and the Adoration of the Magi. At first, this seems a jumble.
But we can better understand it by understanding what it has to do with Christmas. In the West, we have traditionally given greatest prominence to the day of Christ’s birth. In the East, they have focused more on the Adoration of the Magi (the visit of the wise men) which is celebrated twelve days after the Birth.
To Western minds, it seems strange to celebrate twelve days after the birth. The Birth is the big deal, right?
But in fact, in one sense, the Birth is not the big deal. The big deal is the Incarnation, which happened nine months before the birth. The Word was not made flesh on Christmas, but months before, in Mary’s womb. Theologically, the feast of the Annunciation, March 25, is a much bigger deal.
(Modern devotion has forgotten, but before the 1854 proclamation of the Immaculate Conception of Mary in the womb of Anne, the tradition said something amazing happened to Mary when Christ took flesh. Before that, they said, she was indeed sinless – original sin did not “stain” her with any actual sin – but her flesh still bore the mark of the Fall. Her soul was full of grace, but all flesh, even Mary’s, was still distant from God. The moment Christ took flesh, Mary’s flesh, too, was healed. Pius IX’s careful definition of the Immaculate Conception does not prevent us from still thinking the Incarnation brought a miraculous transformation of Mary’s flesh.)
In other words, whether we celebrate twelve days after the Birth or on the day of the Birth itself, we’re still celebrating long after the real action has taken place. In one sense, nothing happens on Christmas Day – just as, in a similar sense, nothing happens when a baby is born. It’s not like there wasn’t a baby before the birth.
And yet birth is a big deal. (Let our pro-life fervor never lead us to say “nothing happens” at birth.) It’s a big deal because . . . it is an Epiphany, an appearance. What happens when a child is born is that, for the first time, mother and child look into each other’s eyes. That is not nothing. In some sense, that is everything. That is the whole meaning of human life. Finally the child is doing what it was made to do.
And let not our theological correctness lead us to say “nothing happens” at Christmas. For the first time, mother and child look into one another’s eyes. In some sense, that is everything. That is why Christ took flesh.
Forgive me now a hokey moment: every Spring when I teach my course on liturgy and sacraments, I tell my students about a classic corny sign sometimes seen outside Protestant churches: “ch—ch – what’s missing? UR!” (For some of my students I have to explain: “u-r” are the letters missing from the word “church.” But the point is that “you are” what is missing from the Church.)
In perhaps the most important twentieth-century book on sacramental theology, the Dominican Colman O’Neill ponders St. Paul’s bizarre phrase, “make up what is lacking in the suffering of Christ.” Nothing is lacking in the suffering of Christ – except one thing: u-r.
This is the heart of Catholic soteriology. Why do our works – or, more properly, our sanctification – matter? Because the one thing lacking from Christ’s work is for it to penetrate us. What is lacking? You are.
It is the heart of sacramental theology. Christ has done everything on the Cross. The only thing lacking is for us to receive his power. What is missing from the power of the Cross? You are.
It is the heart of liturgical theology. Traditionalists sometimes get confused on this. The Eucharist is everything, they correctly say. We can add nothing. So who cares about “active participation,” the key word to Vatican II’s document on the liturgy? But there is one thing lacking from the Eucharist: you are. Active participation contributes nothing to the power of Christ in the sacraments – or, it contributes nothing except for letting that power flow into us. The Eucharist doesn’t save the world on its own – else we would be Universalists, or at least Lutherans. No, what is missing from the Eucharist is us.
And so, too, this is the heart of Christmas. What is lacking from the Incarnation, on March 25? We are. Christ joins himself to human flesh at the very beginning of his earthly journey. But that is not the end of the story. He has still to look into his mother’s eyes. For the mother, what happens at the birth of her child? Metaphysically, nothing. Personally, everything. The whole point of taking flesh is to enter into union.
And so we see in what sense the East gets it right with their emphasis on the Epiphany. What is the point of Christmas? The point is that now we can see him – now all the nations, like the three kings, can join Mary in gazing on the face of Christ.
What does the face of Christ mean for you?