Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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What Happened to Ash Wednesday?
Have you noticed that yesterday was the last Wednesday in February and we haven’t celebrated Ash Wednesday yet? Well, perhaps not. But Ash Wednesday is about as late as it can possibly be this year, the first Sunday after the first full moon following the northern hemisphere’s vernal equinox not coming until April 24 (the dating method for Easter for the Western Church). Other than assuring those of us in cities like Chicago that we might be able to plan for beautiful spring weather on Easter, this is probably relatively useless ecclesiastical trivia. Take note: The next time Easter will be this late is 2038, so you better enjoy a balmy Holy Week this year.
A collateral result of Easter’s arcane dating system is that the length of the Epiphany season expands or contracts depending on the cycle of the moon. In many liturgical calendars the season begins on January 6 – the Feast of Epiphany – when the magi’s visit is celebrated or Jesus baptism is remembered, and concludes with the Sunday before Ash Wednesday when we recall the Transfiguration. Epiphanies are a kind of revelation, a showing forth of truth otherwise hidden. The infant in the manger is revealed as “God with us.” The baptized man is revealed as “God’s beloved Child.” The man on the mountain is revealed as the One who will be glorified in his death and resurrection. God breaks through opaque veils of everyday life to reveal holiness, heaven, and hope.
So, because Easter is so late, we’ve had lots of time for epiphanies this year – nine Sundays’ worth, not to mention the days in between! What epiphanies have we experienced? Perhaps most dramatic has been the revelation of the tenacity of the human yearning for freedom, dignity, and justice. Across the Arab world, in the face of tanks, imprisonment, intimidation, even torture, ordinary human beings have revealed to us the deep hunger for lives of dignity and hope. Like any epiphany, these revelations broke through the cloak of oppression in unexpected ways, altering world views and inspiring action. As with Jesus, whose epiphany in glory on the mountain led to the way of suffering, some sort of Via Dolorosa seems likely for today’s protesters in places like Libya. But the God who named Jesus “my beloved child” at his baptism in the Jordan will not deny that same bequest to the children of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar across today’s Middle East.
Another epiphany of sorts has been the cry for justice welling up from ordinary people here in the United States who will not quietly succumb to the arrogance of the business and political elite who would crush the poor while enriching themselves, all under the guise of fiscal responsibility and tax reforms. Whether it’s the crowds in Madison, Wisconsin, or Sojourners in Washington sending Members of Congress bracelets asking, “What would Jesus cut?” this is an epiphany, a movement tearing open the curtain of orchestrated political indifference to reveal a God who will not remain indifferent to the cry of the poor.
Some epiphanies are quieter, more private in their revelations than public: A friend’s email or phone call reminding you that shame is not the last word. An unexpected invitation to share your gifts reminding you that value and worth endure beyond public judgment. A lover’s intimate touch reminding you that loneliness and indifference are not the final verdict. For some the need for holy revelations has been so profound that it’s been a Godsend to have this particular Epiphany season last so long.
Don’t worry, Ash Wednesday is coming. You didn’t miss it or the Lenten disciplines that will surely follow. But Epiphany lasts two more weeks, more than enough time to see something of God the world does its best to hide. So open your eyes. Holiness resides just beneath, just beyond, just above. It will touch you if you let it, breaking open a world unknown and inviting you to a place where the oppressed are free, the impoverished are made whole, and you are loved.
John H. Thomas