Commentary by Kirk Petersen
January 6 will live forever in history as a red-letter day.
It is, of course, the day on which we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany — the visit of the three Magi to the Christ child. The beginning of the introduction of Jesus to the corners of the world.
Secular forces have a way of overwhelming religious observances. For most people, “Christmas” will first evoke images of presents under a tree, rather than of a Savior in swaddling clothes. Among Gentiles, the best-known Jewish holiday is Hanukkah — a December observance of relatively minor religious importance, supercharged by an accident of the calendar.
Epiphany has a head start of two millennia, but in the United States at least, January 6 will be indelibly stained for many years to come by images of hundreds of trespassers at one of the country’s most famous buildings.
“It never occurred to me, in my 68 years of living, that it would be necessary for me to stand up in front of the people of God and declare that it is necessary to reclaim Epiphany,” Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry said, at the beginning of an Epiphany sermon livestreamed from the Church of the Epiphany in Washington.
“But one year ago, on the Feast of the Epiphany, January the 6th, 2021, darkness descended the land and Epiphany was eclipsed at the Capitol of the United States of America,” he said.
Whenever Curry preaches or speaks, his words have far more power when they can be experienced directly, rather than read from a transcript. His ancestry includes enslaved people and Baptist ministers, and he evokes that heritage through thunderous cadences that alternate with near whispers. He earned the nickname “Royal Wedding Preacher” with a relatively tame 2018 homily that was seen by more people than any Episcopal sermon in history.
Which makes it all the more unfortunate that his Epiphany sermon was marred by technical disaster.
Curry preached for 32 minutes, and for the first half, the sound quality was merely annoying. The static and volume shifts did not obscure the output of his lapel microphone, and his energy came through both visually and audibly. Churches everywhere have struggled with livestreaming, and any virtual churchgoer can sympathize. Only the largest churches can afford sophisticated equipment and professional technicians. The Church of the Epiphany’s pre-pandemic average Sunday attendance was about 170 — substantial but not huge.
At about minute 15 of the sermon, there was an audible “pop,” and thereafter the sound quality ranged from unintelligible to very, very bad. Curry continued his sermon with energy and passion, clearly unaware that nobody outside the nave of the church could enjoy the experience. Moderators repeatedly acknowledged the problems in real-time comments on Facebook, and promised a transcript would be posted.
TLC asked why the sermon was not given from the Washington National Cathedral, which has studio-quality equipment and personnel. Public Affairs Officer Amanda Skofstad issued the following statement:
We sincerely apologize for the audio issues viewers experienced during today’s live-streamed Epiphany service. This happened despite thorough site testing and other successful virtual events at this church and is an obvious aberration from the high quality of our digital media team’s work.
Partnering with Church of the Epiphany on Epiphany offered an opportunity to highlight this church’s commitment to serving and seeing Christ in all people, particularly homeless people and communities of color.
For whatever consolation it may be, even a flawless presentation would have had trouble breaking into the narrative of the day. Curry’s sermon came less than three hours after President Joe Biden stunned some commentators by delivering the most aggressive criticism he has ever aimed at his predecessor. The Church Center vigorously promoted Curry’s planned Epiphany service, and The Living Church helped spread the word in advance. But the president obviously has a bigger megaphone.
It’s tempting to see the technical mishap as a foreshadowing of the difficulty of reclaiming Epiphany from the forces of secular upheaval. Epiphany may eventually regain primacy as the meaning of January 6, but it will likely take many decades.
But in support of Curry’s worthy effort, TLC has transcribed a portion of the first half of the sermon. The text below omits the phrase-by-phrase Spanish translation of the fully bilingual service.
Epiphany at its deepest roots is about the life and light and love of God. And what happened here in this country that we love a year ago, was not about light and love and life. And we are better than that.
We must reclaim Epiphany. That is why we are here. We must reclaim it by choosing the light.
Last year we were living in some darkness. … We were facing some deep divisions among us, and slowly realizing that there were those who were fostering those divisions among us.
But then a deeper darkness descended, about midway through the afternoon. And we all saw it. We turned on our television.
We saw the Capitol of the United States of America — breached! The temple of democracy, descecrated. And darkness descended this land. We saw symbols of Christianity used to perpetuate the desecration.
The audio disruption occurred shortly after that point. A link to the full official transcript will be posted when available. [Note: the transcript has been posted.]