One way of picturing the church calendar is as an unspooling thread, with each loop expanding the last. Or, to switch the metaphor, we might imagine a sort of turreted tower, in which each staircase leads neatly to the next: Advent is a time of preparation for the feast of Christmas, Epiphany builds upon that feast and ushers in the next chapter, the darker-hued season of Lent, which in turn lays the foundation for Easter and Pentecost. As I’ve written elsewhere,
The seasons of the church year have an element of progression to them: in Advent we listen to the prophets foretelling the appearance of Christ; at Christmas we observe the humility of his coming, noting the angelic hosts who sing over him but also aware that the humble shepherds are the ones who adore him; while in Epiphany we recognize that his coming cannot be hidden forever and eventually bursts the boundaries of Judea to include the nations within its reach.
I don’t want to disavow these ideas. There is indeed a linear trajectory, a steadily unfolding plotline, to the church year that makes words like “narrative” or “journey” entirely appropriate descriptors. But this year, I’m pondering the complementary, and in some ways more elusive and profound, truth: Unlike an unwinding thread or the stacked stories of a tower, the seasons of the church year always and already adumbrate or, in some sense, contain each other. There is an unfolding story in the Christian year, but it’s one in which, to steal T.S. Eliot’s great line, “The end is where we start from. … And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started” (“Little Gidding”).
Consider Christmas. As William Blake captured so poignantly with his 1800 painting The Christ Child Asleep on the Cross and as Karl Barth put it so memorably in his Church Dogmatics, “[T]he message of Christmas already includes within itself the message of Good Friday.” When the Church observes the great feast of Christ’s birth, it can’t avoid the whiff of death that already fills the stable in Bethlehem. Jesus’ infancy is one of exile (Matt. 2:14-15), framed by a slaughter (2:16-18) and a humiliation (Luke 2:7) that foreshadow the ultimate shame and suffering of the crucifixion. As the old saint Simeon darkly warns the Virgin, “[A] sword will pierce your own soul too” (2:35). To understand the full import, the deepest meaning and truth of Christmas, we have to look ahead already to the hill of Calvary (and beyond to the empty tomb in the garden).
This strange intermingling of times — what Ephraim Radner once called a “mixed-up Christological chronology” here at Covenant — is no less characteristic of Epiphany than it is of Christmas. We might well think of Epiphany as the natural “next step” after Christmas: Jesus is born, and then, like the next-to-appear Russian doll, he is presented before the Gentiles (Matt. 2:1-12). But a closer look reveals a more complicated scene. If I may quote myself once more,
The gifts the magi present to Jesus are, at one level, what we would have expected. The gold is a fitting sign of kingship. The incense attests, however obliquely, to Jesus’ deity (incense being used in the Old Testament for the worship of Israel’s God). But the myrrh foreshadows a funeral. The myrrh casts a shadow over the other two gifts, forcing us to ask whether the kingship and deity of Jesus will somehow culminate in tragedy. Myrrh, as the jaunty Christmas carol puts it, is a “bitter perfume”; it “breathes a life of gathering gloom; / Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, / Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.” Or, as T.S. Eliot’s great poem “The Journey of the Magi” has it, when the wise men crest the hills of Judea and make their way toward Bethlehem, what they see is “three trees on the low sky.”
This is the ultimate unpredictability and irregularity of Epiphany. It is a feast day, and we are celebrating the appearance of Jesus the king of the Jews to all the nations of the world. And yet it is a strange feast, a poignant one, in which we can already smell the acrid odor of a corpse. It’s important, I think, to bear this strange Christological concertina wire of reconfigured chronology in mind when we observe — and teach others to observe — the Christian calendar, so that we don’t forget where the narrative’s real center lies. The church year has the hallmark of every good story: a beginning, a middle, and an end. But the more you inhabit it, the more you realize that its end is given in its beginning: There is no Christ anywhere in the Christian year who is not already “the Lamb that was slaughtered from the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8), and that, ultimately, is the mystery the calendar invites us to plumb.