In Christian terms epiphany is particularly associated with the realization that Jesus is the Son of God. The church celebrates this revelation among the Gentiles in the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus where they honored him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
While this is the pinnacle of epiphany in the Christian tradition, the experience of this phenomenon is not limited to the knowledge of Jesus as the Son of God. For many people epiphanies are a regular if not frequent occurrence in the journey of faith. They occur as we gain fresh insight into the nature of our faith and the commitments it requires of us as we seek to be faithful to the things we believe.
Epiphanies are not limited to individuals but also occur in the midst of communities as a group of people comes to mutually shared insight regarding the practice of their faith. While such communal epiphanies are seldom sudden and are often inspired by particular individuals, their collective nature makes them more enduring and socially significant.
As we turn the calendar to 2017, the Protestant church prepares to celebrate the 500th anniversary of such a communal event. The Reformation forever changed the practice of Christian faith in the West and throughout much of the world, even among those who do not accept the conclusions of the various reformations that were promulgated during the 16th century and beyond. In addition to the practice of Christianity, the Reformation had a profound effect on societies in which it occurred.
In Geneva, the leaders attempted to capture the significance of this communal epiphany for their city and the lives of its citizens with the Latin motto Post Tenebras Lux, from darkness into light. As the history of Geneva and the Reformation demonstrated, this movement from darkness into the light is not a one-time occurrence but something that must be understood and appropriated again and again.
Many people are surprised to learn that John Calvin, the leading figure in the Reformation at Geneva, believed that true reformation was not something that could be accomplished and completed once and for all but had to be a continual concern for the faith and practice of the church in the context of ever-changing circumstances and situations.
Indeed, Calvin remarked that those who simply affirm that which they have been taught are in danger of failing to be faithful to the will of God. Instead, the business of theology involves the constant, ongoing activity of taking that which is handed down and attempting to form and communicate it in a manner that is deemed to be best for a particular time and place.
From this perspective, the process of reformation is not, and never can be, something completed once and for all and appealed to in perpetuity as the one and only faithful Christian position on a particular issue. As German theologian Jürgen Moltmann put it, reformation is not a one-time action to which a confessionalist can appeal and upon whose events a traditionalist can rest.
Rather, an approach to reformation that acknowledges the never-ending process of moving from darkness into light will be an ongoing process that is “always reforming.” This is important to remember for Protestants as we celebrate the Reformation this year.
While it affirmed basic truths about the presence of God in our lives as a gift of grace and faith, the Reformation also produced discord, hostility and violence among the people of Europe that is not in keeping with the intention of God to bring peace to the world through Jesus Christ.
While we can appropriately appreciate the good news of the Reformation message concerning the free grace of God, we must not forget the devastation it left in its wake as it turned Christians against Christians in the name of theology and truth.
In other words, even as we celebrate the Reformation we must continue the process of reformation, guided by the mission of God to bring peace into the world through Jesus Christ. He is our peace, and through his life and death he has broken down the hostility that has divided the peoples of the earth in order to bring peace and harmony to all of creation as it was intended by God from the beginning.
In this season of Epiphany let us remember this most basic movement of our faith, continually leaving the ways of darkness behind us and moving ever onward toward the light of God’s love for the world made known in Jesus Christ. NFJ
By John R. Franke
—John R. Franke is theologian in residence at Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis and general coordinator of the Gospel and Our Culture Network.