The other side of Christmas

January 02, 2013

Grace and peace to you from God our Creator and Christ Jesus, the Light of the World.

By the time you read this, we will have celebrated the birth of Jesus and will be well into the twelve days of Christmas on our way to Epiphany Day (Jan. 6), the last day of Christmas. This ancient church festival commemorates the coming of the magi to Jesus in Bethlehem, having followed a new star—light they saw rise in the east.

The word “epiphany” means to make known or reveal. During Epiphany we celebrate that God revealed God’s self in human form and that the Light of God’s revelation in Jesus shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.

As we transition from the joy of Christ’s birth to Epiphany, it becomes ever more evident why God sent the Light into the darkness. Exit the shepherds; enter the wise men. Exit the stable; now to King Herod’s palace. Exit the singing angels; usher in the angel warning of impending tragedy. Exit Mary singing with joy; enter Rachel weeping for the baby boys killed by Herod in Bethlehem.

We wept again with Rachel for our children last month when 27 people, most of whom were children, were killed by a gunman on Dec. 14 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Conn.

The shadow side

There is a darker shadow side of the Christmas narrative. The side we gloss over or ignore. The side that demonstrates that the Gospel has enemies. The side that pits the Gospel against the forces that hate and hurt and harm. The side that confronts us with the reality that a part of each of us fears the Light and scurries for the shadows when Jesus comes too close.

Over a century ago, Phillips Brooks wrote the beautiful carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” after attending Christmas worship in Jerusalem and spending part of the evening on a hillside overlooking the Bethlehem. His hymn acknowledges both sides of the Christmas story in the words, “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” Bethlehem was where hope was born and where human fear tried to snuff out the Light.

Epiphany is the other side of the story. The Good News is that God became flesh and blood in this world among us. The Good News is that God in Christ shares our pain and joy, our fears and hopes, our death and victories. The Good News is that Jesus does not remain above the human fray, but enters the fray to bring us to God. The Good News that began in a manger always ends on the cross that sets us free from our sins and fears.

Living epiphany

Prior to Thanksgiving, I completed my visits to all nine districts in Minnesota and the Dakotas. The conversations with clergy and lay leadership were rich, informative, and encouraging. I rejoice in the many Minnesota United Methodist congregations that are living Epiphany—the side of Christmas that sheds light into the dark and desperate corners of life.

I have observed congregations that reveal Christ to all people; congregations that are spreading the Light of Christ and shattering the darkness in their communities. I have learned of congregations taking the bold step to leave behind the familiarity, comfort, and security of where they are to follow the star to a new place and a new way of “doing church.” I have learned of congregations that are tirelessly, faithfully, and sacrificially revealing the love of God by daily reaching into their neighborhoods and the world.

I have observed congregations reflecting the light of Christ’s imperatives to cultivate spiritual vitality, reach new people, and heal a broken world. They are imagining no malaria, they are designing passionate worship, they are offering radical hospitality, they are teaching the Methodist way of discipleship, and they are practicing extravagant generosity. They are fulfilling our mission of making new disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Thanks be to God that the Light has dawned and the darkness cannot overcome it! I pray for all United Methodists in Minnesota a blessed Epiphany in which the radiance of Christ’s glory shines in your hearts.

Bishop Bruce R. Ough is resident bishop of the Dakotas-Minnesota Episcopal area.

Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church

122 West Franklin Avenue, Suite 400 Minneapolis, MN 55404

(612) 870-0058