Zavas Zembillas, metropolitan bishop of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Pittsburgh.
Zavas Zembillas, metropolitan bishop of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Pittsburgh.

Baptists open eyes to Epiphany

Epiphany and other events on liturgical calendar, long dismissed by most Baptists as unbiblical, are increasingly being viewed as spiritually beneficial, some experts say.

By Jeff Brumley

For Christians who observed Epiphany on Sunday, Jan. 6, the holiday signified a formal end to the Christmas season and the world's recognition of Jesus’ divinity. While it meant all of that to Baptist minister Don Flowers, for him it also signaled a rest stop on the road between two of the most spiritually demanding seasons on the liturgical calendar.

“Epiphany  ... doesn’t have the crazy, hectic intensity of Advent or Lent,” said Flowers, pastor of Providence Baptist Church in Charleston, S.C.  “It’s one of those breathing times for me.”

Also known as Theophany, the holiday is drawn from the New Testament accounts of the arrival of the wise men to visit the Christ child and the baptism of Jesus. Like most such days on the historic Christian calendar, Epiphany was rejected by many traditions during the Protestant Reformation.

But scholars and pastors say the observance of Epiphany, along with some other seasons of the liturgical calendar, are enjoying a comeback in Baptist and other Protestant churches, albeit gingerly in some places.

And Eastern Orthodox Christians, for whom Theophany is of major importance, say they are often mystified why more Protestants, especially evangelicals, would not follow suit given the holiday’s focus on Christ’s public declaration of ministry.

Seeing God in Creation

“For the first time in human history, God as three persons reveals himself,” said Savas Zembillas, metropolitan bishop of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Pittsburgh. “That for us is a revelation of the holy Trinity and at the same time it is Jesus’ public debut – when he began his public ministry.”

Eastern Orthodox observances around Theophany include water blessing ceremonies inspired by the scriptural description of Christ’s baptism in the Jordan River.

“It’s the spiritualization of matter in which we are looking for matter -- for all of creation -- to be restored to its proper relationship with the Creator,” he said. “We see the germ of that in Theophany.”

In Orthodox parishes on Sunday, individuals were likely reminded to renew their baptismal vows and their spiritual devotions as Lent and Easter draw near.

“The take away is to see yourself in the world of created wonder, and to remember that God loves the world … and that he died for it,” he said.

‘Things that sound Catholic’

Tying such messages to Epiphany can be a hard sell in Protestant congregations with members who are suspicious of anything that smacks of a liturgical calendar, said Steven Meriwether, pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Nashville, Tenn.

The other reality is that many Baptists have never heard of Epiphany. “If you ask 10 people on Sunday, many of them will not know what you are talking about with Epiphany,” Meriwether said. “So I don’t use that language a lot.”

There’s another reason he tones down the calendar jargon, he added: “Here, there is, for some, a sensitivity to things that sound Episcopalian or Catholic.”

So Meriwether, himself a fan of the liturgical calendar, said his church follows the calendar and lectionary while “using phraseology and language that is more Baptist.”

On Sunday, Immanuel held a Boxing Day ceremony in which members brought unwanted Christmas gifts that will be donated to a charity in Appalachia. That was a hit last year and it meets the spirit of Epiphany by functioning as a display of ministry to others, Meriwether said.

“With Epiphany, I don’t weight it like I weight Ash Wednesday, Easter or the four Sundays of Advent,” Meriwether said. “If I am going to push for this in a Baptist context, I am going to push for Lent or Advent.”

‘Deep biblical roots’

Suspicion of observances like Epiphany has been especially strong among many American Protestants since the anti-Catholic fever that swept the nation in the 18th and 19th centuries, said Richard Wilson, professor of Christian theology at Mercer University in Macon, Ga. While British Baptists were more open such celebrations, those in North America and in nations missionized by them came to see them as unbiblical.

But Wilson said Epiphany, and the notion of a liturgical calendar, are anything but that. The Old Testament offers several examples of the ancient Israelites marking time with festivals and holidays, he said. It’s something Christ, his disciples, the apostles the early church certainly would have been familiar with.

“There are deep biblical roots for marking time in relationship to one’s awareness of God at work in the world,” Wilson said. He said following a liturgical calendar today, rather than being non-biblical, actually immerses participates more fully in the Bible.

Churches ‘healthier for it’

Wilson said he’s observing a trend in which a growing number of Baptist and Protestant churches are following a lectionary.

"My sense is that it’s probably a result of the maturing of the ecumenical movement, in which many non-liturgical churches became familiar with the liturgy and decided to see what it was about,” Wilson said.

What they likely learn is that the lectionary and church calendar are firmly rooted in Scripture, a realization that usually lowers barriers to observing special days like Epiphany, Wilson said.

“Worshiping communities that pay attention to the waxing and waning that we find in Scripture ... are the healthier for it.”