Of the Christian festivals, Christmas and Easter tend to overshadow all the rest. This is understandable as these feasts commemorate the foundational truths of the Incarnation of the Son of God and His Resurrection from the dead. The fundamental importance of these truths, however, is no reason to overlook the other events in Christ’s life that the Church has traditionally seen fit to honour for these events have significance in the economy of salvation and the unveiling of God’s revelation of Himself to the world that is well worth our consideration.
The period following immediately after Christmas and preceding the Lenten preparation for Easter includes several feast days which honour events in Christ’s early life as well as the event which marked the beginning of His earthly public ministry. The Epiphany on January 6th is the most important of these and every Sunday until the beginning of Lent (1) is identified simply as the first, second, etc. Sunday after Epiphany. Epiphany is very closely tied to Christmas – in the Eastern Church, they are one and the same feast, and even in the West, where Epiphany is the Twelfth Day of Christmas, the event which it points back to, the visit of the Magi to the infant Christ is inseparable from the rest of the Christmas narrative. The visit of these Gentile wise men from the East who had been watching for the star of “he that is born King of the Jews” points to the truth that the Lord Jesus, while He was indeed the Messiah, the deliver promised to national Israel through the prophets, was the Redeemer also of all the nations of the world.
Prior to the Epiphany there is another event from Christ’s early life that is honoured on January 1st. In the secular calendar this is New Year’s Day but in the Western liturgical calendar it is the Feast of the Circumcision of our Lord falling, as it does, on the octave day of Christmas, i.e., the number of days after Christmas on which a Jewish boy would be circumcised after his birth in accordance with the commandment given to Abraham (Gen. 17:12). The telling of this event occupies the space of a single verse in the entire Scriptures, the twenty-first verse of the second chapter of the Gospel According to St. Luke which reads:
And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called Jesus, which was so named of the Angel before he was conceived in the womb.
For the significance of this event in the economy of salvation, however, we must turn to the book of Galatians. Bishop Lancelot Andrewes, beautifully explained this in a sermon preached before King James I at Whitehall on Christmas Day 1609 (2) on the text Galatians 4:4, 5:
When the fullness of time was come, God sent His Son, made of a woman, made under the Law. That He might redeem them that were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption of sons.
Commenting on the phrase “made under the Law” Andrewes said:
And when did He this? When was He “made under the Law?” Even then when He was circumcised. For this doth St. Paul testify in the third of the next chapter, “Behold, I Paul testify unto you whosoever is circumcised,” factus est debitor universae Legis, “he becomes a debtor to the whole Law.” At His Circumcision then He entered bon anew with us; and in sign that so He did He shed then a few drops of His blood, whereby He signed the bond as it were, and gave those few drops then, tanquam arrham universi sanguinis effundendi, ‘as a pledge or earnest,’ that “when the fullness of time came,” ‘He would be ready to shed all the rest;’ as He did….Well, this He did undertake for us at His circumcision, and therefore then and not till then He had His Name given Him, the name of Jesus, a Saviour. For then took He on Him the obligation to save us. And look, what then at His Circumcision He undertook, at His Passion He paid even to the full: and having paid it, delevit chirographum, “cancelled the sentence of the Law” that till then was of record and stood in full force against us.
It was an event brief in the telling but packed with significance.
Immediately after his mention of the circumcision, St. Luke’s Gospel jumps ahead thirty-three days to the day when, in accordance with the instructions in the twelfth chapter of Leviticus, His mother’s post-natal purification period being ended, He was brought to the Temple in Jerusalem, presented as the first-born son, and an offering made on His behalf. As with the circumcision, in this event Christ fulfilled a requirement of the Law albeit as a passive participant. The account tells of two encounters that took place during this visit to the Temple in which elderly servants of the Lord, Simeon and Anna the Prophetess recognized the infant Jesus as the promised Messiah. This event has been celebrated since ancient times on the fortieth day after Christmas, February 2nd in a Feast that has many names. In the East it is called Hypapante, a Greek word which means “meeting” and clearly emphasizes the encounters with Simeon and Anna. In the West it is known as the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, the Purification of St. Mary the Virgin, or more commonly, Candlemas, from the ancient custom of bringing candles to church to be blessed on this day. The candles signify light, the relevance of which to this particular Feast is to be found in the canticle Nunc Dimmitis which Simeon proclaimed upon taking the infant Messiah in his arms. He declared the Child to be “a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.” Note how the significance we observed in the visit of the Magi reappears here in the words of Simeon. Christ said of Himself that He is the “light of the world” (John 8:12; 9:5), and He called His disciples to be the same (Matt. 5:14). This is a theme of all of these Feasts which receives a particular emphasis in that of the Presentation.
Christ’s birth, circumcision, the visitation of the Magi, and His presentation in the Temple, commemorated in the West on Christmas, New Year’s, Epiphany and Candlemas respectively, are all we are told in Scripture about the infancy of Christ and, except for the account of His visit to the Temple when twelve, all that the Scriptures tell us about His earthly life prior to the beginning of His public ministry. The event which marked the beginning of His earthly ministry is also commemorated in this time period. It too is traditionally associated with Epiphany. The name Epiphany comes from the Greek word for “manifestation” a word that is very appropriate for the way it has been applied by the Church to both the Visit of the Magi and the Baptism of the Lord – and, in the East, to His birth. The Baptism of the Lord was appointed to be celebrated along with the Visit of the Magi on Epiphany itself by the early Church and this continues to be the Eastern custom. In the West it may be celebrated on the Epiphany or in the following octave, usually on the next Sunday or Monday. It commemorates an event which is told in all four Gospels and which has great revelatory and soteriological significance.
The revelatory significance of the Baptism is, of course, Trinitarian. For while there are references to the Word/Son of God and the Spirit of God throughout the Old Testament, beginning with the Creation account, it is at the Baptism that all Three Persons appear manifest together in their distinctiveness, relationships, and essential unity. The Father speaks from Heaven, identifying His Son and declaring Himself to be well pleased with Him, as the Holy Spirit visually descends from the Father upon the Son.
The Gospel According to St. Matthew records that when Jesus went to John the Baptist to be baptized, John initially refused, objecting that “I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me?” To understand his objection, we must understand the nature of his message and ministry. John the Baptist had been preaching in the wilderness, proclaiming that the long awaited Kingdom of Heaven was at hand and calling upon Israel to repent of their sins. The baptism that he administered in the Jordan River was a symbol of that repentance. Those who received his baptism confessed their sins as they did so and John himself said of his baptism “I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance.” Jesus had no sin of which He needed to repent. Hence John’s objection – the impeccable Jesus ought to be the One administering baptism rather than taking the place of a penitent sinner and receiving it. Jesus’ answer was “Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness.” What did He mean by this?
Jesus’ earthly ministry ended with His being betrayed, arrested, and then crucified. He had committed no sin, much less a crime worthy of capital punishment. He had told His disciples that this would happen, however, and after His Resurrection He explained to them why it happened, which they in turn passed on to us. St. Peter wrote:
Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps: Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously: Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed. (I Peter 2:21-24)
Or, in the more concise words of St. Paul, “he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” (II Corinthians 5:21)
This was the mission on which He had been sent into the world – to take the place of sinners as the spotless sacrifice that would satisfy the offended justice of God and restore fallen man to God’s favour bringing forgives and pardon, reconciliation and peace. Just as His ministry ended, so it began, with Him taking the place of sinners in undergoing John’s baptism. This is what He meant when He said “thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness.” Everything which God’s Law required, Jesus fulfilled perfectly on behalf of the rest of mankind whose sins prevented us from meeting the requirements. This included the ceremonial requirements fulfilled by His circumcision and presentation in the Temple, the moral requirements fulfilled by His life of perfect obedience, and finally, the full payment of the penalty that had been incurred by those who had not been able to meet these other requirements, i.e., everybody else. Under the Law, repentance was the condition for forgiveness of sin. The prophet Ezekiel spelled it out this way:
The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him. But if the wicked will turn from all his sins that he hath committed, and keep all my statutes, and do that which is lawful and right, he shall surely live, he shall not die. All his transgressions that he hath committed, they shall not be mentioned unto him: in his righteousness that he hath done he shall live. Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? saith the Lord GOD: and not that he should return from his ways, and live? (Ezekiel 18:20-23).
Fallen human nature being what it is, however, we are as incapable of repenting so perfectly as to never sin again as were incapable of producing perfect obedience to the Law in the first place. When Christ took the place of the repentant sinner and underwent the baptism of John He signified that He undertook to make good for human failure with regards to this requirement of the Law as well. This, of course, no more excuses us from the responsibility to sincerely confess our sins and strive to repent of them any more than Christ’s perfect obedience gives us a license to disobey God but it places repentance like obedience on a completely different basis under the Gospel than it was under the Law. Under the Gospel God freely gives to man in Christ everything which He required of man under the Law. The message of the Law is “do and live”, the message of the Gospel is “it is done, believe and live” and our doing, under the Gospel, flows out of the life that we receive by believing. Under the Law God required that a sinner completely turn around and change his ways in order to be forgiven. Under the Gospel God gives to the sinner who believes in Jesus Christ a full pardon of all his sins and along with the pardon He gives the Holy Spirit Whose ministries of regeneration and sanctification gradually produce over the course of our lives the transformation of mind and behaviour that God required of the sinner under the Law. We are to repent of our sins and obey God to the best of our ability, but under the Gospel we are to place no confidence whatsoever in our own repentance or obedience but to confess our best efforts at either to fall far short of what God requires and to place all of our faith in Christ and His perfect and sufficient merits.
That Christ came under the Law and met all of its requirements perfectly so as to place us in a new standing with God under the Gospel, a standing of grace, is a theme which, like that of Christ as “light of the world” runs through all of these events of His early life and ministry. These are very important themes indeed and it is well that the Church honours these events annually giving us opportunity to contemplate them.
(1) Or, in the older liturgical calendar prior the revisions of the last century, until Shrovetide, the two and a half weeks prior to Ash Wednesday.
(2) This is the fourth in the first volume of Lancelot Andrewes, Ninety-Six Sermons, compiled and edited by Bishops William Laud and John Buckeridge at the command of King Charles I following Andrewes death and first published in 1629.
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