January is full of feast days (and I don’t mean the sort that go along with bowl games and New Year’s Day parties). I mean the sort of feast day that moves us through the life of Christ. We begin on January 1 with the Naming and Circumcision of Jesus. On this day, we celebrate the fact that God sent Jesus to live under His Law for our sake (Galatians 4:4), as well as His receiving the name that is above every name, Jesus (Philippians 2:9-10). As the angel said, “For he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).
January 6 is a significant date in the life of the Church. In fact, in the history of the Church, January 6, or the Epiphany of our Lord, was celebrated as “Christmas” before we celebrated December 25, and we still sometimes call it the “Gentile Christmas.” The Epiphany, or “appearing” of the Lord, commemorates the coming of the Magi to the house (not in the stable, as we often see in Nativity scenes!) where Jesus was with His mother and father (Matthew 2:1-12). The importance of this date is that the Magi were the first Gentiles, or non-Jews, to bow in reverence before the young Jesus. Jesus is the Savior of all the nations, even us! In some parts of the Church, Epiphany is still more significant than Christmas—which might not be a bad practice to recover, considering what Christmas has become for many people.
On January 12, we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan River. The sinless Messiah did not only walk around among sinners, He entered into the muddy water of their lives, just as He entered into the muddy Jordan. John recognized that Jesus did not need to be baptized; rather, Jesus should have baptized him! But Jesus’ baptism means that He entered into a repentance that He did not need in order to take on sin—our sin—that He did not have. Further, at every baptism, we should hear the Father’s words to His Son at His baptism: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased” (Matthew 3:17).
Finally, in the month of January we recognize four noteworthy saints, or events in their lives. First, on January 18, we remember the Confession of St. Peter: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). On this confession, as Jesus promised, He has built His Church, and the gates of hell have not, do not, and shall not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18; see 16:13-19).
On January 24 and 26, we remember Sts. Timothy and Titus, two pastors of the early Church. We have three letters of Paul to these pastors.
On January 25, we remember the Conversion of St. Paul on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1ff.). After Jesus appeared to Paul, this great persecutor of the Church became its greatest missionary, and the author of most of the letters we have in our New Testament.
But even these days on which we remember saints are not days to remember them for how great they were, but for the great things God accomplished through them. They are examples of what God can do with sinful men and women when the light of Christ shines on them. In fact, Christ as the Light of the world brings us back to Epiphany. The Light that enlightens all people (John 1:9) is revealed throughout the rest of the Sundays in January and the first Sunday in February. As we move through the Sundays after Christmas, the Church’s attention is still focused on God-in-flesh, the Son’s Incarnation. The Incarnation is not only about Jesus being born. It is about His whole life lived in obedience to His Father and lived on our behalf and in our place, all the way to a cross and a grave, and beyond into new life for which we are all meant. He makes everything wrong right. He makes everything ugly beautiful. Behold, He is making all things new (Revelation 21:5). Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord (Matthew 21:9)! Blessed be the Name of the Lord from this time forth and forevermore (Psalm 113:2)!
As we pass into the lull after Christmas and before Lent begins, perhaps we have a chance to reflect a little more deeply on the meaning of Christ’s incarnation. We do not have gifts to buy, cookies to bake, or lights and trees and decorations to put up. I am sure that, as the winter goes on, I will begin to know the meaning of the phrase “in the bleak midwinter.” Nevertheless, the dark days and the bitter cold can be an occasion for meditation on the great mystery of the Light who brings both heat and light to our world of sin and death.
It has always intrigued me that the seasons of light and joy (Christmas and Epiphany) fall in the darkest part of the year, while the season of darkness and sorrow (Lent) falls as the earth is beginning to warm and new growth is beginning to appear. But I do not believe in coincidence where the things of God are concerned. We are brought to realize that even in the midst of our darkest days, Jesus’ promise still stands good: “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). And when we are high on our accomplishments and we might very easily tend to forget that we are sinners in need of a Savior, the season of Lent makes us realize that we are dust and to dust we will return (Genesis 3:19). But more about Lent next month.
For now, though, we are still in the season of light, and I pray for you a blessed and peaceful month as you live in the Light of Christ—even in this dark world.
*St. Augustine said, as Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, “For you I am a bishop [overseer]; but with you I am a Christian.”
Quote for the Month
“The world does not recognize [the God to whom eternity belongs]. But the church believes in him. She sings her Gloria to him, ‘to the triune God, as he was in the beginning, is now, and shall be now and evermore.’ As in the days of the apostles she prays to the one who is the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, who was and is and is to come, the Almighty: ‘Maranatha!’ ‘Amen, yes, come, Lord Jesus!’ [Rev. 22:20]. The world trembles before the great day of the Lord. It lets its philosophers prove that there could be no last day, no judgment. But the church waits expectantly for the blessed last day. ‘Zion hears the watchman singing, And in her heart new joy is springing. She wakes, she rises from her gloom.’ [see LSB 516, v. 2] She hears the jeering question of the world: ‘Where is his promised advent? For after the fathers fell asleep, everything has remained as it has been from the beginning of creation’ [2 Pet. 3:4].
“The world cannot wait. It is in a hurry because its time is nearing its end. It must always have it all, otherwise it is too late. The church can wait. She has learned to do so in the course of nineteen centuries. She has a different relationship to time. For she belongs to one for whom a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like a day [2 Pet. 3:8]. She is not anxious in the face of unstoppable, inescapable, unrepeatable time. She knows she is the possession of him who is the Lord of time, because he is the Lord of eternity. Therefore when the church crosses the threshold of a new year, she can never do so with the feeling of worldly anxiety which we all know as natural men, the anxiety in the face of an unknown future. She rather enters the new year in firm faith: ‘My time is in thy hands.’ In this faith the church of God on earth heads into the new year, the year of the Lord 1938 [or 2008!].” (Hermann Sasse, “The Church at the Turn of the Year,” The Lonely Way, vol. 1 [St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2001])