Spirit of the season (copy)

Children perform a Nativity scene at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in downtown Charleston. On Sunday, Jan. 6, congregations across Charleston will celebrate Epiphany, which marks the time when Jesus Christ was revealed to the gentiles through the coming of the magi.

Outside many Charleston area homes, Christmas trees and wreaths rest on curbsides waiting to be picked up by garbage collectors.

Local businesses are back to their normal operating hours and employees are settling into their work cubicles. Children also are preparing to return to school.

For many, the Christmas holidays are long gone now that the time of gift wrapping, extended breaks from work and special time with distant relatives is over.

But for congregations, the Christmas season isn't over just yet.

The holiday season, which centers around the birth of the Savior, won't officially end in the faith community until Sunday, Jan. 6, which marks Epiphany. 

The term, which literally means "manifestation" or "revelation," is a Christian feast that commemorates the revealing of Jesus Christ to the gentiles in the coming of the magi.

The Gospel of St. Matthew recounts the story. After Jesus' birth, magi from the east, who were like astrologists, trekked to Bethlehem by way of a star that led them to the Christ child. Upon their arrival, they presented a young Jesus with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Some cultural traditions have deviated slightly from the religious text, Charleston area pastors said. Nativity scenes often depict three wise men bowing before Jesus who rests in a manger. But scripture never states the number of wise men present.

The displays also feature the magi beside shepherds. But King Herod's order to kill all children two years and younger indicates that it took the wise men several years to journey to Bethlehem, arriving when Jesus had become a young child.

The Rev. Dr. Krystal Sears, who pastors Greater St. Luke AME Church on Gordon Street, said deviating from the biblical account can cause some to miss important truths of Epiphany. The magi's long journey to Bethlehem has special meaning: It may take a while for God's plan to manifest in a person's life.

“A lot of people celebrate just Christmas and they miss the Epiphany," Sears said. "So many times in our lives, we pursue things and they take a while. What if, as Christians and churches today, we infuse that in the culture? Manifestation may take a while, but trust that it's coming.”

For believers, that manifestation is now a reality since Jesus has come. Sears said her church will celebrate Epiphany, albeit indirectly, with a Sunday evening gospel celebration that will feature contemporary gospel praise and worship and mime dancing. Sears said the New Year festivity will "celebrate that feeling of 'you've arrived.'"

"Sunday represents the arrival," she said. "We’re going from greater is coming to greater is here.”

The Rev. Sam Martin, who leads James Island Presbyterian Church, said the story of Epiphany emphasizes Jesus' manifestation as the light of the world. This light, Martin said, illuminates dark places in the world. 

Martin's Epiphany sermon will emphasize the role of a Christian to share the light of the Messiah. While much of the world has moved past Christmas, Martin said the mission of Christ is just getting started.

"The work of Christmas is just beginning," he said. “We’re called to be beacons to illuminate the places of darkness."

Epiphany marks the end of Christmastide, one of several seasons on the liturgical calendar. Before the next Christmas season, the liturgical season will take Christians through Lent, Easter, Pentecost, Ordinary Time and Advent.

Colors in traditional sanctuaries indicate the current liturgical season. Scripture readings and prayers often reflect this, as well. Doing so enables some congregations to cover the vast majority of the Bible throughout the year, Sears said.

By next Christmas, regular churchgoers will have discussed biblical history and Christ's life in its entirety.

"If they follow a liturgical calendar, they’ll get the whole story," Sears said.

Follow Rickey Dennis on Twitter @RCDJunior.

Rickey Dennis covers North Charleston and faith & values for the Post and Courier.

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