Unwrapping the Christmas Gift

It’s one of those slippery words.

You know what I mean. The kind of word that people will use and you’ll think, “I don’t think that means what you think it means.” This word in particular is used and misused in a variety of ways. Maybe because it sounds like other familiar words. For example:


Epiphany in the common parlance means a stroke of insight, a sudden revelation. The light bulb goes off and you say, “Aha! That’s it!” An apostrophe—er, epiphany.

The biblical concept of epiphany bears some similarity to this, but with an important difference. It is about “sudden revelation,” but that revelation isn’t of human innovation. Rather, it’s the revelation of Jesus as Lord and Christ.

In other words, Epiphany is about unpacking the Gift of Christmas.

Or perhaps we should say gifts.

God continues to give gracious “epiphanies” today—manifestations of His presence in our midst. The term we typically use for these “epiphany gifts” is sacraments.

Sacrament is the Latin word for “mystery.” As Pastor Jeff Cloeter writes in his book Loved & Sent, “Sacraments are mysterious means by which God imparts essential truth.” Indeed, the most essential truth: that He is present among us for our salvation.

The numbering of the sacraments has been an point of some contention among Christians over the years. Roman Catholics identify seven of them: Holy Baptism, Penance, Confirmation, Holy Communion, Ordination, Holy Matrimony, and Anointing of the Sick.

Most Protestants (if they use the term “sacrament” at all) whittle it to two, Baptism and Communion.

Lutherans, as is so often the case, walk the lonely third way.

We have never felt it too necessary to pin down the precise number of sacraments, since it’s simply a category that we use to make sense of the biblical “data.” More important are the criteria that we use, which has historically been that a sacrament is:

  • A gracious promise
  • instituted by Christ, and
  • joined with a physical element

By that definition, we usually stick with Holy Baptism (water) and Holy Communion (bread & wine), with honorable mention given to Absolution (arguably the human voice or personage).

The season of Epiphany provides an ideal time to explore these gifts, and this year the Sundays line up just right. On the Baptism of our Lord we’ll consider—wait for it—Holy Baptism, on Epiphany 2 and the Gospel of Jesus’ miracle at Cana we’ll look at Holy Communion, and on Transfiguration Day we’ll ponder Absolution.

“Epiphany” might be a slippery word. What’s not slippery is the grace God gives through these “epiphany gifts” we call sacraments. I look forward to unwrapping them together throughout the season.

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