My Christmas decorations never come down before Twelfth Night. With an obsession for medieval feasts, really old traditions, AND all things Christmas, why would I end the revels before the ancient twelve days of celebrations are at an end? Besides, Epiphany – while ignored in most non-Anglican or non-Lutheran Protestant denominations – is an excellent feast to reflect on the mystery of the Incarnation, unencumbered by children’s pageants and images of babies, which aren’t as joyful in infertility as they were in my youth. I like to spend Epiphany reflecting, not on the Magi, but on Anna the prophetess, who served God in the Temple and was one of the first people in Jerusalem to hail the Infant Christ. Anna is traditionally believed to have been childless, like so many of the holy and faithful women of Scripture. That’s why I like to keep the decorations up until Twelfth Night: to reflect on the fact that although motherhood was an integral part of God’s plan for redemption, the barren women were not forgotten. Contemplating Mary’s motherhood on Christmas Day is joy tinged with sorrow from all the focus on “mother and child” of that holy night. But on Epiphany, I can lift my thoughts and my heart in grateful union with all the faithful who contemplate the appearance of God-in-flesh. That communion isn’t restricted to the fertile, and isn’t reserved as a special privilege for mothers, and the entire Epiphany celebration is less about Jesus as baby than about Emmanuel, God With Us. The focus is turned from contemplation of His helpless, infant innocence to wondering awe at His veiled majesty – a majesty that can heal the hurts in my soul, that can make me complete even if I never bear a child.
Twelfth Night – Epiphany – is also a chance for me to recover from the joys of the season. I’ve been away from home for most of the past two weeks, visiting both my husband’s and my families as well as some dear friends who just welcomed their first child. We played with nieces and nephews and young cousins; we delighted in giving gifts to the babies and toddlers of friends; and sat in quiet companionship with our parents and grandparents. Christmas festivities focus on family life and the passing of traditions from one generation to the next; we enjoyed it all – but of course, it always comes with a sting, a small barb of sadness that WE are not providing babies for the new generation, to continue the family name and the family traditions. Our anniversary is also at Christmas (see what I mean when I said I love all things Christmas? I even chose to get married at this time of year!); we’ve been married for nine years. Happy years, taken as a whole – despite the early setbacks of hearing loss and a broken back: we’ve come so far together, through grad school and family crises and marvelous vacations and hikes and camping and such fun house renovations…..we have a wonderfully rich, rewarding marriage. It’s that overflowing abundant JOY that makes us want to have children – to have others share in the joy, the richness of love and laughter, more people to cook for and to shop for and to decorate the house for. People to carry on this legacy and tradition of joy.
Epiphany reminds me that the joy isn’t restricted to biological family, and that joy is still possible even for the barren. Joseph wasn’t the father of Jesus, but he could take joy in his Redeemer; Simeon wasn’t related to Mary or Joseph, but he had great joy in seeing he Child. And Anna – like Elizabeth, like Hannah, like all the women who knew the pain of barrenness – could respond in joy to the sight of her Savior, knowing that that joy would redeem the sorrow of her childlessness and give her an everlasting place in the people of God.