A few years back I was in Portland, Oregon for a church meeting. The rose gardens were lovely, and the Willamette River was spectacular. The fish was the best that I have ever eaten, and my first taste of marionberries was simply addictive. The UM Bishop of the Portland Episcopal Area was my tour guide. He had become a good friend through our shared work for the United Methodist Church. The two of us rode around in his jeep scanning the wonders of the Pacific Northwest. There was Mt. Hood seemingly within a hands reach and the history-making volcano, Mt. St. Helens, seemed too close for comfort though miles and miles away. The scenery was breathtaking!
However, I could tell that the bishop was holding something back as I gloried in the climate and scenery for the week that I was there, basking in cool clean air filled with daily sunshine. Finally he let the cat out of the bag. He told me that within a few weeks Portlanders would be socked in for at least 5 months of fog and drizzle. The rains mixed with the fertile ash of nearby volcanoes were great for the roses and hazelnuts, which made for 7 months of pure sun-drenched delight. Unfortunately, to enjoy the benefits for 7 months, one had to endure the almost interminable 5 months of dreary drizzle.
He said people became easily depressed. As big as Mt.Hood is toPortland’s skyline, during the dreary months you simply can’t see it. People stay indoors and quit socializing. The independent self-sufficiency of these Westerners makes it all too easy for folks to become even more isolated. Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.) is a reality that packs a horrible punch in the Pacific Northwest. He also said church attendance really takes a nosedive during the gloomy months.
But this is just when we really need the church, isn’t it? This is why we have an Epiphany Season after all. Easter is one of those events that Christians can actually date in history with Jesus’ death and resurrection being tied to the Jewish Passover. But, Christmas and Epiphany are quite another matter. We really have no idea what time of year it was that Jesus was born. There is no real evidence in the Scriptures. It took several hundred years for Christmas to catch on and everyone’s best guess for the selection of December 25 through January 6 to comprise the Twelve Days of Christmas has more to do with winter and less to do with facts.
It’s the same principle that should be at work in Portland. Instead of less people in church during the rainy season, there should be more. Christmas and Epiphany come as they do because they follow on the heels of December 22, the Winter Solstice. As winter begins, at least for the Northern Hemisphere, we experience the shortest day of the year and the longest night. The very next day the length of daylight nearly imperceptibly increases a little less than a minute a day and on it goes until June 21, the beginning of summer when the tide turns and daylight starts decreasing. The Twelve Days of Christmas from December 25-January 6 were just enough time for ancient humanity to verify their hope that bleak midwinter was indeed someday going to end.
No wonder, then, these dates were chosen for the celebration of Jesus’ birth and his miracles, an Epiphany of light coming into a dark world. This celebration comes precisely when we need it most! The Portland Area Bishop said it best when he reminded me about nearby Mt. Hood’s seeming disappearance during the rainy season. Through cloud and fog, rain and drizzle, at all times, he and all Portland remain in the shadow of the beauty and majesty of the mountain, even when nobody can see it. Similarly, Epiphany Season in the church pushes back the fog, drizzle and snow banks of winter and lets us catch a needed glimpse of Sonshine until that day finally comes when Jesus will be revealed in all His glory! Perpetual Epiphany! Hang in there! Bleak midwinter does not last!