Monthly Archives: December 2017

Epiphany: Hide and Seek with the Divine

Our planet has come full circle: things should feel new; yet for many people, the calendar is cleared only for business as usual, and the soul’s season, like the weather outside here in the North, is winter.

But the church has entered a different season – Epiphany.

A season of signs, it starts with a star in the east and ends with fire on a mountain.

A season of voices, it starts with directions in a dream and ends with acknowledgment from a cloud.

A season of unveilings, it starts with a glimpse of baby skin and ends with a display of gleaming garments.

A season of worship, it starts with the homage of kings and ends with the prostration of disciples.

In the dead of winter, the church gives us God-sightings, gives them as if to persuade us that our world only appears solid, still, dark, and cold, but is in fact stirring all the time, ardent, vivid, and porous. As if to say that this stretch of predictability we call our daily life is really, as Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, a startling game of hide-and-seek with the divine. As if to say that heaven’s flame burns hot here too, not just on the other side of Peter’s gate.

Starfire, dream-clouds, baby’s flesh, garments of light, kings on their knees and disciples on their faces — Epiphany is the church’s way of impressing on us that discipleship is as much being spoken to as it is speaking, as much adoring as serving, as much perceiving as doing, as much finding as seeking.

Seeking is never over, there is always more to find. But in Epiphany, the Spirit seems to desire for us a momentary end of seeking. She brings us to an encounter with the immense and saving beauty that burns in Jesus, the bright beauty destined for us all.

She lights the lamp and leads us:  “Come closer,” she says. “You’re getting warm. Now over here. A little more. Yes, yes. Now do you see…?”

And if we are attentive, we do perceive it. We fall on our knees.

 

 

 

Epiphany Year B: Who Is Jesus?

 

Epiphany is the mystical season par excellence, the season of coming to know beyond knowing, of coming to love what we come to know. It is a season of light, but it is also a season of deepening mystery; for just when we think we have grasped him, he slips away, inviting further following and more profound revelation and the testing of our love. Just when we think we have grasped him, he asks us the defining question, “Who do you say that I am?”, and we need to start over.

Worship during Epiphany Year B brings us gospel stories that ponder Jesus’ identity and recount people’s responses to him as, in the light of his presence, their hearts open to the gift of God’s mercy.

In the first week’s story, wise men “from the East”—scientists and philosophers—discover in an unknown, poor child a new light, a new wisdom, a new hope surpassing anything they ever discovered about God and the world on their own.

Next, John baptizes the grown-up Jesus, and at that moment—as Jesus is identified with sinners— the curtain lifts and we hear that he is God’s cherished child, that God is pleased with him.

Two more stories are about people who perceive in him the “Lamb of God” who pardons sins and reconciles enemies. When asked by these would-be followers where he lives, Jesus says, “Come and see.” In following him there, disciples receive deeper revelation of who Jesus is and what his way is about.

On the last Sunday, we experience a disorienting moment atop a mountain. There the disciples see Jesus suffused with the glory of God. They are so enthralled that they wish they could remain forever enveloped in that great, transforming light.

We often say that light is the season’s theme, and it surely is. We watch Jesus call followers, who seem compelled by his light. We watch him teach and heal, “leaking” the light that is in him all around, revealing God’s intentions and the character of God’s Kingdom. We see the light that lives in him lift shadows of despair, violence, and injustice.

But for all the light that is dawning; for all the revelations of Jesus’ identity that abound in these texts; for all the excited talk about the Messiah and the Lamb of God; for all the rush to get in on the ground floor and follow him; for all the hope that the Kingdom of God might finally be near, confusion about Jesus does not go away. In fact, the mystery deepens.

It won’t be long (Lent begins early this year) before we are reading stories in which even his closest friends scratch their heads, perplexed by the implacable enigma of this man. Even John the Baptist, who had earlier recognized him as God’s chosen one, will ask, “So, are you really The One?”

There will be so many claims swirling around him that Jesus himself will eventually ask his disciples, “What are they saying about me?” And “What about you? Who do you say that I am?”—a question that will still haunt him — and us — when he’s hanging on the Cross.

When we are asked, “What is your faith about?”, many of us answer that it is about love, or justice, peace and reconciliation. But if that’s all we say, we may be sidestepping its one truly distinguishing characteristic—the person of Jesus himself. If Christianity is not about him and about the ways in which he is a window onto the character of the God we worship, it doesn’t have much that is new or distinctively compelling to offer.

And that’s a problem, because many of us grew up in traditions in which Jesus was not a sympathetic character. He was a stern, all-seeing judge of our sins. He was the one in whom, on the Cross, God took out the wrath that was meant for us, and so now we feel that we owe Jesus an eternal, un-payable debt.

Or he was an ethical exemplar—for some, a this-worldly political figure whose revolutionary stances we admired; for others a cardboard character, a flesh-and-bloodless moral paragon, too perfect to feel close to or even to admire.

Some of us got the “gooey” Jesus, all long light hair and dreamy eyes; a white, romantic, handsome guy from Central Casting with a lamb draped over his shoulders, and he embarrasses us now.

Some of us dismiss Jesus as a mostly made-up character in a story too weird and implausible to credit.

If the Christian faith really is, in the end, not just some generic ethical teaching about love and justice; if it not merely a religion that stems from a long-ago and far away mythical Jesus, but is in some sense about Jesus, the embodied kingdom of God; if he is the “way, the truth, and the life” as the gospel says he is, sent to lead us in a unique and graceful way into the arms of a God determined to restore all creation in justice and love; if Jesus is somehow necessary, then maybe the project of Epiphany is to let him ask us, over and over, the same question that he asked his first followers, “Who do you say that I am?”

Maybe in these few weeks of Epiphany, we might make a deliberate effort to drop our learned responses to him, our preconceived ideas about him, our skepticism, even our distaste, in order to ponder his mystery with a new and genuine openness to what the Spirit might reveal to us about him.

We call ourselves followers, disciples, but some of us hardly know the one we are following. Maybe it’s time to walk and talk with him, maybe this is a chance to see whether in the talking and in the going—in the practice— the transforming light he shed wherever he went might envelop our lives too.

If he is the one the Christian tradition claims he is, things could really change. But that remains to be seen. It remains to be seen, it remains to be heard, to be touched, and even to be tasted, in this precious season of Jesus, this season of light.

 

 

 

 

Epiphany: A Brief Primer


Epiphany is an ancient Christian festival that pre-dates the celebration of Christmas. For many centuries it was (and still is in some parts of the Church) the second most important celebration of the Christian year, Easter being the first. Epiphany is also one of the two major festivals in the Christian year on which it was customary to initiate people into the church through baptism, the other being the Great Vigil of Easter. Its length (5-8 weeks) depends on the date of Easter, which determines the start of Lent.

“Epiphany” means “revelation.” During the season of Epiphany, Christians contemplate the figure of Jesus as a revelation of God’s hopes for the world. It is a time of growing insight into the way we believe God was working for our good through Jesus’ ministry of preaching, healing, justice, and reconciliation. Who he is for us and our salvation “dawns on us” gradually during this season of light.

Epiphany begins with a double commemoration—the visit of the Magi to the child in Bethlehem, and Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan river.

The story of the Magi, or ‘wise men from the East’, is found in Matthew 2:1-12. These mythic Magi are ancient astrologers, the scientists and philosophers of their day, who follow the trajectory of a new star from their own countries to the manger in Bethlehem, after eluding the machinations of King Herod. There they acknowledge the Babe as a ‘new king’ and a revelation of God, presenting him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Then they return home ‘by a different way.’

The gospel of Matthew says nothing about the meaning of these gifts, but later Christian imagination assigned symbolic meaning to them. Gold honors the Child’s royal lineage—Jesus is said to be descended from the house of King David. Frankincense, a costly incense, recognizes his divine origin—Jesus was said to have been born “of the Holy Spirit.” Myrrh, a bitter ointment, foretells the suffering of Jesus on the cross.

Because of the importance of Epiphany, we have countless homilies and commentaries on its meaning from early Christian preachers. Three aspects of Epiphany stand out in these sermons:

The visit of the Magi symbolizes the inclusion of the Gentiles in God’s promise of salvation. The non-Jewish world is given a great gift through the birth of this Jewish baby in Bethlehem: we come to “sees the light” with our own eyes and receive the blessings of God’s promises given first (and forever) to the Jews. We are, in Paul’s words’ “grafted on” to the ancient tree, adopted into the family and made heirs of the Promise.

The Magi’s visit also stands for the illumination of secular learning with the light of faith—human knowledge deepened, corrected, and perfected by the encounter with divine mystery. The wise men discover in an unknown, poor child a new light, a new wisdom, a new hope surpassing anything they ever discovered about God and the world on their own, by their own lights. Epiphany is thus the feast of the learned and the wise who know much, but who also humbly bow before divine wisdom, acknowledging their own limits and unknowing in light of the vastness of the mystery of God.

The journey of the Magi was also a way of speaking about vocation, or faith’s steady calling to the human heart. Epiphany is a season of callings—Jesus chooses his disciples and begins schooling them in the ways of the Kingdom of God. Christians have always seen in the Star a sign of beckoning for the Church and for each and every disciple. Following the Star perseveringly our whole life long leads us to our deepest desire, to wholeness and fulfillment through our obedient responsiveness to God.

In the story of Jesus’ baptism from Matthew 3:13-17, the author places Jesus in the company of ordinary people—“sinners”—who have lined up at the Jordan to be purified and prepared by a baptism of repentance. These are the same people with whom Jesus will most closely associate himself throughout his ministry. “I have come,” he said, “to look for the lost.”

The early Christians saw in Jesus’ submission to baptism—which they believe he did not require, not being a sinner—a revelation of his human solidarity with the poor and the despised who knew that they were in need of God’s mercy and had no one else to turn to. In the story, a heavenly voice declares that Jesus is God’s son, but we come to know precisely what sort of son we have in Jesus when we are shown that he identifies himself with sinners.

The heavenly voice also reveals that God is “well-pleased” with him (and presumably with this identification). Christians have traditionally understood this epiphany as an assurance that, by extension, God has also accepted us as beloved children and is well-pleased with us too, especially when, following the practice of Jesus, we live in solidarity with those whom the world rejects, and work for justice and peace.