Wednesday, January 6, 2010
Epiphany: Scrambling For the Real Thing
The word Epiphany, I suspect may conjure up in many minds something like an exotic pastry! It comes from epi + phaino = “to shine out; become manifest”. It is one of the principal feasts celebrated in the Church. The liturgical readings offered for reflection include Isaiah 60:1-6, Ephesians 3:1-12, and Matthew 2:1-12.
Isaiah’s passage encourages wretched returnees from exile to Jerusalem with news that their light has come. The poet speaks as if to bid someone slumped over in dejection and without hope or purpose to “Arise, shine!” Isaiah insists that Yahweh’s saving light and glory comes to all the nations and peoples, and they to the light. Things are beginning to change for them. Their hearts will thrill and rejoice because of the abundance about to pour forth on them. References to Midian, Ephah, and Sheba imply that all of Abraham’s descendants are included in the promise fulfilled. They, just as the nations, share in the saving light of Yahweh’s glory.
Paul carries the theme forward by speaking of the mystery “made known” and “revealed”. What God makes known is that God’s light of salvation has come for all: Jews and Gentiles aren’t to discriminate, whether in society or in the Church. That is a truth revealed by the Holy Spirit “to...holy apostles and prophets” and holds true whether or not the Ephesians or any others are tempted to think otherwise. In this life we determine who our heirs will be, but in the inheriting of the Good News and all that that implies, God alone chooses. The basic Gospel truth of the oneness of all, Jew and Gentile, is, however, by no means automatic. You and I as the Church must not only preach it, but live as though we believe it. That means finding ways, as individuals and as communities of faith, to model the Light who is Christ in our lives.
Matthew expresses this theme in the form of story theology. God, in Jesus, has come to save all. Matthew’s account, generally and in this particular story, presents Jesus as one who fulfills prophecy, as well as one who upsets expectations. An heir of Abraham, Jesus is a second Moses and a second David. Like Moses, he comes out of Egypt; like David, he’s born in Bethlehem. But Jesus isn’t merely the One to be “born king of the Jews”. He’s emphatically a child. Centuries before, Isaiah had proclaimed “...a little child shall lead them.” Those Jews who had an exclusively kingly, “adult” image of the Messiah didn’t seem to take this very seriously. After all, small children are unlikely messiahs.Yet it’s this Child of Bethlehem, with several non-Jewish forbears in his genealogy, who is recognized and honored as the Messiah by foreigners, rather than by the Jewish leaders. Matthew prepares us in the Epiphany story for the two principal reactions of people to Jesus later on: homage or rejection.
Matthew speaks of strangers, “Magi”, “sages”, from the East. The biblical text, by the way, doesn’t say that they were kings, nor that they were all male, nor that there were only three, nor that one was black, nor did Matthew know their names. Perhaps Matthew was thinking of Babylonian astrologers who studied the stars. About all their science would have told them is that a king had been born in Israel. The Scriptures would shed light on where.
In speaking of the “star”, Matthew may have been recalling the coming together around 7 B.C.E. of the planets Jupiter and Saturn, in the constellation Pisces, thus causing a bright light: an occurrence happening every 794 years. It is said that the ancients thought of Jupiter as the royal star, belonging to the ruler of gods and men; Saturn was viewed as the star of Israel. Or, perhaps, Matthew was thinking of a nova, a short-lived but brilliant light caused by an explosion of a white dwarf star. Such a nova seems to have appeared in the eastern sky around 5 B.C.E., according to Chinese records.
At any rate, the sages’ message of Jesus’ coming upset not only Herod, the prince of duplicity and evil, but all of Jerusalem. Jesus’ epiphany was and is and should be deeply disturbing. Cities, then as now, are seen as centers of power. Matthew’s story seems to imply that age-old Jerusalem, the “city of peace”, will never be the same. God’s saving purpose is now unequivocally extended beyond the Holy City, beyond the people it represents, to the whole world, to all people. The King of the Jews, as Son of God, is Savior of all.
Over the past few weeks many of us have once again awaited and celebrated Jesus’ coming in the Advent/Christmas/Epiphany seasons and feasts. But how shall you and I receive the coming of the Saving Light into our lives every day of this New Year 2010, and, indeed, the Holy One’s coming at the fulfillment of all things?
The late Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Saginaw, MI, Kenneth Untener, who died in 2004 at age 66, once related a story about his family who lived on Belle Isle island in the Detroit River. On Saturdays his parents would often go to the farmers‘ market in downtown Detroit to buy food. Before leaving they’d give the children their Saturday chores, expecting the children to have them done upon their return. As soon as their parents left, the youngsters would proceed to have a great time playing baseball or whatever instead. One of the group was posted on the shore with a pair of binoculars as a lookout for the parents. The lookout’s job was to watch the distant bridge to spot the family. They knew it took about ten minutes to go from the bridge to the house. As soon as the lookout signaled, the children swung into action and worked as hard as they could during the remaining time. Of course, they were never finished when their folks arrived, but they made a good show of making it look as though their labors had taken several hours!
That’s one way to get ready for an arrival. You scramble to get things ready when you find out that it’s about time. But that’s not a very wise way to prepare for the coming of the Saving Light, Jesus the Christ.
How do you and I prepare for the Lord’s coming? The disciples thought that the best way to do that was to know exactly when it would happen. “Tell us,” they begged Jesus, “when will all this occur? What will be the sign of your coming and end of the world?” Jesus tells them that no one but God knows exactly on what day or at what hour. There aren’t any binoculars with which to spot it from a distance, despite repeated false claims by fundamentalists, even still in the 21st century, to the contrary.
Jesus didn’t just leave it at that with the disciples. He taught them how to make ready: by simply making sure every single day that their priorities were straight, that others: the poor, the suffering, the homeless, etc., were the center of their concern. And so should we, remembering that poverty, suffering, and loneliness can take many different forms.
The advice which Jesus gave the disciples wasn’t just casual talk. It was the grand summation of all his teaching, as Matthew expressed it in his account: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory...all the nations will be assembled before him.” [Mt 25:31-32] We know the rest. The Son of Man tells those gathered that the whole thing is based on how they treated him in the person of the hungry one, the thirsty one, the one who was a stranger, the naked one, the person who was sick, the one in prison. It wasn’t a parable or an allegory. It was the real thing, the bottom line. If you didn’t serve these folks, then you didn’t serve Jesus, because he is in them.
Scholars have long pointed to the text: “The one who hears you hears me...” as showing how Jesus identified himself with the Church’s leadership. The stunning truth is that Jesus principally identifies himself with the poor and suffering: “As often as you did it for one of them, you did it for me.” Such works aren’t reckoned as if they were done to him: they were, in fact, done to him. Imagine: Jesus identifies with the poor and suffering, the people, just as much as with his apostles, the Church’s overseers!
Perhaps the best way in which you and I today can live up to our calling and prepare for the Light’s coming into our daily lives is by responding, day in and day out, to Jesus’ coming in others, in those who need us. How seriously do you and I take this? When the Saving Light, the glory of God, comes will he find this attitude in us? Undoubtedly, many of us do help people whom we find in obvious need. But how front-and-center, really, is this in our awareness? Is it the continual “main event”? Or is it only something which we scramble and struggle to do after we take care of other business?
So, we come back to the original question: how do you and I receive the coming of the Saving Light into our lives each day of 2010? Not, I think, by hustling to make only periodic token efforts for others, among all the other things we’re doing. but rather by intentionally training ourselves to recognize Jesus‘ special presence in them: just as truly as we recognize his special presence in the pregnant, poor young girl named Mary. Just as the Eastern sages recognized the special presence of a poor newly-born child in a manger in Bethlehem.
If we truly believe that the Gospel is “Good News”, what other way could there be to receive him?