Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Epiphany

The Epiphany

Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7,10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12
Revise Common Lectionary, Years A,B,C

The book of Isaiah is composed as a crescendo of recurring themes. Each time a theme is revisited, the language is a little more extravagant. In this passage, despite the current "thick darkness" which has engulfed the nation, not only will Jerusalem be restored after its destruction and years of ruin, the people and bounty of neighboring nations, some of whom were enemies in the past, will provide the resources for her renewal. Miraculously, "the Lord will arise upon you and the Lord's glory will appear over you."  There will be a homecoming that will cast a "light" so bright it will draw other nations "and kings to the brightness of your dawn."  The wealth of other nations-- including "gold and frankincense"-- will pour into the re-building and re-establishment of God's people.

  Dedicated to Solomon, the son of the first great king of Israel, this psalm celebrates the restoration of an ideal monarch who will bring justice to those to whom justice is least available; the reign will be honored above neighboring nations, even the farthest away and most alien.  This justice will "rain" down as broadly and as evenly as "showers." 

The author of Ephesians is generally believed to be an admirer of Paul. If mimicry is the sincerest form of flattery, then this unknown writer is a huge fan, even taking on Paul's own history, but expanding it. Here the emphasis is on the mission of Paul to non-Jews. His role is to explain God's hidden plan, now revealed in Christ.

Raymond Brown (
The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary of the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke, New York: Image Books, 1979) suggests that many of the elements of the visit of the magi in Matthew's gospel can be identified in nearby religions and especially in contemporary secular history. In particular, he details the visit in A.D. 66 of exotic rulers "from the East" accompanied by their "magi" to Rome, (p. 174). He also reviews the use of a guiding star to herald the births or deaths of great leaders (p. 170) in Greek and Roman mythology.  The Magi, a "priestly caste that specialized in interpreting dreams and astrology," (Brown p. 167), come seeking the "King of the Jews,"  (a title only used one other time in Matthew's narrative; as the charge put over the head of Jesus on the cross), and a tyrant king, Herod, is threatened.  The appearance of "stars" was common in classical myths and legends to signify the birth of a new leader or some other ominous event.

Preachers can easily get distracted by futile arguments over the historicity of scriptures or, instead, go directly to the
prima facie meaning. ("Historicity" meaning a belief of Modernity in facts about the past that through disciplined human activity can escape human subjectivity.) These passages selected for The Feast of the Epiphany go directly to fundamental questions of our expectations. And, as usual, the scriptures disrupt those expectations. They suggest to our imaginations that apparent sources of human authority are always penultimate. The scriptures insist that there is always an ideal experience of justice, peace, and security for which we long beyond any human accomplishment. This longing causes constant dissatisfaction with the status quo. But it also makes clear a goal worthy of our greatest passion and personal investment. For Christians, this universal human longing for the ideal becomes centered in Christ-- the content of all that has been remembered that he said as well as the details all he did and was done to him. In Christ the ideal becomes flesh and enters into the travails of everyday life, including the most mundane failures and victories. Christ is an "epiphany," a sudden breakthrough, a revelation beyond the usual human assumptions. Therefore, it is only appropriate that the trappings of epiphanies, in this case guiding stars, magi, and exotic gifts, should welcome this revelation. In Matthew's creative bricolage of scraps from other traditions, the message and its method of delivery are melded together: our comfortable norms are disrupted by ideas of something better and at first strange, even exotic, for Christians that is the Christ event, which is always both clearly different than everything else that we know and life-giving.

In his contribution to Radical Orthodoxy, (Milbank, Picksotck, Ward, eds.) Frederick Christian Bauerschmidt sees that "With the closure of modernity and the jettisoning of the modern account of 'necessary truths of reason' understood as Cartesian 'clear and distinct ideas,' however, it once again becomes possible to put forward the notion of the sublime presented through the contingent and historical."  He continues by quoting from the work of Hans Urs von Balthasar (Love Alone: The Way of Revelation, pp 12-13), to show how early Christian witnesses used freely prevalent ideas, motifs, legends, symbols in the ancient world as "baptizable anticipations of the God-Logos in person who entered into Israelite history, filled the whole world, in whom were the Ideas which were the patterns by which the world was made, and in relation to whom the world could be understood."  The biblical and other earliest witnesses used extant material to announce to the whole world God did something that had never been done before and would alter human history.  It would never stop surprising us!  Its power for revelation would never diminish.