Sunday, January 8, 2012

A New Epiphany

The city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day and there will be no night there. (Revelation 21.23-25)

God’s Vision for Us

This weekend, most Catholics and many Protestants will observe the Feast of the Epiphany that commemorates the Magi’s adoration of the Christ Child as the manifestation—or “epiphany”—of God’s presence in the world. In Eastern Orthodox traditions, Epiphany is called Theophany, or “vision of God,” with its feast celebrated on its traditional date, January 6th. Because it also venerates the Incarnation, it’s often called “Orthodox Christmas,” which though true in spirit, is inaccurate. Theophany centers on Jesus’s baptism, where God is manifested as three distinct personages in three distinct forms: the Creator Who audibly declares Jesus is God’s Son, the Christ physically embodied in Jesus, and the Holy Spirit visibly present in the guise of a dove.

While both feasts celebrate the Incarnation with equal fervor, their contexts highlight a major divergence. We regard the Magi’s adoration as fulfillment of prophecy that closes the Messianic saga to make way for the New Covenant’s sequel. Theophany focuses entirely forward. Its vision of God at Baptism becomes the prophetic moment that initiates Jesus’s journey to the Cross. It delivers a promise independent of God’s covenant with Israel, a new epiphany that opens an era of all-inclusive grace. Bundling Matthew and Luke’s nativity narratives obscures this message by putting the Magi manger-side with the shepherds on Christmas night. Not only is it scripturally erroneous. It reduces Epiphany to folklore that downplays how radically the Incarnation redeems our perceptions of God and one another.

Spurred by thorough understanding of Judaic prophecies, the Magi come to Bethlehem to witness more than God honoring promises to the Jewish nation. The compulsion to glimpse into their future—to behold their God—drives them to Jesus’s crib. Viewing the Birth through Magi eyes, we see what Eastern believers see in the Baptism. Epiphany is transformed into theophany, a vision of God that reveals God’s vision for us.

Epiphany's Inherent Promise

Predictably—if somewhat unfortunately—Sunday’s lectionary selections skew to the Western angle, regaling Epiphany’s significance in light of past promises. We’re back in Isaiah 60, which foresees foreign dignitaries laying gifts at the Messiah’s feet, a prophecy that no doubt inspires the Magi account in Matthew 2.1-12 (Sunday’s Gospel). It also filters into Paul’s comments in Ephesians 3, as he describes his own epiphany that “the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus.” (v6) Not that my opinion counts much, but it seems to me January 6th's daily readings do a far better job of illuminating Epiphany’s inherent promise of inclusion.

The selected Psalms ring with joy as they welcome people from every nation and walk of life to praise God. “Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth! Young men and women alike, old and young together!” Psalm 148 shouts. And Psalm 67 explodes when it sings, “Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for You judge the peoples with equity and the nations upon the earth.” In Isaiah 49, God ratifies the prophet’s radically inclusive calling, saying, “It is too light a thing that you should be My servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (v6)

Matthew 12 depicts Jesus curing everyone who comes to Him, demonstrating that God’s grace is freely available to all and rewriting the future of anyone whose faith reaches Christ. In verse 20, Matthew reprises Isaiah 42.3-4 to advance the revolutionary idea that those unjustly excluded no longer will be tossed aside: “He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick until He brings justice to victory.” Finally, Revelation 20.23-25 reveals a world where Christ reigns supreme: “The city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day and there will be no night there.”

This is God’s vision for us. It’s what the Magi see when they peer into the Christ Child’s eyes. When John the Baptist spies Jesus coming his way, it's what causes him to cry out, “Here is the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1.29) It’s virtually impossible to describe the new epiphany without words like “all,” “everyone,” “the world,” “equity,” justice,” “light,” and “glory.” Although the Magi mislead Herod by suggesting they're on a diplomatic mission to pay homage to the King of the Jews, they're fully aware that their quest transcends politics, ethnicity, gender, and religion. It’s too light a thing to confine Christ’s presence to Israel’s struggles and biases. The Magi come bearing gifts in exchange for the immeasurable gift they’ll receive by crossing a threshold where foreigners rouse hostility and outsiders are excluded. They come to worship Christ because faith assures them Christ will accept their worship.

We Will Be Changed

The star that steers the Magi to Jesus fixes their eyes on the very same world that Revelation envisions—a daylight world of open gates, where everyone walks freely as equals, a world where the bright rays of God’s glory and welcoming glow of Christ’s lamplight obliterate any possibility of hidden dangers. That’s how the new epiphany works. Whether at Bethlehem or Jordan, in Birth or Baptism, the vision of God manifested in Jesus is the culmination of our desire to see God’s vision for us. And all it takes to turn vision into reality is crossing the threshold that divides our imperfect past and God’s impeccable future.

The new epiphany corrects our sight to perceive what transpires when we behold Christ. No matter what steers us to Jesus—whether an astral phenomenon, a nagging affliction, or outright injustice—when we reach Him we will be changed. Notice how the Magi’s story ends: “Having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.” (Matthew 2.12) One look at Jesus and we are forever changed. The new epiphany that miraculously converts the inconceivable into the inevitable also hands us an impossibility we’ll never overcome. After our vision of God reveals God’s vision for us, we defy every worldly power and fear to travel a different road. We can’t possibly leave the way we came.

Christ of Bethlehem and Jordan, we come seeking a vision of God that reveals God’s vision for us. Open our eyes to the transformation that transpires when we behold Your face. May we live as we truly are—forever changed, illuminated, the brave travellers of a different road that radically alters our reality and leads to the bright, fearless inevitability You promise. Amen.

The Magi cross thresholds to worship Christ because faith assures them Christ will accept their worship.

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Sherry Peyton said...

Tim, your command of the scripture, and your understanding of the underlying history of the times gives your reflections such power. You are truly a great teacher! I learn so much each time I stop to read your thoughts. As usual, today, you have not let me down. You have shown me much that is new, and I shall enjoy reflecting on all that you have said.
Blessings in this new year.


Tim said...

Sherry, if only you knew how I struggled with this. To borrow from your baking expertise, I don't know how many batters I whipped up and abandoned without even opening the oven. And at least three that did make it into the pan fell like flapjacks. I spent four days trying to get as close to right as possible. That it made sense at all testifies to God's Spirit mercifully getting in the mix! So I'm grateful for your kind words and God's graciousness in bringing my awkward attempt to life.

Epiphany is such an elusive idea, because it asks us to see a new thing at the crib that we've not quite got our arms around during Advent and Christmas. And many years, I confess that sorting out what that might be (since it's always different every year--as it should be) is downright aggravating to me... almost as aggravating as people who keep their trees and lights up after Jan 6th. And I realize much of it springs from seasonal fatigue; many years Epiphany feels anticlimactic to me, sort of like the final stop on a long journey--the last hurdle to clear so we can get back to ordinary time.

This year, however, I was blest to come at Epiphany with all pistons jumping. And that's because Advent and Christmas have been unusually rich and rewarding for me, in large part because of our ongoing dialogue and shared contemplations during the season. So in addition to thanking God for whatever made it onto the page, I thank you as well. (Here's where you give yourself a big pat on the back!)

Many blessings and much joy in 2012,