The Feast of the Epiphany (January 6th) is one of those relatively rare days in the Christian lectionary when, whatever the year, the Bible readings, including the Gospel, are always the same.
The reason is very simple. Although this has long been a major feast of the Church -- and of special importance in the Eastern Orthodox tradition -- only Matthew makes any mention of the strange event on which it is based. Matthew's short account of the arrival of strangers from some far-off place at the stable in Bethlehem has been filled out by tradition. The visitors have become three ‘kings’ or ‘wise men’ from Persian lands, and given the names of Caspar, Belshazzar and Melchior. The Bible does not provide a basis for any of these details, and in some modern translations 'wise men' is rendered 'astrologers', or even 'magicians'. This reduces their status considerably, but increases the mystery. Why has this brief episode attracted so much attention for so long?
The answer lies in the theological significance that has been found in it. First, the fact that the travellers seek out Herod, and then fail to report back to him, gives an early sign of the 'political' context into which Jesus was born; the actual Messiah ultimately proves quite at odds with what people had traditionally hoped for, or (in the case of Herod) feared. Secondly, the gifts that the wise men leave in the stable all have symbolic meaning; gold and frankincense are traditional gifts for a ruler, while myrrh presages death – an odd gift for a baby. Thirdly, these men are Gentiles, which is to say, foreigners. This is perhaps the most important aspect. As the Old Testament lesson reminds us, the story of the birth, ministry, suffering and death of Jesus is firmly rooted in the Jewish theology of a long-expected Messiah, and must remain so. Yet properly understood, it has significance far beyond the confines of Jewish life and thought. The Gospel is a Gospel for Jew and Gentile alike.
This is St Paul's great insight. “Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise of Christ Jesus”, he writes in the passage from Ephesians that is the Epistle for Epiphany. It is an insight that led him, at intense personal cost, to begin the enormous task of proclaiming a Jewish Gospel to a Gentile world.
'Epiphanic moments' are those times when, quite suddenly, something of the greatest importance strikes us unexpectedly. At the Feast of the Epiphany we commemorate and celebrate the moment at which the universal importance of the Jewish religion is, for the first time, revealed to the whole world. It is the point, we might say, when the birth of the historical Jesus is suddenly revealed to be the incarnation of the eternal Christ.
There are often multiple services at Christmas, so the Revised Common Lectionary provides three sets of 'propers'. These readings are used in every year of the 3-year cycle.
All three sets forge a connection between the prophet Isaiah and the birth of Jesus. This connection is crucial to understanding the significance of that birth, and the Epistle readings from Hebrews and Titus are chosen to make this clear. Thanks to modern scholarship, however, we now know something that the authors of those epistles did not know. Isaiah is really three books. Moreover, the authors of these three books (Chaps 1-39, 40-55 and 56-66) lived and wrote several hundred years apart – before, during and after the traumatic capture and exile of the Israelites in Babylon. The editing of these materials into “one” book is no accident. Whoever its editors were, they correctly perceived that the same spirit, and in large part the same theme, animates them all – how to have a faith that endures despite the vicissitudes of time and circumstance. This common theme makes it possible for the Old Testament readings for Christmas to be taken from all three -- a fact that carries an important lesson for us.
When John the Baptist asks Jesus if he is ‘the one who is to come’, he is making reference to a hope and a yearning that has persisted over a very long period of time, and across dramatically changing fortunes. We should take this timescale to heart.
“A thousand ages in Thy sight, are but an evening gone” Isaac Watts reminds us in his paraphrase of Psalm 90. It is easy for us to confine the advent of the Messiah to the deeply intriguing and appealing, but brief, event that is the Nativity. While God’s saving work in his Messiah certainly began at Christmas,it was only thirty years later, after his death and Resurrection, that the birth of Jesus could be recognized, dimly, for what it was. Its full significance, Christians subsequently came to see, lay within the immensely vaster time scale of God’s redeeming history.
The key spiritual task at Christmas is twofold. We have to find a way of acknowledging the fact that in Jesus, God came to an earthly home, while at the same time avoiding any tendency to domesticate Him. The perfect innocence of Jesus makes our redemption possible, but it is not the innocence of a sweet little baby. “He came and dwelt among us” so that, despite all our follies and weaknesses, we might be raised to God’s level. The danger of too 'nice' a Christmas is that, inadvertently, we reduce God to ours.
The readings for this week form a very obvious bridge between Advent and Christmas. The Gospel begins the story of Christ’s Nativity, a story that will unfold more fully in longer readings on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, through Epiphany (Jan 6th) and concluding on Candlemas (Feb 2nd). At the same time, short though it is, this Gospel passage also looks back to the ancient promise of a Messiah. It quotes directly from the prophet Isaiah in the famous passage that provides the Old Testament lesson for this Sunday.
Since we are not yet in the season of Christmas, we hear only the start of the story. Yet this brief episode does something very special. It enables us, unusually, to focus on the distinctive role of Joseph in God’s salvation history. Jesus owes his humanity, as well as his Jewish identity, to his earthly mother Mary, and accordingly, she has had a widely acknowledged theological role in the mystery of the Incarnation. In a quite different way, however, Joseph too has a key part to play, because he, no less than Mary, could have accepted or rejected it.
Nowadays, single parents and unmarried mothers are a thoroughly familiar part of life, and while some people still disapprove, the majority take illegitimacy in their stride. One consequence of this is that it requires real imaginative effort to appreciate the impact of Mary’s highly unorthodox pregnancy in a culture so different to our own. At the annunciation, Mary memorably says ‘be it unto me according to your word’. There is undoubtedly great courage and deep faith revealed in this. Yet it is matched by Joseph’s response. Confronted with such socially devastating news, it would be natural for the ‘betrothed’ to feel intense personal rejection as well as moral affront. And Joseph had to face this further prospect -- acute embarrassment, and ridicule from his contemporaries.
All along, close at hand, there was an easy, socially approved solution – ‘to dismiss her quietly’, a response that would have been regarded, the Gospel says, as the action of ‘the righteous man’. The angelic voice in the dream tells Joseph to do otherwise. Still, it relies on his having the spiritual insight and moral courage to accept such advice. When he does, his reward is to be given the task of naming the baby, and thus accorded parental status. As it turns out, many years later, this is no small reward. In this week’s Epistle, Paul declares to the Christians at Rome that their whole calling – like ours – is ‘for the sake of that name’. And at the name of Jesus, he tells us elsewhere, every knee shall bow. Each time we do so, we have good reason to remember Joseph.
“What did you go out to look at?” Jesus asks the crowd in this week’s Gospel, “A reed shaken in the wind?” It is an image that has caught the imagination, and provided books and poems, as well as sermons, with a striking title. But what exactly does it mean? The exchange occurs in a section of Matthew’s Gospel that is mostly about the significance of John the Baptist. Clearly, ordinary people were much struck by this extraordinary man, and here Jesus is prompting them to ask themselves why.
Some commentaries suggest that from time to time freak winds blowing through the reeds around the Sea of Galilee created strikingly unusual formations. On this interpretation, Jesus is saying to the people ‘Surely you didn’t go to see John as some kind of freak of nature?’ On the other hand, they can hardly have been drawn by his important social status. No one could have been less like the political dignitary who dresses in soft robes and lives in a royal palace. No, they went to see a prophet. And that means, consciously or unconsciously, they went to see him out of spiritual longing.
This week’s Old Testament lesson gives graphic expression to that longing. It is amongst Isaiah's most famous passages, and one with which the crowd Jesus was addressing was likely to have been familiar. “Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped, the lame shall leap like a deer and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy”. John is the harbinger of this vision. Jesus is its fulfilment. The fulfilment is not all sweetness and light, however. “Here is your God”, John adds, “come with vengeance, and terrible recompense”.
The readings for this week offer the possibility of replacing the Psalm with the Magnificat. This reminds us once again that the themes of the first and second comings are interwoven. The First Coming with its carols, social festivities, and baby in the manger falls easily within our comfort zone. We know what to expect, and we like what we know. The Second Coming when (as the brief excerpt from James puts it) ‘the Judge is standing at the doors!’ is a much more unsettling affair. Inevitably, it generates a mixture of personal anxiety and spiritual incomprehension.
Advent is an opportunity to switch familiarity and surprise around. From the perspective of divine love, adverse judgment on the self-centered lives human beings so often lead is only to be expected. Consequently, we ought to find the Incarnation – God dwelling with us -- highly surprising. "What is Man that You should be mindful of him?” Psalm 8 asks, and, we might add, "that You should actually want to live here!"
Purple is the traditional colour for the Season of Advent. Increasingly, however, blue is used as an alternative. This reflects a significant change in thinking, a change embodied in the Revised Common Lectionary. In part Advent is like Lent – a penitential season -- hence the colour purple. In part, though, it is also an anticipation of Christmas. So while our thoughts should indeed be focused on the great, if awesome, themes of sin and redemption, they must also be related, somehow, to the joy of Christmas.
In the Revised Common Lectionary this twofold aspect of Advent is reflected in the fact that the Gospel for the last Sunday in Advent begins the Christmas story and so switches our attention from death to birth. This is not a mere concession to the contemporary world in which Christmas services are held well before Christmas Day. Rather, it recognizes just how closely the Second Coming and the Incarnation are connected. The Gospel for today, the second Sunday of Advent, reflects this. John the Baptist challenges his hearers in the fiercest language -- "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” – urging them to repent because “the kingdom of God is at hand”. This is the stuff of the Second Coming. But then, almost immediately, he turns their attention to Jesus’ First Coming, when he tells them that “one who is more powerful than I is coming after me”.
The fact is, ‘First’ and ‘Second’ are temporal terms, whereas God is eternal, a Being in whom there is neither ‘before’ nor ‘after’. Consequently, although from a human perspective, Incarnation and Judgment are necessarily separated by time, they are two sides of a single divine act. The ‘baby in the manger’ who comes to save the world is also ‘Christ in his glorious majesty’ who comes to judge it. Unfortunately, the popular version of ‘the Christmas story’ is so focussed on the homely cuteness of the baby, it defuses the challenge with which his birth presents us. We have become so comfortable with it all that its strange mystery escapes us.
The Old Testament lesson from Isaiah predicts the coming of a Messiah, springing from the ‘Tree of Jesse’. That Messiah is the baby born in Bethlehem. He it is who will inaugurate Isaiah’s vision of the ‘holy mountain’ where nothing is hurt or destroyed. Yet he does so, only because his ‘delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear, but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked’. This doesn't resonate very well with Christmas lights and Nativity plays, and fits rather better with 'hellfire' preaching. Yet this is nonetheless the ultimate message of Christmas.
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