The Feast of the Epiphany (January 6th) is one of those relatively rare days in the Christian year when the Gospel reading is 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 -- the arrival at the stable of strangers from some far off place. Tradition has filled out the story considerably, notably by holding that there were three travellers, identifying them as 'kings', and even giving them names. The Bible does not provide any basis for this. In some modern translations the description 'wise men' is rendered 'astrologers', and in fact 'magicians' may be the most accurate-- which reduces their status considerably for a modern audience.
So why has this brief and mysterious 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, but then fail to report back to him, gives an early sign of the 'political' context in which Jesus was born -- the actual Messiah ultimately proves quite at odds with what people 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 king, but myrhh also presages death. Thirdly, these men are Gentiles, foreigners. This is the most important aspect. Although the story of the birth, ministry, suffering and death of Jesus has to remain firmly rooted in the Jewish theology of a long expected Messiah if it is to be understood properly, it has significance far beyond the confines of Jewish life and culture. The Gospel is a Gospel for Jew and Gentile. This is St Paul's great insight, an insight that leads him, at intense personal cost, to take on the enormous task of proclaiming a Jewish Gospel to a Gentile world -- a call that he explicitly acknowledges, appropriately, in the Epistle for Epiphany.
'Epiphanic moments' are those times when, quite suddenly, something of the greatest imortance strikes us. 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 moment, we might say, when the birth of the historical Jesus is revealed to be the incarnation of the eternal Christ.
The Magi by He Qi -- courtesy of Jean andAlexander Heard Library
Friday, December 24, 2010
|The Slaughter of the Holy Innocents
The commemoration of the Holy Innocents – the children exterminated by Herod in his furious determination to eliminate any possible rival to his throne -- is not widely observed in the life of the Church. No doubt this is because it falls on Dec 28, just three days after Christmas. Yet for centuries it has been a “Red Letter” day, which is to say, a major festival of the Christian year. The children who died were probably few in number – Bethlehem was a small place, after all – and could know nothing of the reasons for the ghastly fate that befell them. Nonetheless they traditionally count as martyrs – not just because of their innocence – but because they died for the sake of Jesus.
The politics of Palestine at the time of Jesus made an explosive mixture. Herod’s position as a Jewish king serving a Roman Empire deeply at odds with Judaism inclined him to the kind of brutal “realism” that so readily regards the innocent as expendable. “Messiahs” were cropping up all the time, and the movements they prompted were generally crushed mercilessly. He was not to know that the Messiah who had just been born sought a wholly different type of kingdom, one so different that it could best be described as ‘not of this world’.
The astonishing level of sheer cruelty that was inflicted on the mothers and children of Bethlehem is still with us. The tyrannical exercise of political power reached unprecedented heights in the 20th century, and does not show much sign of receding in this one. Commemorating The Holy Innocents so close to Christmas serves as a helpful antidote to the saccharine sweet scenes in which the baby Jesus so often appears at this time of year. It reminds us that God did not come to dwell among us in a world of sleigh bells and festive fare, but to secure a victory on the Cross that, despite the suffering, sorrow and injustice described in the Gospel for today, enables us to keep faith with the vision of Revelation that provides the Epistle – ‘the first things have passed away’ and the God whose ‘home is among mortals’, has made us this promise "See, I am making all things new."
Monday, December 20, 2010
Since many churches, perhaps most, have multiple services at Christmas, the Lectionary provides no fewer than three sets of readings – though the same set of readings is used in each year of the 3-year cycle. All three lists forge a connection between the prophet Isaiah and the birth of Jesus.
This connection is crucial to understanding the significance of that birth, as the Epistle readings extracted from Hebrews and Titus make clear. Thanks to modern scholarship, however, we now know something that the authors of those epistles did not know. The Book of 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 Jew 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. This is what makes it possible for the Old Testament readings for Christmas to make a selection from all three. And this fact 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. God’s saving work in his Messiah certainly began at Christmas, but the birth of Jesus was dimly recognized for what it was only thirty years later, after his death and Resurrection. And its full significance lies within the immensely vaster time scale of God’s redeeming history.
The key spiritual task at Christmas is to find a way of acknowledging that in Jesus God came to an earthly home, without at the same domesticating him. The deep innocence of Jesus that makes our redemption possible, is not that of a sweet little baby. “He came and dwelt among us” so that, for all our follies and weaknesses, we might be raised to God’s level, not that God might be reduced to ours.
Monday, December 13, 2010
|The anxieties of St Joseph -- James Tissot
Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18
The readings for this week form a bridge between Advent and Christmas. The Gospel begins the story of Christ’s Nativity which is about to unfold in longer readings on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and then Epiphany. At the same time it looks back to the ancient promise of a Messiah, and directly quotes the prophet Isaiah in the famous passage that provides the Old Testament lesson for this Sunday
Since we are still in Advent, we have only the start of the story in brief. Yet this short passage does something very special -- it enables us, unusually, to focus on the distinctive role of Joseph in the Gospel of God. Since Jesus owes his humanity, as well as his Jewish identity, to his earthly mother Mary, she has had a widely acknowledged theological role in the mystery of the Incarnation. Yet in a quite different way, Joseph also has a key part to play in God’s salvation history, since he too could have accepted or rejected it.
Nowadays, single parents and unmarried mothers are a thoroughly familiar part of life. As a result, it takes real imaginative effort to appreciate the significance 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’. The great courage and deep faith that this reveals, is matched by Joseph’s response, however. Confronted with such devastating news, it would be natural for anyone to feel an intense personal affront and rejection. But Joseph had to face this further prospect -- acute embarrassment, ridicule, and social contempt.
All the time he had at hand an easy as well as a socially approved solution – ‘to dismiss her quietly’. The angelic voice in the dream tells him to do otherwise, but it relies, of course, on his having the spiritual insight and moral courage to accept that advice. His reward is to be accorded parental status by being giving the task of naming the baby. As it turns out, this is no small reward. Paul declares to the Christians at Rome in this week’s Epistle 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.
Monday, December 6, 2010
‘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 a 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 freak winds blowing the reeds around Galilee could be a remarkable sight. Surely the people didn’t go to see John as some kind of freak? But they can hardly have been drawn by his social stature. 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 is one of Isaiah's most famous passages, and one with which the crowd would have been thoroughly familiar. It gives graphic expression to that longing “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 its fulfillment. The fulfillment is not all sweetness and light, however. ‘Here is your God, come with vengeance, and terrible recompense’.
Once again, the themes of the first and second comings are interwoven. The First Coming of carols, social festivities, and the 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 Epistle puts it) ‘the Judge is standing at the doors!’ is a much more strange affair, and inevitably generates a mixture of personal anxiety and spiritual incomprehension.
Advent is the opportunity to switch these around – to find the Incarnation spiritually awakening, precisely because divine judgment on the lives we lead is what it is reasonable to expect.