Week of Monday, January 7, 2002
Epiphany, Second Sunday After Christmas
This week the church around the world celebrates Epiphany on January 6. By the fourth century, the eastern church celebrated the birth of Jesus, the visit of the Magi, his baptism, and miracle at Cana (John 2:1–11) on this date. The word comes from a transliteration of the Greek epiphaneia, meaning manifestation, unveiling, or disclosure. The fact of Jesus's birth on Christmas is one thing. But what are its ramifications? What does His birth manifest or unveil? In the lectionary texts from this week we can say that Epiphany reveals at least two dimensions of the the birth of Jesus.
Notice the obvious. The pagan, Gentile wise men come to worship the Jewish Messiah Jesus (Matthew 2:1–12). Traditionally, then, at Epiphany the church celebrates the fact that the birth of Jesus is a manifestation of God's love for all the world and not only for His chosen people Israel. The text from the epistles this week (Ephesians 3:1–12) makes special note of this too. Paul writes that with the birth of Jesus a longstanding mystery has been disclosed, that “through the Gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise of Christ Jesus” (3:6).
But this is only the beginning. The kingdom of God in Jesus breaks down not only the barriers of race and ethnicity. It also demolishes the boundaries of gender, religion, economics and social stratification, for in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). This was a difficult lesson for Peter and the early church to learn once Gentiles started to convert and join the way of Jesus. It remains an important lesson for us today given our exclusionary propensities. “God has shown me,” said Peter, “that I should not call any person impure or unclean. I now realize that God does not show favoritism, but accepts people from every nation who fear Him and do what is right” (Acts 10:28, 34–35).
Epiphany unveils a second sin that the church all too often embraces, the way of power and politics. We normally do not associate the birth of a little baby with a rebuke to political power, but in the Gospel text from the lectionary this week (Matthew 2:1–12) that is exactly what we have. The political parody is writ large. Of the five dreams in Matthew's birth narrative, four of them come as warnings related to the murderous intentions of King Herod and his son Archelaeus who succeeded him. Whereas the Gentile Magi worship the baby Jesus, King Herod tries to kill him.
The Magi or wise men have come to worship Jesus (2:2), and that is exactly what they did. Upon seeing Jesus and Mary, “they bowed down and worshipped Him,” offering him gifts of gold, incense and myrrh.1 Herod, on the other hand, the same Herod who beheaded John the Baptist at the whim of a dinner party dare (Matthew 14:1–12), who murdered James and then tried to murder Peter (Acts 12), tells his confidants that he too wants to worship Jesus (2:8). It's a lie. In fact, he really wants to kill the baby Jesus (2:13). He ascertains the time and place of the birth of Jesus, but when he discovers that the Magi have outwitted him, he is furious. So what does he do? He commits a grotesque act of infanticide, murdering all the boys in Bethlehem who were two years old and younger (2:16).
The way of the Gospel subverts the way of power and power politics, and as experience shows us, the converse is also true, that the way of power subverts the Gospel. When Ernest Shurtleff (1862–1917) graduated from Andover Theological Seminary in 1888, he wrote the hymn “Lead On, O King Eternal” for the graduation ceremonies. The last half of the second verse captures the contrast I am making here:
For not with swords' loud clashing,In a sense, then, life in the kingdom is revolutionary, and even “anarchous” (literally, “against the powers”), for it is a life characterized by the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22–23).2
Nor roll of stirring drums,
With deeds of love and mercy,
Thy heavenly kingdom comes.
As I think about Epiphany, the disclosure or unveiling of the birth of Christ in all its multi-faceted dimensions, it is clear to me that the experience of disclosure is a life long journey. It is an always unfinished task. The issues of exclusion and power above are only the tip of the iceberg. Every day we ask the Lord to reveal, to unveil to us, aspects of our lives that the Christ Child claims—work, money, family, use of our time, friendships, and on and on. We pray that he would remove the scales from our spiritual eyes so that by some miracle we understand our own lives in the same manner that He does, as far as that is possible for fallen human beings.
Cf. the opera Amahl and the Night Visitors (1951) by Gian-Carlo
Menotti (b. 1911), which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.
- Cf. the two provocative books, Vernard Eller, Christian Anarchy (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987) and Jacques Ellul, Anarchy and Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991).
The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself Copyright ©2002 by Dan Clendenin. All Rights Reserved.