Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Feast of the Epiphany

Isaiah 60: 1–6
Psalm 72: 10–15
Ephesians 3: 1–12
Matthew 2: 1–12

Dear saints who are in Ashmont and are faithful in Christ Jesus: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. It is a rich blessing to be with you this evening for the celebration of the feast of the Epiphany. Of course, as you know, the word epiphany comes from Greek, meaning “to manifest” or “to show.” Our Gospel text this evening recounts how the star over Bethlehem manifested the Christ child to the wise men. Often we focus on how the star marked the location of Jesus’ birth, but we should note also that the star was a sign to these wise men of the East that the child was anointed by God and thus royal. The writer of the letter to the Ephesians, on the other hand, is not so much concerned with Jesus’ location or royalty as with the revelation of the mystery of Christ. Revelation and epiphany are not the same thing. Epiphany indicates the bringing of something to attention that had been neglected. Revelation indicates the uncovering of something that had been hidden.

I remember one Sunday morning when I was about ten years old. As usual, our family trundled off to church in the chill morning air. My brother and I went to Sunday school first and then to the service with our parents (we grew up Methodist). We sat on the right and toward the front, right about where you are. When it came time for sharing celebrations and concerns, my Mom raised her hand. Someone brought her the wireless microphone and she said, “today is my birthday, and I am announcing it myself because my husband and both of our sons forgot about it entirely!” Oops.

My mother was born on January 6th, which happened to fall on a Sunday that particular year. Learning this was an epiphany that I am certain never to forget. And that is just the point. My mother’s birthday was not something hidden. We had celebrated it every year. Dad was in particular trouble for forgetting since their wedding anniversary is the next day, so forgetting one virtually implies forgetting the other! No, Mom’s birthday was not hidden, merely neglected and forgotten. The experience of Mom standing up in church and announcing it was an epiphany, almost as surprising as the angels who announced the birth of Christ to the shepherds, but not a revelation.

This distinction between epiphany and revelation is a fundamental difference between the testimony of the Gospel writers, especially the synoptic tradition of Matthew, Mark and Luke, and the Pauline and pseudo-Pauline writers of many of the epistles, including Ephesians. For the wise men, the location and significance of Jesus’ birth was made manifest through the star. All they had to do was follow it. For Paul and his school, on the other hand, the mystery of Christ was hidden; that is what it means to be a mystery. Mysteries must be made known: revealed; not simply discovered or made manifest.

These differing ways of knowing point also to a difference in what is known. For the wise men, what is known is the historical person of Jesus. They used the best science of the time, astrology, to discover his location. It was about finding a person who would be king of the Jews. The value they sought was personal. For the Pauline writers, the significance of Christ is in what Christ does for us, namely providing access to God by forgiving our sins. The value of Christ was utilitarian. Another way of putting this difference is to say that for the Gospel writers, Jesus is a good in himself, while for the Pauline writers Christ is a good for us.

Unlike in the first century, when science was the tool employed by the wise men to discover the divine design, science today is often interpreted as defeating or at least opposing religious belief. One of the main reasons for this is the foundation of modern biology in Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection as elaborated in On the Origin of Species, and this year that we’ve just landed in is the 150th anniversary of its publication. The theological challenge presented by Darwin’s thesis is that it seems to defeat the argument from design, namely that we can know that God exists because the world points to a designer. Evolutionary theory suggests that our world could have come about exactly as it is without a designer.

Like all good theological problems, the answer to the supposed defeat of God by evolution can be found in a joke. A group of scientists were considering the successes of modern science and came to the conclusion that God was no longer necessary. They swiftly dispatched one of their number to inform God of this. The scientist walked into heaven and up to the divine throne and said, “Well, Lord, we don’t really need you any more. We can take care of it all on our own now. We can even create life out of dirt!” “Really,” God replied. “Let’s see you do it.” As the scientist reached down and scooped up a handful of dirt, God rejoined, “Hey now! Get your own dirt.”

Yes, Darwin’s theory of evolution makes the cosmological argument, the argument from design, problematic. But evolution does not answer the ontological question, why is there something rather than nothing? Science can tell us a lot about dirt, and can even turn dirt into other things (albeit not yet life), but it cannot create dirt out of nothing, and it cannot explain why there is anything at all. This is not a new argument. It has been made for hundreds and thousands of years. Nevertheless, that God is the answer to the question of why there is something rather than nothing is an epiphany in progress in our churches today.

But what about Jesus? Is it not the case that Epiphany is supposed to celebrate the manifestation of Jesus the Christ? Well, yes, of course. And to be sure, our world could sorely use what Paul refers to when he says “the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words, a reading of which will enable you to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ.” In the first chapter of Ephesians, he explains the mystery of Christ as the redemption of all people, Jews and gentiles, in God’s plan “for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” At a time when the Holy Land is besieged by violence and war, and when the greedy actions of a few devastate the living conditions of many, the message that God redeems us and holds Jew and gentile, rich and poor together is surely good news. The Pauline writers were right; the revelation in Christ is that God is for us.

Very well, but now we’ve left out the wise men, not to mention the Gospel authors! Or maybe not. The wise men read the signs in the stars and went in search of a baby. What they saw was not hidden and so it need not be revealed. It need only be discovered. The good news of this Epiphany is that God creates a world we can understand and engage. When we search, we can find the baby, evolved out of dirt over the course of billions of years. And we can love the baby, and everyone and everything else we encounter in the world God has created. The Gospel authors are right too: value is personal. As God creates our hearts out of dirt, God also speaks into our hearts that we are gathered up in the one who made us.

It may be that we have forgotten our faith in a God who creates and redeems us. As we celebrate the sacrifice, death and resurrection of Christ in the Eucharistic meal, may this Epiphany make manifest our forgotten faith. And may we find in our fellowship with Christ in the body and blood, evolved out of dirt and evolved into the person of Jesus the Christ, the revelation of the mystery that we are all one in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

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