Tuesday, January 05, 2010

The Epiphany

January 6th

Painting by Tom duBois


Isaiah 60:1-9 * Eph 3:1-12 * Matt. 2: 1-12
The most radical line to be uttered in the ancient world must have been the first of the Ten Commandments. “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.” It was completely out of the ordinary in the days when the peoples of the earth were expected to worship the local deities; in fact, for Israel to believe that their God was the only true God, and all others were vain, was as out of place amid the pagans of antiquity as a fervent expression of Nationalism would be out of place on the floor of the United Nations. To what degree any of the ancient pagans may have thought themselves to be refined and sensitive, the Israelites must have come across as ill mannered. And, since the Law and the prophets of Israel denounced the practices of some of the religions, such as child sacrifice, it was very clear that the Jews simply were not willing to change with the times, and that they were intolerant.

Furthermore, not only was the God of Israel considered to be the one and only true God to His own people, but the only true God at all. The phrase that is translated “before Me” is quite significant. The Hebrew expression is al peni, and it means “in front of my face.” That might not be so bad for a local god that stayed within his boundaries; but this God had been in Chaldea with Abraham, called him into Canaan, went with the family of Israel into Egypt, and took them back to Canaan. Everywhere He went He was the ruler, showing no regard for the customs and religions of the people, and treating their idea of divinity as vain and silly. He judged the gods of Egypt in the plagues, even by putting out the light of their supreme deity, the sun. So, to have no other gods before Him, that is, in front of His face, the face of the God who is everywhere, is to make the judgment that the people of Israel believed in the One true God who made Heaven and Earth.

Syncretism was expected in the ancient world, a polite recognition of the various gods of the different places where nations settled. If nothing else, it was just bad manners to treat any religion as false, any god as a mere idol, and any practice as an abomination. Of course, when it became necessary to save mankind from the worst kind of paganism, the better kind came to the rescue; the Romans defeated the Carthaginian Hannibal whose army fought to spread the madness of child sacrifice everywhere. And, nowhere does this receive treatment that has better insight than in The Everlasting Man by G. K. Chesterton.

But, even the Romans fell short of the Israelite standard, the worship of one and only one God, the maker of all things and judge of all men. They allowed the Jews to worship the God of their fathers only because He was the God of their fathers. They tolerated Jewish intolerance out of respect for its antiquity. But, they persecuted the Christians who converted from among the Gentiles, using the excuse that they were rejecting the gods of their fathers and the worship of Caesar. And, even during the early days of the Christian Church, as recorded in the Book of Acts, the Emperor Claudius sought to banish all Jews from the City of Rome itself. The idea of any religion that could not take an equal place among the devotions to the various gods of the peoples was completely strange to ancient peoples everywhere.

Yet, what we know that the pagans of antiquity did not know, is that the revelation of God to man was a gift and the offer of salvation. Jewish monotheism was intolerant of the gods for the same reason that men of medicine are intolerant of folk remedies. The real trouble with all people everywhere is that two-sided coin of sin and death; so the intolerance of Judaism for idolatry was a necessary first step toward what would become the mission of the Church. 

Inherent in the first commandment of the Law of Moses is the Great Commission of the Risen Christ. “Thou shalt have no other gods in my presence-before my face” is echoed in the words, “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. (Matt. 28: 19, 20).” It is expressed in the words of Saint Peter, “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved (Acts 4:12).” Emmanuel, “in ancient times did give the Law, in cloud and majesty and awe,” and now He stood risen from the dead to authorize the Church to go with His presence to all nations, going everywhere among fallen mankind and with all their gods before His face, to root up, pull down and destroy, and to build and to plant. Jesus Christ, after dying on the cross for the sins of the whole world, gave us our commission. He is the only salvation revealed by the only true God, Whom to know is eternal life (John 17:3).

This is the meaning of the wise men coming from afar to worship Him in His infancy. Any other kind of writing would have told us all about these men; where they came from, how large their company really was, and details about the route they took, and alternative route by which they returned. But, sacred scripture was composed by the Holy Ghost, and the focus in the Gospel of Matthew is on Jesus Himself. Therefore, all these interesting details about the Magi have become the study of modern historians and archeologists uncovering a mystery, because the Gospel had no space to give to such minor issues. It focuses attention on the salvation of God in the person of Jesus, and it tells His story. The Holy family’s flight into Egypt and return to Galilee is given the space that follows, and the wise men – or Magi – simply disappear back to the place from which they came. But, their significance is not lost.

Their significance is taken up by Saint Paul in the Epistle we have heard today, about the Jews and Gentiles being made one new man in Christ, the middle wall of division broken down. We, that is those of us whose ancestry is from the Gentiles, are one with the people of Israel through faith in Jesus Christ. A gentile- that is, anybody who is not of Jewish descent- becomes grafted into the heritage of the people of God, made a child of Abraham by faith in Jesus Christ. This is why I have never been impressed by the apologists for women’s “ordination” when they argue that Christ chose only Jews, and so if we do not believe that women can be ordained based upon His example of choosing only men, we should be consistent and logical, and realize that this would mean we should not allow Gentiles to be ordained. The reason their argument does not make sense is contained in the truth revealed to the apostles and prophets, as taught in today’s Epistle: No Christian is a Gentile. When you were baptized you were taken out of your wild Gentile tree, and grafted into the cultivated tree of Israel.

It is a basic understanding of salvation itself, as Isaiah prophesied that the Root of Israel would grow and blossom and fill the earth, the same earth that is to be “filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea (Isa. 27:6, Hab. 2:14)” that upon being made part of the Church, one becomes a part of the Israel of God. By faith Abraham is our father, the Lord is our God, and there is salvation in none other than His Son (Rom. 4:11, Acts 4:12). All of our beliefs are based firmly upon revelation, and not based on even the best speculations of the wisest of men.

The difference between revelation and imagination is the difference between the true God and every idol. Even the unseen and unfelt idols of the mind, housed in speculations of an unrevealed and lonely brand of monotheism that cannot possess the eternal attribute of love because it is alone, is an idol. A god who cannot be seen, touched, heard and even tasted, is the new kind of idol; for, “the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth (John 1:14).” Apart from this revelation of the Wholly Other uncreated God taking our time and space world into His Person; apart from the revelation of this invisible deity found in fashion as a man whose glory is beheld; apart from this unknowable God made known in the Person of the Incarnate Word, there is no salvation. There is no salvation in all of the other gods that men worship before His Face.

We have the Great Commission to spread the knowledge of the only true God and Jesus Christ whom he has sent. Thou shalt have no other gods in front of His face, for neither is there salvation in any other. The name of Jesus is given under heaven among men, whereby we must be saved. Each of you, as a member of Christ's Body the Church, are called to take your part of this great work that Christ gave to His Church from the beginning, of which prophets had spoken from the dawn of history.

15 comments:

Paleologos said...

What a fine post. As I read it and pondered the mystery of the Epiphany, I was reminded (somewhat off-topic) that the Romans have this year "moved" the Epiphany to the 2nd Sunday after Christmas (last Sunday) so that more people would celebrate it (at least that's the reason given at Catholic World News). How appalling. When I was growing up as a Baptist, we willingly and in great numbers trooped to church on Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night, and that didn't count all the special services, revivals, etc. We were always in church. I have friends who are Eastern Orthodoxy, and they, too are always in church, sometimes late at night or very, very early in the morning. Contemporary RCs can't be bothered to be in church except on Sunday (or Saturday night, or not at all), can't be bothered to fast on Fridays, can't dig up sound RCIA teachers, and (at least where I live) rely almost wholly on imported clergy. There's an epiphany for you. And these are the folks who want to take Anglicans in and "rescue" them. As if giving up on ascetic effort, taking the easiest possible road, moral minimalism, monastic laxity, and liturgical anarchy were an alternative to true Anglicanism. It's like being rescued by the Titanic. Now, I suppose this post might not pass the "snippiness" test, blog hosts, but I get so tired of Roman triumphalism and smugness, all served cold on paper plates in a Potemkin village. Happy Epiphany (for those of us who didn't realize that all feasts are now moveable).

David Gould said...

I concur in Paleologos's comments about the state of the modernist Roman Church, although some of these things afflict Anglicans also.

The Vigil Mass on a Saturday night to allow people to laze in bed on Sundays was as bad an innovation as the abandonment of the midnight to communion fast, replacing it with the 1 hour (eat a ham sandwich in the car on the way to mass fast).

I suspect that the standard for the Church should be that which is in the majority of the Eastern Church today and what was the norm for Anglicans: no evening masses under normal circumstances and fasting from midnight.

The asceticism of the early and undivided Church reflected a people of God focused on God and not this world.

The Epiphany for me recalls me to the primacy of the spiritual path, of the things of God. The Gospel of moral, liturgical and theological relativism found in the modernist Roman and pan-Protestant churches is the antithesis of the spirit of the early Church fathers.

It amuses me that these modernists just don't get it. It is the FSSP parishes and Pius X parishes that are full of committed faithful, observing full liturgical life, generating vocations and spiritual commitment. I spoke to an elderly Roman priest in his late 80's the other day who is still a parish priest, and who celebrates mass with reverent dignity at a requiem mass about not having an altar boy to assist after watching him having to light the thurible to cense the coffin. He said that it was very hard to get them nowadays.

Marianne Hart said...

I think I enjoyed the comment by Paleologos almost as much as the sermon. There are no true Anglican churches we can get to and I'm afraid I find the Roman Catholic Church positively grim. The church fills up suddenly on Sunday morning and empties while people are still at the communion rail. Hymns are progressively shorter, fewer verses sung, as one goes through the service, and the last one never has more than one verse. This is especially appalling when the hymn is "A Mighty Fortress is Our God," since that first verse leaves the devil in charge of the Earth. To change the date for Epiphany destroys the traditional twelve days between the celebration of the birth of Christ and the arrival of the Magi when he was approximately two years old. That twelve days is all part of Christmas. People should still arrange their lives around the life of Christ to the best of our ability, not have the church adapting to the world from which Christ has called us. Indeed, adapting to this world is the last thing a Christian should do.

RC Cola said...

The comments here pretty well touched on why I decided to Cross the Channel. My entire life has been spent being subjected to a constant spiraling downward of liturgy and devotions.
The first time I saw the 1928 BCP service, I was just short of enraged. I couldn't put my finger on it at the time, but I realized that I witnessed what a Mass should be, while my entire life I suffered through Masses that never conveyed a whit of holiness.
20 years to have my first experience of The Holy? Rome should be ashamed of itself.

People will, by nature, live up or down to expectations. It's a shame that expectations were brought so low in the RCC.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

Rome or Amchurch (i.e. the American version)? Despite our differences, I think the Masses in the Vatican itself, the Latin ones celebrated by the pope, are beautiful.

Anonymous said...

"That is because all the scriptures are about him."

True and important. Being "about Him" is what makes them "Scriptures." Every jot and tittle of the OT is about the Saviour to come. Possibly the least appealing sections of the OT are the early chapters of 1 Chronicles, a long and tedious list of names in the form of a genealogy. But even there we have a testimony to the Messiah, as every name is another step from the old Adam to the new, another move toward the Incarnation. The NT itself begins with just such a genealogy, which throws light on the similar passages in the OT.

In the old Dominican rite, the Matthean genealogy was solemnly chanted between Mattins and the Mass at Midnight on Christmas Eve. I am told this was a thrilling liturgical experence.

The great Princeton Calvinist B. B. Warfield wrote that the Old Testament is like a beautifully furnished room dimly lit.
LKW

T said...

Great post, good words also Paleologos.

I do think, however, that David Gould's comments are worth noting, with one exception. The "committed faithful, observing full liturgical life" that one sees in the SSPX could easily be called committed, faithful, observant and liturgical, but they could hardly be called "life". In fact, is is a religion with the form of godliness, but without it's power.

This is also what Anglicans who love liturgy, tradition, forms, ceremonies, and theological dispute need to be wary of- a dead religion. Without the Holy Spirit, we have nothing. It's all pharisaic unless we put God above all our traditions, subject them to Him, rather than use them as tools to get God to act on our behalf.

I think this is a point to ponder when we read “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.” Hyper-religious sects like the SSPX always put their religion first, and ttheir relationship with the living God in a little box.

T

RC Cola said...

"Amchurch."

I haven't heard that one in a while. It ranks right up there with "McMansion" as one of the greatest dismissive insults in recent history. It really pokes a hole in their puffed up pride.

As for Papal liturgies. My friends who remained in the RCC pray fervently that Benedict XVI outlives everyone's expectations (i.e. at least 5-10 more years) so that the restoration can survive his reign.

RC Cola
"mambr" -- Is that how John Kennedy pronounced "mamba"?

RC Cola said...

T-

I have to disagree with your statement about people who attend the SSPX. It's too common of a neo-con RC smear. Like the Soviets discrediting a deposed Politburo member by saying he's gay. That just doesn't float with me. I attended an SSPX parish for a few years. The SSPX are not the 'haters' but the 'hated'. Heard your statement before: false.

I wonder if you've ever heard people say the same thing about the ACC? I have. Continuing Anglican men are all "Colonel Mustards" right? Attachment to the 1928 BCP is just nostalgia. The people are backwards. The only people who attend ACC parishes are old people who are "too into" Anglicanism, and not enough into God. Continuing Anglicans are a hyper-religious sect...Blah Blah Blah.

Such worn-out suppositions bore me. Next.

Fr. John said...

RC,

You are so right. I, too, am tired of the modernists critique of traditional Anglican worship.

I am not applying this to any comments here, but too often the critique is based on a desire to demystify Christianity in favor of a "social justice" political agenda. The church is transformed in to a cell of social revolutionaries, and mystical and ascetical theology is relegated to the status of historical curiosity.

veriword is "smater", as in "smatter with you?"

Fr. Robert Hart said...

Contemporary RCs can't be bothered to be in church except on Sunday (or Saturday night, or not at all)...

Well, we also have our share of people like that. We should never move major holy days to the nearest Sunday; but, sadly, I would not be surprised to find a few Continuing Anglican churches doing it too.

Fr. John said...

If they are doing so, it is without warrant.

veri word: "abibl"

T said...

RC Cola,

You said "I have to disagree with your statement about people who attend the SSPX. It's too common of a neo-con RC smear... attended an SSPX parish for a few years. The SSPX are not the 'haters' but the 'hated'. Heard your statement before: false."

I, too, was speaking from experience. I don't think the people I met and sat with for months on end in the SSPX were ever Christians, to be honest. So much anger towards other Catholics, so much smear campaigning against the Vatican, the despising of Protestants who were going to Hell, the sermons that weren't about God, the love of tradition but denigration of neighbour. No fruit, just religious nuts. After a while, God just pulls a Christian out of such circles. I see He did likewise with you, no?

You said: I wonder if you've ever heard people say the same thing about the ACC? Of course I have. I can understand it too.

You continued: I have. Continuing Anglican men are all "Colonel Mustards" right? Attachment to the 1928 BCP is just nostalgia. The people are backwards. The only people who attend ACC parishes are old people who are "too into" Anglicanism, and not enough into God. Continuing Anglicans are a hyper-religious sect...Blah Blah Blah.

All fair comments I'd say...and I wouldn't contain that to the ACC either. This is a stereotype of Continuers ttha thas some merit.

The point is that some Anglicans are filled with Gospel hope and want to make a difference in our communion and make Anglicanism about Jesus again. I don't know if anyone in the SSPX has championed that yet. If you can think of an example, let us know. I'd be overjoyed ot hear of it.

T

T said...

Fr John,

You said:

"You are so right. I, too, am tired of the modernists critique of traditional Anglican worship."

This sort of political name-calling cuts both ways it seems. I'm tired of so-called traditionalists labelling any form of criticism as "modernist". It's not. Anglicanism is not perfect, and traditionalist Christianity is in danger of killing itself in a flurry of solipcism. Let's figure out where we are going wrong and not label any attempt to get closer to the mind of Christ as "modernism", which is a curse word in so-called traditionalist circles.

You continued" "I am not applying this to any comments here, but too often the critique is based on a desire to demystify Christianity in favor of a "social justice" political agenda. The church is transformed in to a cell of social revolutionaries, and mystical and ascetical theology is relegated to the status of historical curiosity."

With respect, you have to engage the society in which you live in order to be an orthodox Christian. You also have tot minister among them. It will not do to just sit on the orthodoxy of one's theology and settle for a congregation of one or two families and say everyone else is doing it wrong because they have a social agenda. The church is obligated and commissioned to a social engagement with the world.

You and I would both agree that doctrine is a non-negotiable matter, but would you not also agree that orthodox doctrine demands action amongst the people, and sometimes you need to act for social justice? Surely you and I can agree that we should stand for balance in all things, yes?

T

Fr. John said...

Mr. T.,

Are you trying to set an agenda for us? Friendly advice on what we are doing wrong?

And the reason you regard the ACC as less than successful as a church is because we don't have as many communicants as you think we should?

Are you in the ACC? Why are you so concerned to help us out?

I never have met anyone in the SSPX, but they must have done a number on you, because your posting comes across as really angry.

From what I understand you want us to focus less on our formal liturgical worship, and concentrate more on a "social engagement with the world", whatever that means.

I run my parish like a monastery. Hope that doesn't offend you, because it seems to work for us, for over 32 years now.

"The night cometh when no man can work."