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Thursday, January 06, 2011
Fr. Wells' bulletin inserts
Because we celebrate the Birth of our Saviour on Dec. 25 and His Manifestation (that's what the word epiphany means) on Jan. 6, we might be tempted to think that His birth and His self-disclosure were two different events. His birth, in fact, was the beginning of Jesus' self-revelation as God in the flesh. The Epistle we read on Christmas Eve makes this clear, with Paul's ringing words, “the grace of God which bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men.” That verb “appeared” in the Greek is precisely the word from which “Epiphany” is derived.
It is fascinating to observe how the vocabulary of Holy Mother Church is borrowed, and promptly corrupted, into the secular language. All sorts of people nowadays who know nothing and care less about our holy days are nattering mindlessly about epiphanies. As non-Christians throw around a trendy word, it seems to mean a flash of insight or a surprising new idea. To them, it originates purely and strictly in the human consciousness.
But as the Bible uses the word “appeared” or “epiphany,” it is a far greater thing. When the Wise Men saw the star, they discerned a new flash of light from the skies, as far away from them as it was unexpected by them. When the shepherds were startled by the glory of the Lord shining round about them, they did not congratulate themselves for having a new idea. When Isaiah wrote “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,” he did not mean that they remembered to bring their flash lights.
When God became man at Bethlehem, to be wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger, something totally new occurred, something which had never been anticipated or precisely foreseen. For all the prophecies of Jesus which fill the pages of the Old Testament, never had it been revealed that the eternal Word would become flesh. That was not a human idea at all; such a thing had not even been revealed in advance. An enfleshment of the incorporeal God (“without body, parts or passions”) was unthinkable, to devout Jews, to sophisticated Greeks, to cultivated Romans alike.
The Incarnation, also known as the Epiphany of God in Jesus Christ, puts the whole human race into the predicament of Job, who was finally compelled to say, “I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee.” Job did not claim to have suddenly stumbled on a new concept; he has seen God Himself! When we see in the mysteries of Christmas and Epiphany God Himself made flesh, we are reminded that Lent is not far off. So with Job let us say, “Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” As He was wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger, the Gospel story quickly tells us how He was wrapped in a shroud and laid in a tomb. That also is an epiphany we would never have arrived at on our own. LKW
Both Christmas and Epiphany celebrate the same event and same truth, but the difference in which the two great holy days are observed is painful. Christmas has become a popular secular holiday, whereas Epiphany (in spite of the slang use of the word itself) is barely known. In churches Christmas is celebrated with much ado. Congregations are filled and God is worshiped gloriously with our finest music and best liturgy. Epiphany is celebrated, if at all, with the plainest of plain services and tiny congregations. For Christmas we decorate our churches and our homes, making them beautiful for the Infant King. At Epiphany we take those decorations down and pack them away. Joy gives way to gloom, in the wretched cold of January. Now which observance is more like the Event itself?
Theologians speak of Christ in His two states, the state of His humiliation and of His exaltation. God's self-exhibition was first of all a revelation of His humility. It may seem rash to speak of “the humility of God,” but it is necessary to remember that His coming to earth was not an interlude, a change of plan, a deviation from the script. The babe visited by the shepherds, the young child worshiped by the wise men, the precocious boy who startled the teachers of the law, all were manifestations of God as He truly is.
St Paul wrote (1 Cor. 1:27-29), “God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise, God hath chosen the weak things in the world to confound the things that are mighty, and base things of the world hath God chosen, yea things which are not, to bring to nought things that are, so that no flesh should glory in his presence.” Of course the Apostle was describing his Corinthians converts and the methods by which they had been won for Christ: foolish, weak, base. But the humility of the Infant Church was firmly grounded in the humility of God Incarnate in Jesus Christ.
“That no flesh should glory!” The Gospel makes sense only to those who remember why it was necessary in the first place. The original and most enduring sin was the pride of Adam and Eve, who aspired to be equal with God, “knowing” (that is, determining for themselves) “good and evil.” Their offspring can be saved only by a drastic event of humiliation, a radical leveling of our pride. A desperate situation required a Divine intervention.
The shepherds, the wise men, the doctors in the Temple, have one thing in common with us. Left to our own devices, they and we knew very little of what God is like. But in Jesus Christ we have seen God face to face. “No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.” And when we see Him clearly, our sin is exposed, our pride is levelled, and our boasting is put to silence. LKW