On the Epiphany of Christ (6 January)

Readings from the Revised Common Lectionary: Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12.

Today is an important “AHA!” moment in the life of the Church–Jesus is revealed as the one who fulfills the covenant God made with Israel, the truly just King who will reign forever, the one whom includes Gentiles–and all because, somehow, his arrival on the scene works out a “mystery” hidden in the heart of God from eternity. I just wanted to offer some thoughts that struck me as I read the passages.

In Isaiah’s vision, the nations are coming–the Gentiles see the light, Israel’s own people return from exile. In Matthew’s Gospel, the disciples are told to spread the Good news as they go (ch. 28). Is there a tension between the centripetal and centrifugal movements in the way God does things? I think there’s a risk both ways.

  • “Come” might be interpreted as an ‘attractional model’ of doing church, which looks more like market capitalism and consumerism than a celebration of God’s faithfulness. It’s ironic that some scholars (like Reginald Bibby, with deep respect) will talk about the “value-added market share” of religious organizations without realising that the values people will learn once they arrive might run directly counter to the methods used to get them through the door.
  • “Go” might look more like a form of violent colonialism than a sharing of truly liberating Good News! Too many times in our history, Christians have assumed that the values of the reign of God were the same as those of the Empires which sponsored their trips. Most Christians are aware of this in the contemporary context, and yet it can’t be stressed enough: as we go, what are we expecting to find of common grace, of God’s light, in the cultures and hearts of our neighbours?

Whenever I read about kings, as in the Psalm, I must admit I get a little nervous. I am not convinced that hierarchy, as humans understand it, is part of Creation or from the heart of God. Why should the nations come to honour my king? But I relax a little bit when I realise that the reason the king receives honour is because he lifts up the poor and cancels oppression. The perfect model of kingship is Jesus–and if we read the Gospels carefully, I believe they show us a man not very interested in merely reversing the flow of power–so that the poor, once free, become the new tyrants. No–we sit at a table in which the King is a slave, offering himself so that all might be equal, whole, and free.

The word “mystery” is a rather odd and radical one in the context of Ephesians. Contrary to how some contemporary Christians use the term (almost as a way of claiming we can’t possibly know anything about the thing in question), the author of Ephesians (and Christian tradition generally) seems to move in the opposite direction. Somehow, God is using something tangible and sensible–the life of Jesus, especially–to make known something that was hidden and outside the realm of human knowing. Thus, this passage and others point us to a sacramental view of matter and of human embodiment (Radner). It seems to me there is also an intriguing hint (developed in Eastern Christianity) that the Incarnation of Christ was Plan A: it would have happened regardless of the need for salvation from sin, rather than strictly as a response to that need.

I wonder if we miss some of the humour in the original context of the story of the wise men. Amy-Jill Levine suggests that the author of Matthew is mocking other birth-stories that contain similar events. Really, in order to see where the star stopped, it would be floating perhaps 25 feet off the Ground (from Living the Questions 3)! From a Jewish perspective, the ones coming from the East were probably woolly-headed weirdos, and yet they have sense enough to recognize the truth–and to bring gifts fit for a king. But this is not a king who will reign in splendour (gold and frankincense) but from a cross on which he dies to save his people (myrrh was a painkiller and burial spice in the ancient world). I think it behoves Christians–most of us woolly-headed weirdos anyhow–to remember that Jesus and his reign are the real thing. Corporations, governments, and even church institutions are, at best, parodies at which God might smile. Often, the parody borders on the perverse and harmful.

What thoughts occur to you about Christ’s Epiphany? How do those thoughts shape your life? How would you like them to?

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