Tag Archives: Epiphany

Wonderful Words

birdIt’s been a week of words, words, words, and more words. 

Some words were heated such as those between Mr. Trump and Mr. Cruz in the Republican debates. Some words were measured and thoughtful, such as those of Mr. Carson and earlier Ms. Fiorina in those same debates on Thursday. If words had trajectories, the former words were missiles launched; the latter words were birds circling and weaving.

I’ve been thinking about words and their power, particularly this last week of Epiphanytide when the Church celebrates the Word made incarnate in Bethlehem, Christ manifested to us, the world, the Word alight in the darkness. 

Words continue to light the dark, to beam bright epiphanies into despair and loss and confusion. Words comfort and heal and explain and judge. They forgive. They love.

The Bible is called the Word of God, and I’m glad the Gideons still supply hotels with free copies in nightstand drawers. The Gideons, a society of Christian businessman formed in 1899, has distributed over two billion copies of the Bible in two hundred countries in one hundred languages, today printing eighty million copies a year. Lately I’ve noticed the Bibles sitting alongside the Book of Mormon and sometimes the Teaching of Buddha. I wondered about the rarity of the Koran in these rooms but understand there is a concern about disrespect. One imam said that Muslims don’t need a copy of the Koran for they have memorized the first chapter, prayed five times a day.

It is good there are other faiths represented in these nightstands. Inclusivity protects the Bibles from the charge of exclusivity when guests complain of religion in their room. Americans are a freedom-loving people. We believe in freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of thought and conscience. It is why we debate conscientious issues before choosing our president. It is why we fearlessly use heated words, or words launched like missiles across a stage toward our opponent, missiles targeting other words.

I enjoy the politically incorrect Republican debates. They show that America still has a pulse, her arteries are flowing, her heart beating, in her celebration of free expression. Some pundits have complained there are too many candidates in the field, but I laud the number. Let us encourage this multi-faceted discussion and be proud of the raucous, boisterous conversation. Let us appreciate the talented and articulate candidates who give of their time, talent, and treasure, of varying gender and generation, race and ethnicity. This is America at its best. This is how we elect our governors.

And we use words, words, words. Let them fly through the air, circle and weave, and come home to roost in our hearts and minds. Let the words win and lose, as they become forged in debate, fired by truth.

Lots of words. I’ve been sorting our late bishop’s words, his sermons, scrutinizing the yellow lined pages, the brown parched sheets, scraps from hotel stationery scrawled with words, handwritten, prescient ideas pressed onto paper, words written in the purple ink the bishop favored. Staples or  clips join some pages, linking sermons back to 1951, his year of ordination to the priesthood. I’ve come to see an order in the pages, and the words, how they fall naturally into Church Year seasons and feast days within those seasons. There are also speeches given at dedications, ordinations, baptisms, synods, pilgrimages, retreats, and funerals. Dates, places, and occasions are recorded in the pale pencil script of his loving wife. 

Hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands of words. “He was a mystic,” a friend said recently. But then, all sacramental Christians are mystical by definition, for we believe in the mystical and mysterious action of the Holy Spirit among us in this hard world of matter. We believe in the mystical change in the bread and wine as the Word once again becomes flesh and dwells not only among us but within us in the Eucharist. We believe in the Spirit mystically flowing through the waters of Baptism and the oils of Unction and the words of absolution given by a priest to a penitent in Confession. The Spirit mystically weaves into the vows of bride and groom as they say committing words before a priest who, in the name of the Body of Christ, blesses their marriage, and the Spirit works mystically through the hands of a bishop in Ordination and Confirmation. 

As I study our bishop’s words, his purple script on yellow paper, I pray that God will enter my mind and heart and speak to me just as he entered my bishop’s mind and heart and spoke to him, that I might share these words bridging heaven and earth, spirit and flesh. One day, God willing, the words will flow onto pages bound into a book to be held and read, words that will instill the greater Word.

This last week, before the political words and the sorting of the words on the yellow lined pages, I sent off my review of Michael D. O’Brien’s Elijah in Jerusalem to CatholicFiction.net. In this end-times novel, Bishop Elijah confronts the Antichrist in Jerusalem. Like his namesake, the Prophet Elijah, Bishop Elijah listens for the still small voice of God. I too am listening for it, hoping to hear those huge words spoken by the little voice, whispering in the stillness of heart and soul. I often observed my bishop listening, listening to all of us with our many words and opinions, hopes and fears, but also listening to something else, someone else, trying to catch the quiet voice that wove among us as well. 

With the many threats at home and abroad, threats to freedom and faith, to liberty and law, let us celebrate free and faithful words, expressions of who we are and who we are meant to be, as Americans, as believers in God who became the Word made flesh.

All the Difference

star of bethlehem.jpgThomas Sowell of the Hoover Institution recently wrote about political lies of the last few years: 

“Lies are a wall between us and reality… Reality does not disappear because we don’t see it. It just hits us like a ton of bricks when we least expect it.”

Lies encourage us to deny reality, to “put our heads in the sand” and thus are dangerous. To say the Benghazi terrorist attacks (2012) were a demonstration over an inflammatory video, is a lie told to calm fear. But it invites complacency and so emboldens terrorists, both domestic and international. We have mourned lives lost in subsequent attacks because of this lie. This lie ensured the election of the current president, and a wall rose between our national defense and reality. 

And so too, as individuals, we might choose to believe lies for reasons of comfort. But such lies are dangerous as well, inviting greater suffering and confusion when reality “hits like a ton of bricks.” 

Reality has a way of eventually hitting us, and so too, belief in God and the claims of Christ are worthy of examination as to their truth, their reality. “What difference does it make?” many say, imbibing the lie of our culture that all beliefs are equal, all faiths equally true. While all believers are worthy of respect, how can all faiths be equally true, when one denies the claims of another? Alas, it makes a great deal of difference what a person believes. Living a true life means seeking the truth, embracing reality, sorting fact from fiction and avoiding the ton of bricks. One of the greatest lies of our age is that there is no truth. The truth exists apart from us, whether or not we can grasp it at any particular moment. 

I have long suspected the lie of “closure” in regards to mourning. Stephen J. Forman, a cancer doctor, writes in the Wall Street Journal “how the loss of a loved one is a part of each person’s life forever…. the reality is that closure is a myth.” Grief changes over time, but grief is woven into the weave of our souls, giving us greater compassion, understanding, and empathy. It makes us “wise” or “deep” or simply “good.” Suffering and grief helps us see. To remember at sudden moments, even with tears, those whom we have lost is a good thing, not one to be suppressed: 

“The danger of the idea of closure is that it heightens aloneness, by giving us a false expectation that these experiences should and will at some point end. They won’t… To deny (memories) is to deny precious moments of love, fellowship, gratitude and inspiration… To close the memory does not sustain the healing or help in proceeding with life. Such echoes from the past are voices in the present and are sometimes warmly felt.” 

This can be said of nations as well. To close echoes from the past is to deny who we are, forged by the past in this moment in time. To live only in the present is to force closure on the past, to live a lie, to disavow our nature. Our history is our life story, our identity as Americans. It is a cloak we cannot afford to shed, one our nation must wear in order to survive. 

To find closure after terrorism may for a time ease our national life. We pretend it didn’t happen and we carry on. But it is a lie to say it makes no difference. Of course it makes a difference. Those who died for our country must remind us continually what is real, what is true and what is false in our national narrative, how we face our future and defend our freedoms. 

Children long for boundaries. They beg for limits so that they can see the truth about their world, what is good and what is bad. Good parenting sets limits and teaches the truth, the reality, of forbidden territory. In this way they become responsible adults, for they have learned what is real. They can search for truth and face it. 

And so as we worshiped in church this morning on this First Sunday after Epiphany I gazed at our bishop’s chair, empty. He left us for Heaven, and now, seven months after his parting, his wife has joined him. As I looked upon the chair, I was gifted with a flashing memory of the bishop and his wife, as I knelt on the russet tiles, in the filtered light streaming from clerestory windows, in the singing together the Creed, the Gloria, the Our Father. The bishop and his wife were epiphanies that graced my life and I knew that they would continue to grace my life through the opening of my memory, the refusal of memory’s closure. Their lives were woven into mine, as mine was into theirs, through love, through the grace of God. I consider those memories, even in the depths of loss, to be precious piercings of my heart. These epiphanies, these openings, reweave my heart and soul, adding to the texture. I do not desire or need closure. 

In the Church, the Feast of Epiphany celebrates the coming of the Wise Men from the East who brought the Christ Child gifts. Epiphany means manifestation, the revealing of God in human form in Jesus in Bethlehem. With Epiphany, Christ is now manifested to the world, not just to Israel, not just to God’s chosen ones. The Wise Men follow a star so that the heavens as well take part in this epiphany, this revealing of God. They follow the star to a stable, a hillside cave. The universe shines a beam of light onto a newborn baby in the hay. The Magi, scientists of their time who studied the heavens, kneel before this child. They bring him gold for his kingship, frankincense for his divinity, and myrrh for his burial. After this epiphany in their lives, they will never be the same. 

And we will never be the same. Like the Magi, we kneel before Our Lord in our local church. We gather before his tabernacle, his stable, just as the Magi did two thousand years ago. We pray that we be made worthy to receive him through confession and absolution. As we pray, we are changed by the prayer itself, for we enter moments of epiphany, dwelling in time woven with eternity, knowing that God himself is with us and within us. 

To kneel before the manger or before the altar, experiencing such love, and to say it didn’t happen is to deny reality. It is to lie about the greatest truth of all, the greatest reality of all, God dwelling among us. For if God loves us and lives among us and within us, it makes all the difference to our own lives, and to all the world. We can now look truth in the face, even search for it boldly, knowing that we will be wiser, like the Magi on that holy night two thousand years ago. Our lives will never be about closure, but about opening. We will travel, epiphany by epiphany, into the open heart of God.

 

Damascus Light

The Conversion of St. Paul by Nicolas-Bernard Lepicie, 1767

The Conversion of St. Paul by Nicolas-Bernard Lepicie, 1767

January, although the days are short and, at least in California, winter chills the air, is a month of light and promise, a curious turn around time.

There is the promise of spring, of course. We are past the winter solstice and we know the days are lengthening and growing warmer.

January also brings us the New Year, and whether we make resolutions or not, there is a sense that we could if we chose to, we could change our ways if we desired to, we could repent and move in a new-year-direction. So January offers us hope that we and our world can be better.

And so does the Church Year, with January festivals that enlighten the already hopeful, promising month. Epiphany lives in these weeks and days, recalling wise men who follow a bright star to a child king born in a manger. We too can follow the star, we are told. We too can kneel before the Son of God born of woman, the God of all creation who took our flesh upon him. We can, if we choose.

Epiphanytide lasts two-to-six Sundays. It is a flexible season, moving with the date of Easter. When Easter is early, as it is this year (April 5) Epiphanytide shrinks. When Easter is late, it expands. So this year there are only three Epiphanytide Sundays, three celebrations of the manifestation of God’s love through his son to the world.

Epiphanytide’s Scriptures reflect great moments of change, moments of illumination, moments of vision that might effect our own change. They are meant to enlighten us, show us who the baby born in the manger was and is. We hear about Jesus as a boy in the Temple of Jerusalem, when he identifies himself as the Son of God. We hear the account of Jesus’ baptism when God identifies him as his beloved son. We hear about the changing of the water to wine in Cana, the first recorded miracle Jesus performs, identifying him as divine.

January moments, Epiphany moments, of light, of illumination. But sometimes light can be be blinding. How appropriate, I thought, that today we celebrated the Conversion of St. Paul as well, since January 25 lands on Epiphany 3.

The story of St. Paul’s conversion has entered our literature and lexicon, a powerful image in Christendom. We speak of a Damascus moment, or a Road to Damascus experience and understand we are talking about a blinding, sudden illumination, a 180-degree turn.

I hadn’t noticed before that this festival often lands in Epiphanytide. I’m sure it’s by design, for the Conversion of St. Paul is a perfect distillation, essence, of Epiphany, as though all of the manifestations we talk and read about are pulled into that sudden single blinding flash of light, light holding the voice of God.

Paul used to be Saul, of course, a righteous Jew who actively sought out the heretics who believed in this Jesus of Nazareth. He tracked them down. He arrested them and brought them in for trial and punishment. But that day – that Damascus day – changed him forever; that Damascus day changed the world forever. St. Luke recounts the event in Acts 22:3-5:

“And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven: And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest…”

The greatest witness of truth is action, a true about-face, a reversal in one’s calling and one’s life. Conversion. Saul is converted from persecutor to preacher, and in a highly public and dangerous forum. Saul knew this Jesus had been crucified. He was dead. He was buried. How could this Jesus now blind him with this light that appeared to be one with him? How could he be alive; how could he speak to Saul from the heavens? And to Saul of all people who was the least likely to believe the vision, knowing all too well the cost of such belief? And yet Saul does believe, he changes course, turns around. He even changes his name from Saul to Paul, and becomes in time the greatest theologian in the Christian world, melding Platonic ideas with Jewish and Christian theology. Paul explained the Gospel to the rest of us. He, like the wise men, manifested Christ to the world.

January too is Right-to-Life month, a time when our nation is called to repent and change. As I read about the many who marched through their cities and towns this weekend, I thought of that road to Damascus. I prayed that our culture would have such a blinding epiphany, a Damascus moment, that our nation would see that this is not who we are, that we are not a culture of death, that we do not kill our children. With each year, as another generation is lost to abortion, the protesting crowds grow in number. With each year, more help is offered to those with unplanned pregnancies, as networks of support crisscross our land.

I have found that the Christian life is dramatic and adventurous, a life of millions of epiphanies, moments of light. Sometimes the light of God shines on my own heart, revealing my sins, a painful illumination but a necessary one. Only in the blinding glare of such Damascus light can I truly see. So we are always repenting, changing, moving toward God, catching, reflecting, refracting light from him like facets of a shining jewel or brilliant star.

As January 2015 comes to an end, light lengthens and we see ourselves as we are. We travel the road to Damascus. We are ever repenting, turning around, yet ever sure of our destination. We travel into February, into penitence, into preparation for Lent’s lengthening and illuminating light. We look to the life of Easter, for we are on the road to resurrection.

Barbarians at the Gates

starWe headed for church this morning to celebrate the Epiphany, the coming of the Wise Men to worship the Christ Child, the following of the star to the manger. We drove through a thick fog, a bone-chilling fog. The damp fit my mood, as I reflected on the horrific massacres of this past week. For wildfires breached once again the fire trail of Western civilization. The barbarians entered the gates of Paris and the free world. Where was that Epiphany star?

The killers were attacking the West by trying to silence us. I, for one, prefer logical debate to satire, respect to ridicule. It troubles me when Christian images are ridiculed and defiled; I know how it feels. But we in the West discuss our differences in peaceful forums.

Peggy Noonan recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal:

“Without free speech no difference of opinion can be resolved, no progress made in the law or in politics, no truth found and held high, no scandal unearthed and stopped…We know on some level that this is how civilization keeps itself together.”

So the issue in the Paris massacre is not that the publisher should have been more restrained. The cartoonists were not “at fault” for their caricatures. The issue is how civil society deals with disagreement. We do not grab a rifle and shoot. We express our grievances through debate, speech, the courts.

Clearly terrorists who kill in the name of their god do not agree with our laws, or how we choose to redress insults. They are not interested in converting us to their beliefs through debate and apologetics. They are interested in forcing our submission, and submission is not peace. Submission is not freedom. We in the West honor freedom.

There are many trends in Western culture that I find disturbing, and so I wrote a novel about them called The Fire Trail (just finished the first draft). One of the themes is the need for individuals in our culture of freedom to practice self-discipline, to consider one another’s feelings. But without faith institutions to curtail excesses in word and image, we seem to be at a loss. We do not want to, nor should we, limit speech by legal means. It is far better, to be sure, to limit ourselves, to control our urge to ridicule.

In many universities some who see themselves offended have tried to limit free speech, by naming offensive speech “hate speech.” This is a dangerous road to travel. I would rather be offended than to criminalize offensive (hate) speech. Protection of free speech is far too important, far too intrinsic to who we are as a people. We need this First Amendment right in order to survive.

Perhaps it is simply easier to claim offense than to engage in debate. It is easier to ridicule than to reason. Perhaps both sides – the offender and the offended – act and react simplistically out of laziness, mental sloth. Perhaps they are used to easy and not trained in the difficult.

Much has been written about the need for the return of virtue to the public square. The West was built on Judeo-Christian virtues, blended with Greek virtues. As faith recedes, how do we return faith’s virtues to the public square? Without the authority of that Judeo-Christian God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, how can we survive and still be free?

The Jewish legacy of the Ten Commandments gave us laws to honor God and one another. The Greeks spoke of the four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, temperance, courage. Christianity added faith, hope, and charity, giving us seven virtues to battle the seven deadly sins: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, pride.

I have often thought that if we practiced these virtues, or confessed and repented the vices, the sins, we would have little need for legal restraints. But we are children of Adam and Eve. It is difficult to practice these all the time; we are constantly tempted. It is easy to envy and be angry, even easier to be gluttonous and greedy. It is easy to lust, encouraged by the soft porn all around us. And pride honors all sins and has no need for virtues, not admitting they exist. Pride lives in denial. It’s blinding.

How do we infuse the public square with the desire to be good? We cannot legislate goodness. We cannot legislate love, honor, respect for one another. This is the great question of the twenty-first century, how to revive the legacy of faith as faith dims, as churches close and their lights go out.

So my little novel is my small peaceful contribution to the debate, a quiet call to recognize that the barbarians are on our borders, to admit our pride and our denial. I fear such admission and recognition may be too late for Europe, as one commentator lamented, but America has hidden strengths and is used to changing course and doing battle. Never before has there been such a need for such a change of course.

As the great Anglican scholar, C. S. Lewis, wrote in Mere Christianity: 

“Progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.”

So as I gazed this morning in church upon the Christ Child in the manger, I knew it would all work out, in the end, for God’s glory. For there are still wise men who will bring their gifts to him and, in so doing, to our world. There are still shepherds who will bow before the Christ Child, who will care for the sheep who cannot care for themselves. There is still the love of Mary and Joseph, who show us how to practice virtue, how to say “yes” to God and how to hear his voice, in vision or dream or word or sacrament.

The great gift of Christmas, our preacher said this morning, is also the great gift of Easter. It is the gift of life itself, life on earth and life in eternity. And they are the same, he said, for eternity is now.

The great gift of Christmas is the gift of God to our world, the light shining in the darkness. It is the gift of love, and yes, the gift of Western Civilization, of civilized culture. For our culture – our freedom – has been built upon that gift, and that world is now threatened. We value life and love and freedom; others do not. The choice is clear. We must look to the star of Bethlehem, to the Shepherds, to the Wise Men, and to Abraham and Isaac.

We must return virtue to the public square and to the world.

Living the Christian Year

I love the Christian year. Many have written about it and for good reason. Living out the year, Sunday to Sunday, season to season, orders the chaos of our souls in the same way secular rituals gather together, and perhaps heal, communities. 

Human beings are creatures of liturgy, ritual, and ceremony. We use these means to express who we are as a people, not only as a church but as a nation. States, cities, clubs, all manner of civic and social gatherings use these means to define themselves, to organize their times together, to ensure justice and democracy, to ensure free speech, to create order. We “call the meeting to order” with a gavel meant to silence the many, so that the few – the single speaker, one at a time – may be heard in an orderly manner. 

Both secular and sacred bodies create time liturgies which we call seasons and calendars. Within the twelve months organized in our solar Gregorian calendar we celebrate winter, spring, summer, fall. 

Inside each season, Americans gather to honor national heroes, presidents, soldiers, peacemakers, the birth of our nation. We reflect on each old year and celebrate the beginning of each new one with New Year’s Eve and Day. We parade, marching and trumpeting down Main Street, we give speeches, we fly flags, and we sing songs we learned by heart so that we could sing as one. In school we once pledged allegiance to the United States of America, one nation under God… a ceremony that bound us together. At ball games we sing our national anthem and place our hands over our hearts. We memorize words and actions, by rote, by ritual, so that we may say and sing and do these things together. We form a national circle and dance America’s story through the year. 

Sacred bodies, churches, also express themselves through seasons and calendars, through song and dance, through processions rather than parades. The Christian liturgical year has, over time, been divided into nine seasons in which the life of Christ and its meaning for each of us is acted out. We step deeper into this meaningful life, immerse ourselves in the love of God in these seasons. Christianity is sacramental, meaning that God is involved in our world, his creation. He desires an intimate conversation, face to face, and we call this prayer. As we portray his mighty acts in history, he acts among us in our own time, drawing us close to him. God responds to our song, and we call this Grace. So it is natural that we act out our faith through the year; it is natural to use all of our senses to express who we are; it is natural that we follow the music of the spheres, both heavenly and earthly. 

The Church Year begins with the purple (penitential) season of Advent, which prepares us for the coming of Christ in Bethlehem. Then we live out the white season of Christmas, particularly rich with symbol and song, announcing the incarnation of God in human flesh. Epiphany trumpets, manifests, this good news to the world, lighting the darkness. 

Soon we enter Lent, a time of self-examination and penitence, to follow the Way of the Cross to Golgotha, acting out Christ’s last days and his crucifixion. Easter morning we walk with Mary Magdalene to the empty tomb and share her wonder and awe. The following weeks, Eastertide, reflect the resurrected Christ’s appearances to many before his ascending to Heaven on Ascension Day. Ten days later we join the Apostles as the Holy Spirit descends upon them (and us), birthing the Church on the day of Pentecost. 

From the beginning of December (Advent) through the end of May (Pentecost) we have acted out the greatest drama ever told. These six months, half the year, tell of God’s redemptive acts among us, two thousand years ago, in the ancient lands of the Middle East, the land of Israel. From Pentecost to Advent, June through November, the second half, we enter the long green season called Trinity, a growing time, a season of learning what all of this means to us, a time of celebrating the many mysteries and miracles only touched on earlier, a time rich with saints and angels and transfigurations, a time of growing, a time of pondering our three-in-one God, the Trinity. 

The colors we see in the church reflect the seasons: purple for penitence (Advent, Lent); white for purity (Christmas, Easter, saints); red for fire and blood (Pentecost; martyrs); green for growth (all other times). Vestments and altars coverings reflect these colors and these seasons. The songs we sing, the hymns, reflect the seasons as well, as do the processions, pageants, and even plantings. We bake pretzels (praying hands) and hot cross buns. We form processions, waving palms. We flower the white Easter cross. We light candles to witness to the light lighting the darkness, and we swing sweet incense up the aisle to remind us of heaven and the winging of our prayers. The words we hear in the readings tell the story too; the sermon amplifies those readings. 

As with all ceremony, these rituals can be greatly gratifying, artful, poetic expressions of our hearts and minds. But they can also be empty and dead. We must choose whether they be full or empty, alive or dead. Liturgy is the “work of the people” and the Liturgical Year is our great dance through seasons of darkness and light, penitence and resurrection. We weave God into our years, our months, our weeks, our days, our hours. As we genuflect,  as we bow, as we make the Sign of the Cross over our heads and hearts, we intersect eternity, kneeling in our Sunday pew. As we step to the altar, we receive more than bread and wine; we receive body and blood; we are fed, filled by God; his time is one with our time.

Today is the last Sunday in the season of Epiphanytide. Next Sunday we begin three Sundays (“Pre-Lent”) that usher in Lent, a season that prepares us for the great festival of Easter, a time of spring and rebirth, resurrection and new life.

Epiphany Life

I was sad when I took the Christmas tree down this last week, so I played familiar carols as I climbed the ladder to reach the glittery star. The star came down without a fuss, but the garlands refused to go, remaining stuck in the brittle and sharp needles, so I worked them out gently. By the time I was finished, my hands and arms were scratched with the dead bits of gray-green, bits that once breathed life. I stacked the assorted boxes now filled with decorations in the garage and marked them “2013 Christmas.” I reached for a broom and began sweeping up, looking to Epiphanytide. 

Epiphany in our culture is largely lumped into Christmas and forgotten. Most folks don’t wait until January 6 to celebrate the visit of the Wise Men who followed the star to the manger. Most jump to New Years and now buy cards (according to the stores) for Valentine’s Day. 

But I have always loved the season of Epiphany, which bridges Christmas and Lent. Epiphany is the shining star itself – it is a time of discerning what Christmas means to us, what the full implications are of this extraordinary event in time. One of the most beautiful and concise statements of this illumination is in the Epistle to the Romans, the Anglican reading for this morning, the First Sunday after the Epiphany. St. Paul writes to the church in Rome:

“I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.”  (Romans 12:1+) 

I have been recently praying for discernment about a certain challenge in my life, and St. Paul reminds me that discernment only comes when the door is open to God. We present ourselves as a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable, for God’s service. We are told that this might mean something uncomfortable, non-conformist, even counter-cultural. For we are transformed, not conformed. We have opened the door to God with the offering of ourselves. Now God is able to transform us, for he can enter in. How does he do this? By the renewing of our minds. And when our minds are renewed – through Scripture, prayer, worship – we are given discernment. We begin to know the will of God.

Knowing the will of God is, I have come to believe, pretty much a ticket to happiness. The problem most often is not knowing, not seeing through the haze of our blurred vision, a fog created by our own blocking of God’s entry into our lives. We call this, of course, sin – the lists of ways we close the door, blur the vision. But we can clear the haze and open the doors. The first step is offering ourselves to God so that the light of that Bethlehem star can shine into our hearts and minds.

I don’t want to be like my dead tree. I don’t want my faith, my spiritual life, my life itself, to be brittle and sharp. I want the beauty, warmth, and love of Christmas – God coming among us, taking on our flesh – to stay with me. I want to continue the transformation that began in the manger. I want to renew my mind again and again so that I can discern God’s will, so that I can know happiness.

I was thinking about this in church this morning. The nave and sanctuary were like my fresh tree used to be, full of color and light and sweet fragrance. The red carpet led to the altar where candles flamed amidst red poinsettias. Light streamed down from skylights onto the medieval crucifix and tented tabernacle. As I returned from receiving the Eucharist, stained glass transformed the sunlight into jewels that danced upon the oaken pews. I had entered Christmas, was inside the Incarnation, inside the beating heart of God.

Christmas, I knew, would always be with me, but only if I chose to open the door, chose to be part of Christ’s Body, chose to be transformed with the renewing of my mind, chose to be living and not dead.

The Light of the World

My Christmas tree is falling in upon itself. The branches no longer reach out. They bend down, spilling an even deeper sweetness into the room. As I gazed upon the tree last night, with the mini-lights still multicolored and twinkling, it was as though the tree had become solid and whole, no longer made of many parts, many decorations. The tinsel garlands had merged into dim shadowy beds of green needles. The miniature Raggedy Anns that I had strung across the apron of the tree, slept silently in their soft nests. One ornament had been batted down by one of our cats and its shards long ago swept up. But the others had sunk further into the dark hollows and had moved in. Even the star with its sideways tilt seemed happy with this home. The tree was nearly alive. 

I have become used to the Christmas tree occupying a corner of the room. My evening routine included lighting the tree so neighbors could see it through our arching windows. But the Twelve Days of Christmastide are nearing an end. I shall have to take the tree down soon. I shall have to remove the mini-churches dangling precariously from bits of wire, the red and gold balls with their fine filigree, the cut glass baubles with their Victorian fringe. I shall pause over each one, thinking when and where it was found or who gave it to me. The tree holds much of my family history, much of my past. 

With the turn of the year, as we round the corner and find ourselves in 2014, we turn our hearts and minds as well. We have pondered the old year and now embrace the new. We look ahead; we resolve to be better. We put away childish things, as St. Paul says, and don garments that bear the weight of adulthood, the resiliency of responsibility, the solemnity of choice. How shall we spend our numbered days in 2014? 

Those days grow longer, as the thin piercing light of winter takes on the mantle of spring. Already I’ve noticed the extra light, and it’s only been two weeks since the solstice. But the sun is still low in the sky, blinding in the beginnings and endings of the day, as though accusing me with its circle of seeing. I cannot hide in the shadow of winter. I must face the light of Epiphany and the new New Year. 

Shadow. Light. In the thin piercing light of the New Year, in the brightness of Epiphany’s traveling star, I resolve to watch and pray. I resolve to listen with greater care to hear God’s voice, discern his will for me. I resolve to begin my day with the aid of prayer and end it with the light of confession, to peer into my heart and expose the shadow. The wise men followed the star because they watched the heavens. They found the manger with its hosts of angels and dazzling light. They fell on their knees and worshiped, offering the Christ Child gold for his kingship, frankincense for his priesthood, and myrrh for his burial. I too want to follow that blazing star to Bethlehem. I too want to offer gifts. 

Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) wrote in her poem, “In the Bleak Midwinter”:

Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.
What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.
 

Epiphany means “manifestation,” a revealing, and this visit of the gentile kings to the newborn Messiah enlightens the entire world of mankind, embraces all nations and all races. God is made manifest. Now one of us, he gives us a way to partake in his divinity, if we choose to do so. As one of us, taking on our flesh, Christ pulls us to him. With him we rise. With him we open Heaven’s door. 

As I take down my Christmas tree, I know that I have been once again reborn in that moment in Bethlehem. Christ is the star that lights the dead tree of our dying world, so that when our own flesh falls in upon itself on the last of our numbered days, we shall “rise to the life eternal.”

Yet what can I give him as I enter this glorious Epiphanytide? It’s so simple. I can give him my heart.

Christmas Choices

It often seems when our family gathers at Christmas that the many activities, the many foods, the many gifts, the many reunions of cousins and brothers and sisters, fill the rooms to bursting, leaving no room for the story of the Incarnation. So, unhappily, on the birthday of Our Lord we are pulled away from him, away from the story of the Word made flesh, and God’s still small voice is muffled by the loud chatter of Christmas.  So I tried something new this year at our family gathering.  The grandchildren (age 12 through 20) read the nativity story aloud as we sat before the twinkling tree and the crèche figures arranged to the side.

The tree was bright and shimmering against a window of foggy sky, but the crèche – the fired clay figures of Mary, Joseph, the Christ Child, the shepherds, the wise men, the sheep and cows – was dim and gray-blue, almost shadowy, set upon the river-rock hearth. The rough clay figures seemed more real than the fir tree, as though they were earthen, solid, but somehow eternal.

Our readers began with the words of St. Luke, “The angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary…” These words tell of the great event we call “The Annunciation,” when Gabriel announces to Mary that God has chosen her to be the mother of his son. It is a precious and fabulous moment in history, for while Mary was chosen, she still had to choose.

Sr. Mary Gabriel Whitney OP of the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, relates this pivotal moment in a charming ballad included on the CD, Mater Eucharistiae: 

And so on that day
The whole human race
Held its breath to hear the answer
Of the Queen of Grace.
 

The whole human race. Indeed, we all held our breath.

My grandchildren continued St. Luke’s account. We heard how Mary visited Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, and how Mary sang the song we call The Magnificat, magnifying and rejoicing in God her savior. We learn of the historical census decreed by Caesar Augustus, how Mary and Joseph went up from Galilee to Bethlehem, the City of David, how she brought forth her firstborn son, wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. We then see the bright angels appearing to the shepherds and bringing the good tidings of great joy… that a savior has been born, who is Christ the Lord, and they would find him wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. We learn of the wise men from the East who follow a star to the manger where the young child was. Finally, we hear how all fell down on their knees and worshiped the Child.

It was a short reading, but the story of the Incarnation settled upon our souls, warming us. For a few minutes we recalled why we were celebrating on this 25th of December, 2013. For a few minutes we re-called the Lord of Hosts and his awe-full act of love, coming among us as he did.

I often think how God chose to come to his people, in this moment in time. I think of Mary and her choice, her answer. I wonder at the choices we make minute to minute, day to day, the power each of us has to shape our world by what we do or do not do. In a way, the whole human race holds its breath to see what choices each of us will make this day, this hour, this minute. For every choice creates our future as the People of God and as the people of the earth.

This morning I worshiped at First Presbyterian Church in Berkeley with my son, his wife, his son (11), and his daughter (8). My father, my son’s grandfather, Carl Thomas, was youth pastor there in the early fifties (I was five), and today my son attends a Presbyterian church in Boulder. So I sat on the long cushioned pew with my son and his son, and thought of my father and his charismatic, loving ministry. The pastors today no longer wear the long black academic robes my father wore. The building from the fifties had been replaced by a modern one in the eighties. But the cross stood strong and present before us, and the simple service echoed my childhood memories.

Thick candles burned and large tables of sand stood to the side. Long white tapers were laid out nearby. The pastor asked us to consider the old year, the ways in which God had answered our prayers and the ways in which we thought he had not. He asked us to pray for the new year, one in which God would be present in our choices. Earlier, a speaker had said he had gone on a mission with open hands and had returned filled and transformed. So we prayed into the silence, reaching deep into God’s heart, and then, one by one we rose, lit a taper and gently shoved it into the sand. Soon hundreds of candles burned before us, each one reflecting a prayer to choose with open hands and hearts. I lit my candle off my grandson’s and shoved it into the sand alongside my son’s. 

As the Twelve Days of Christmas bridge the Feasts of Incarnation and Epiphany, they arc New Year’s Day. It seems a fitting cluster of events: the Word made Flesh, dwelling among us; the old year turning into the new, and our consideration of past and future, our choice-resolutions; and finally, the manifestation of the Word to the world, the light banishing all darkness.

Each of us plays a crucial part in this pivotal time. We are part of the greatest drama on earth. We look back to Christ’s coming in Bethlehem, and we look forward to His second coming to earth, this time in judgment and glory. We make our New Year’s resolutions, choosing his light, opening our hands to be filled with good things, so that we may be transformed, so that we may magnify the Lord. 

Like the Queen of Grace, we pray, “Be it unto me according to thy word.”

A Potent Time

It is a potent time.

The edge of Epiphany, along the border of Christmas, hovers over the anniversary of Roe vs. Wade and the Presidential inauguration. A potent few days, as we reflect on the light of Christ coming to the world of the gentiles, the horror of forty years of legalized infanticide, and the celebration of a duly elected president sworn in to office, sworn to uphold the laws of the land. And then there’s football to divert us.

As for children lost to abortion, I pray the light of Epiphany might fill those dedicated saints who are marching to save future generations, holding banners in the freezing temperatures of our towns and cities across this great land. And I pray that the light of Epiphany may enlighten our president as he continues his term of governance, that it may enlighten all of our elected men and women who represent you and I in Congress.

We are a nation of elections, a democracy. And thus each of us must be informed voters, ready to make all the difference in the future of our culture and society. Each one of us must decide the future of our people; we cannot avoid this responsibility. Each one of us must turn away from the siren songs of the media and search out the truth. Each one of us, in a democracy, are accountable members of this body politic.

These are heavy matters, especially today in the cold dark of winter, and so we like to watch football. We are a fragile nation but a good one, one that continues to enlighten – and defend – other nations. America beckons everyone. All the world seeks to come here. Yet we have been chastened of late. We have been pruned. Will America fall? some ask. Will it survive without its Judeo-Christian roots? Will it flower once again?

My rose bushes have been pruned. I am told they must be cut back so that they will grow new blossoms. It is hard to believe this as I gaze at the butchered stalks in the pale light outside my window. But as I wait for spring, I think how blessed I am to be nourished by Sunday church. This morning my senses were warmed by the red-carpeted nave leading to the high altar and tented tabernacle. I was nourished by the experience of God, by holy worship, where robed priests and acolytes step softly and reverently as though each movement mattered, and my prayers and songs danced with them through the liturgy of the Eucharist.

Eucharist, I understand, means thanksgiving. And we have much to be thankful for. In the Eucharist, the Mass, we empty ourselves so that we may be filled up. We arrive wintry souls, barren stalks, and as we prune ourselves of the sins of pride and passion that have owned our hours this last week, as we empty ourselves, clean out our souls, we ready ourselves for God’s light to enter. And enter He does, gently, fully, lovingly. By the end of this precious hour of procession, song, prayer, word, and sacrament we are filled up with God, filled by God. We give thanks, we praise, we become small in the presence of glory, in the beauty of holiness. Then, filled with God, we can hear his voice. We can hear what we are to do, how we are to evaluate and judge, why we are to love and suffer in the coming week.

God’s spirit descends upon us just as His spirit descended upon Jesus when baptized by John. Our preacher explained this morning that Jesus is the very same Word breathed by God the Father over the waters, when our world was birthed. In the Eucharist, we take in that Word and are recreated, re-generated.

Regenerated. I have found that if I am given God’s direction, His light in this way – kneeling in a warm church on a cold Sunday – that the past week and the future week make sense. I enter the doors empty and leave full. I know as I descend the stairs to our parish hall for coffee and sandwiches that I have been made new. And I have been given hope that my will might possibly merge with God’s, the only true path to happiness.

Without this light, I slip into self, into darkness. I become full with other things and God cannot find room. My days fall into chaos, confusion, sadness.

But with regular worship, I can see and understand. The world makes sense: the sacrament of time – Epiphany merging into Lent; the fitting and happy celebration of a democratic election accomplished in (for the most part) a law-abiding land, a quilt of many cultures and skins and points of view. Even the horror of this forty-year memorial, mourning the innocents slaughtered, I know, one day, will be redeemed.

For the light of God, indeed God himself, wins in the end. He shines in the dark even if the darkness comprehends it not. And He shines for us, should we desire Him, especially in church.