29 December 2011

The Epiphany of Our Lord Jesus Christ - 6 January 2012

Isaiah 60:1-6
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
Ephesians 3:1-12
St. Matthew 2:1-12

Background: The Epiphany

Regretfully, we often associate the Epiphany only with the visit of the Magi, or easily associate Christmas Day with the West and Epiphany with the East.  In the ancient Church, the Epiphany was a feast that celebrated the manifestation (Epiphany) of Jesus to the world (which celebrated both the birth and baptism of Jesus).  When the Christmas festival became normative in the mid fourth century, Epiphany began to move toward a festival that focused its celebration of the baptism of Jesus.  With the great Schism in 1054, the development of the festivals commemorating the birth of Christ, go in separate directions.  What evolved in the West were the “Twelve Days of Christmas” beginning on the 25th of December and concluding on the Epiphany.  With the liturgical revisions following Vatican II, the Sunday following the Epiphany (it’s Octave) is devoted to the Baptism of Jesus.  What was once a unitive feast that focused on both birth and baptism became a feast that took special notion of the Kings, and of the manifestation to the Gentiles, serving as a secondary celebration of the Nativity.

Isaiah 60:1-6

Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the LORD will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
Lift up your eyes and look around;
they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far away,
and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses' arms.
Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and rejoice,
because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you,
the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
A multitude of camels shall cover you,
the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD.

Contained in a section of work written by Second Isaiah and entitled “Songs of the First Return” we hear songs of praise and joy about the return to Jerusalem.  In the verses that serve for our reading today, we picture Jerusalem in glory.  The glory, however, does not radiate from Jerusalem herself, but rather she is asked to stand up in the presence of the rising sun (God) and to reflect the glory that God sheds upon her.  Of more interest, especially given one of the emphases of the day, is the mention of the gentiles.  Although this has not always been the primary focus of The Epiphany (see Background section) it is implicit in the readings.  Here, in this reading, we see the procession of other nations who are attracted the light of God, reflected from a new Jerusalem.  In a way, this second Isaiah anticipates the Pauline and Lucan focus on the ministry to the gentiles.  Another reference to the popular themes of the day, namely the kings, is the “gold and frankincense” mentioned in the final verse.

Breaking open Numbers:
  1. How has God shined upon you?
  2. Where do you see the splendor of God reflected in creation?
  3. Which of the nations are drawn to God in your way of thinking?

Psalm 72:1-7,10-14 Deus, judicium

Give the King your justice, O God, *
and your righteousness to the King's Son;

That he may rule your people righteously *
and the poor with justice;

That the mountains may bring prosperity to the people, *
and the little hills bring righteousness.

He shall defend the needy among the people; *
he shall rescue the poor and crush the oppressor.

He shall live as long as the sun and moon endure, *
from one generation to another.

He shall come down like rain upon the mown field, *
like showers that water the earth.

In his time shall the righteous flourish; *
there shall be abundance of peace till the moon shall be no more.

The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall pay tribute, *
and the kings of Arabia and Saba offer gifts.

All kings shall bow down before him, *
and all the nations do him service.

For he shall deliver the poor who cries out in distress, *
and the oppressed who has no helper.

He shall have pity on the lowly and poor; *
he shall preserve the lives of the needy.

He shall redeem their lives from oppression and violence, *
and dear shall their blood be in his sight.

The claim for this psalm is that it is a psalm of David, written for the “king’s son”, Solomon.  Some commentators see this psalm as a “messianic psalm” applying the hopes for Solomon’s reign to the many that will follow him.  It is more likely that it is written for Solomon, using all the typical exaggeration common to court poetry.  In the imperial language, however, we detect the hopes of a people for an ideal king.  The themes of justice, care of the poor, protection, and comfort give the verses a sense of prayer for the new king.  There is a geographical dimension to the poem as well.  It is unfortunate that the framers of the lectionary have omitted verses, 8 and 9, which further the emotional scope of the piece as the psalm describes the wide spectrum of the king’s suasion.  That this psalm is chosen for this day gives us a vision of the manifestation of kingly rule.  Jesus is the king who rules over the nations.

Breaking open Psalm 72
  1. What do you expect of your earthly rulers?
  2. Which of the attributes that David assigns to Solomon are present in our rulers today?
  3. How did ancient kings have mercy on the poor?  Or did they?

Ephesians 3:1-12

This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles-- for surely you have already heard of the commission of God's grace that was given me for you, and how 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 former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God's grace that was given me by the working of his power. Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him.

The Mamertine Prison in Rome
Paul distinguishes himself in this reading by calling himself a “prisoner”, which he indeed was.  Imprisoned in Rome, Paul wears this as a badge that witnesses to all he has borne for the sake of the Gospel.  He also speaks of himself in the guise of an interpreter of the mystery.  It is the mystery that was made known only in the latter days, and was made known to the gentiles as well.  There is one more identification that Paul makes, namely that of a servant – a servant who is fully empowered by God.  In a sense, Paul presents himself as being recreated by God so that in his ministry all of the creative power of God in Christ Jesus might be made known.  He calls this revelation of God’s will the “eternal purpose”.  For all of its majestic tones, the verses really speak to every man or every woman about their role and duty with Paul in being stewards of God’s plan.

Breaking open Ephesians:
  1. How was Paul a “prisoner of Christ?”
  2. How are you a “prisoner of Christ?”
  3. How are you a servant?

St. Matthew 2:1-12

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage." When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

`And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.'"

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage." When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Herod had reasons to worry.  He was a bit of an interloper in Judean politics.  He married into the Hasmonean family, and therefore fretted about his acceptance as king, and his ability to keep the throne for himself.  It is in this context then that we can understand his attitudes when it come to the news that comes from the “wise men from the East”.  Their talk is about a child who is born “king of the Jews” – dangerous talk.  And who are they?  They are described as “magi”, educated and wise in the ways of astrology, hence the star, and probably coming from Persia, the source of a great deal of influence in Judaism.  We need to be careful about the star, which really may be an oblique reference to Numbers 24:17, “a star shall come out of Jacob” aligning Jesus with the Davidic kingship.  This is further emphasized in the advice given to Herod by his own learned ones.  The reference to Bethlehem is a clear reference again to David.  Thus Jesus is described and honored as the royal king.

The other theme present is that of honor and worship.  The visitors of the east (gentiles) perform acts of worship: they see, they kneel, they pay homage, and they offer gifts.  Jesus is not only king, but also a person worthy of worship.  To fulfill Matthew’s reliance on the Moses story in framing his birth narrative, the wise ones are encouraged to go home via another route, not telling the king (read Pharaoh) what they have found.  The story continues with the killing of the innocents, and the escape to Egypt, thus incorporating other Moses motifs into the story.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What do you think that the Magi were seeking?
  2. Why is Herod so distressed?
  3. Have you ever “followed a star?”

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

O God, by the leading of a star you manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth: Lead us, who know you now by faith, to your presence, where we may see your glory face to face; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

The Holy Name of Jesus - 1 January 2012

Numbers 6:22-27
Psalm 8
Philippians 2:5-11
St. Luke 2:15-21

Background: Name

The power of a name was a concept that was common in the ancient near east.  Ceremonies, commands, and spells were often done “in the name of” a god or goddess.  Early Judaism was not unaware of this, and often the name of God was appended to a person’s name to indicate their allegiance or reliance on the divinity.  Thus we have Israel (the el calling to mind “El”, one of the names for God) and the name itself meaning “struggled with God” (see Genesis 32).    Since names had such power, the Hebrew Scriptures demand that the name of God (YHWH, among others), should not be pronounced.  Thus when the name YHWH is encountered in the scriptures the reader substituted the title Adonai (Lord).  Names could be written on an unfired pot of clay along with a curse, fired, and then shattered, thus assigning the curse to the individual.  Some times names were given as a comment on a social or political situation such as the names that Hosea gives to his children, Loruhamah – “not pitied”, or Lo-ammi “not my people” (see Hosea 1:8-9). 

Today we celebrate the name of Jesus, which means “YHWH saves”.  It is not distinct to the Jesus of the New Testament.  In the Hebrew Scriptures we encounter “Joshua”, a form of the same name, who becomes Moses’ designated successor.  Jesus has several titles that are assigned to him in the Gospels and other writings, such as Messiah or its Greek form Christos (anointed).  Later writings confer political titles to the name of Jesus such as “Lord” Kyrios, or “Savior” Soter, both of which were titles used by the Roman imperium.  There is another Hebrew name, Emmanuel which means “God-is-with-us”.  Today, however, we celebrate the name of Jesus, commanded by angelic messengers to both Mary and Joseph.  It was a name with power, the disciples once complaining about others who cast out demons in “Jesus’ name”; and in the early church baptism was done in the name of Jesus.

Numbers 6:22-27

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the Israelites: You shall say to them,

The LORD bless you and keep you;
the LORD make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
the LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.

So they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.

This passage conveys the prayer of blessing that was used by priests to “put God’s name on” the worshipers in the temple.  These words should be familiar to us as a blessing at several points in the development of the Book of Common Prayer.  Roman Catholics and Lutherans both would find these words of blessing being used as a final blessing (or a benediction) in their liturgies as well.  The conjunction of name and face is quite evident here.  The name (which has power) and the countenance (which gives us evidence of how the other is perceiving us) are both “gracious” as the blessing states.  It is a beautiful personification of God, revealing a personal relationship of Creator and created.

Breaking open Numbers:
  1. How has God blessed you?
  2. How have you blessed others?
  3. How do you use the name of God?

Psalm 8 Domine, Dominus noster

O LORD our Governor, *
how exalted is your Name in all the world!

Out of the mouths of infants and children *
your majesty is praised above the heavens.

You have set up a stronghold against your adversaries, *
to quell the enemy and the avenger.

When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, *
the moon and the stars you have set in their courses,

What is man that you should be mindful of him? *
the son of man that you should seek him out?

You have made him but little lower than the angels; *
you adorn him with glory and honor;

You give him mastery over the works of your hands; *
you put all things under his feet:

All sheep and oxen, *
even the wild beasts of the field,

The birds of the air, the fish of the sea, *
and whatsoever walks in the paths of the sea.

O LORD our Governor, *
how exalted is your Name in all the world!

In this psalm the poet defines for us all that is associated with “the Name”.  Thus the psalm celebrates creation, and especially humankind.  In defining the work of “the Name”, we also hear the work that we are bidden to do – the stewardship of all that God has made.  What is even more interesting is the implied universal knowledge of God’s presence, power, or work.  “From the mouths of babes and sucklings…” indicates that God is present in all the aspects and ages of life.

Breaking open Psalm 8
  1. What do you see, hear, and think when you observe creation?
  2. How does God know you?
  3. How do you use the “mastery” that God has given us over creation?

Philippians 2:5-11

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death--
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

This reading is shared in all three cycles of the Lectionary either on this day, The Holy Name of Jesus, or on Passion Sunday.  More than likely taken from an ancient hymn of the church, the author uses the hymn to point out the dynamic qualities of not only the name (which is exalted) but of the person of Jesus as well ( who is humiliated and who is then exalted).  It is rather like a creed as well, pointing out the aspects of Jesus that form the basis for our faith. 

Breaking open Philippians:
  1. What do you understand by the “humiliation of Jesus”?
  2. How have you been humiliated in this life?
  3. In what ways have you been “lifted up”?
  4. How was your faith a part of that?

St. Luke 2:15-21
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us." So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

We have heard this reading recently, as well.  It forms that latter part of the Gospel for Christmas Eve.  It is the final sentence that commands our attention, however.  The former name of this day was The Circumcision and Name of Jesus, gives reason to the selection of this reading, following on the Octave of Christmas.  This action places Jesus as one who complies with the Law of Moses, and Mary and Joseph in compliance with the request of the angels, “you shall call him Jesus”.  In this way Luke connects Jesus with the promises and laws of old, and places him as the one who will make things new again. 

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What do you think Mary pondered in her heart?
  2. What do you think the shepherds’ hopes were?
  3. What does the name of Jesus mean to you?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

Eternal Father, you gave to your incarnate Son the holy name of Jesus to be the sign of our salvation: Plant in every heart, we pray, the love of him who is the Savior of the world, our Lord Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.