31 December 2012

The Epiphany of Our Lord - 6 January 2013

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


Background:  The Epiphany
We are fortunate that the Epiphany falls on a Sunday this year, so that all the churches will look at its themes and beauty.  When it falls on a weekday, many move it to the previous or following Sunday.  It is an ancient feast, also known as the Feast of the Theophany or as the Day of Lights.  The name “epiphany” is translated in Koine Greek as “appearance”, or “manifestation.”  Older (classical) meanings were associated with the dawn, or the appearance of a god. 

The appearances that are attested to not only include the birth of Jesus, but also the visit of the Magi, all childhood events, the baptism by John the Baptist, and may even include the Miracle at Cana as well.  It is known from 361 CE, attested to by Ammianus Marcellinus.  Egeria also notes an Epiphany celebration that centered on the birth of Christ both in Jerusalem and in Bethlehem in 385 CE. 

Of all the events that are drawn into the Epiphany celebration, the most central was the Baptism of Jesus.  With the reforms in the western churches following Vatican II, the day began to have a focus only on the visit of the Magi, and hence the mission of the Church to gentiles.  The baptism was moved to its own day, the Octave of the Epiphany. 

Traditional to this day are the blessing of waters (in the Orthodox churches) and the blessing of homes in which doorways are marked with K (Caspar) + M (Melchior) + B (Balthasar) + 2013.  The KMB may also be read as: Christus mansionem benedicat, “may Christ bless this house.” 

First Reading: 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.

The theme of the day is struck in two imperatives given us by the Second Isaiah, “Arise”, and “Shine”.  These commands implore the reader to remember the majesty of God seen in Tabernacle, Jerusalem, the Solomonic Temple, and for Christian readers, the Messianic Jerusalem.  One commentator saw these verses as the image of a young woman (representing Judah climbing the heights of Zion and made resplendent in the majesty of the rising sun.  It is to this theophany (God resplendent within Jerusalem) that draws many nations to the light of this appearance.  Genesis 25:1-4 speaks of Abraham and Sarah’s descendents and their names are repeated here.  The prophet’s tone is not one of defining genealogical boundaries, but rather setting a new theological tone of inclusion.

A personal note: my daughter Anna was baptized on this day some years ago, and it did not go without notice to many there that the phrase, “and your daughters shall be carried on the hips of their nurses” was most appropriate.

Breaking open Isaiah:

1.     What do you feel like when you get up in the morning?
2.     Do Isaiah’s imperatives of “arise”, and “shine” seem impossible or possible?
3.     When does your faith shine within you?

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 dedication of this psalm “for Solomon” gives us the notion of a great prayer delivered by David for his heir Solomon.  It is a panegyric to the King who follows in the succession of David and the following verses count off the blessings that accrue to those who follow him.  The final verses in the psalm continue the recital of blessings and wishes.  To the original hearer, this psalm represented prayers for an actual king – someone to whom a reader owed allegiance, and for whom their prayers were chanted in the words of this psalm.  Used on this day in the Christian Lectionary, there is another epiphany that appears, a vision of the messianic king seen in Jesus.

Breaking open Psalm 72
1.       How are national leaders representatives of God?
2.       How do you pray for them?
3.       How do they rate over against the hopes stated in the psalm?

Second Reading: 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.

Paul takes a personal situation, and elevates it to an honorific – a prisoner for Christ Jesus.  He punctuates his faithfulness as a witness by noting the consequences of such a role – the witness to Jesus Christ.  He also notes that he is a herald of the message – and beyond that (perhaps in the guise of Daniel or of Joseph the husband of Mary) as one who can see the mystery of Christ.  Paul unravels it for his readers and for us.  He makes clear who the audience is, and names the Gentiles as the recipients of the revelation given to him and through him to them as well. 

His role, however, does not place him over the reader but rather renders Paul as a “servant”.  His duty was to share this revelation to all who would hear him.  In a parallel structure (Paul reorders those drawn to the Gospel by revealing to them the righteousness and justice that Jesus brings) in seeing God the creator as the one who in an ancient plan that sent Jesus as a Savior to all.  Thus the creator “reorders” the people chosen to be God’s own.   

Breaking open Galatians:

1.               How have you been a servant of Christ?
2.               What does it mean to be a witness?
3.               How do you unravel the meaning of Christ to others?

Holy Gospel: 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.

We are placed in time during the rule of Herod the Great (37-4 BCE).  Matthew is clear.  He is not talking about a dream, although he soon will, but rather about the reality of Jesus.  The theme of Jesus revelation is drawn quickly with the mention of the “Magi”.  It is an interesting term.  Originally it defined a priestly caste in Persia (a country that influenced late Judaism immensely, and whose influence is felt in Christianity as well).  The term later loosened into a name for those who were skilled in astrology and the occult (hence the star.)  Still resonant today is the notion that each person is represented by a particular star – and thus these wise ones are able to recognize “his star.”  If interested, refer to Numbers 24:17, where the connection to David is also visible.  Thus the Magi seek one who has been named before – a “king” of David’s line.  This heritage is underscored by naming the place of birth: Bethlehem, and the quotation from Micah 5:1-3 which is even more specific in its reference.  It is this kingship that sets Herod on edge, and sets up a momentum for the following stories of Egypt and the Innocents.

The Magi bring gifts (see Psalm 72:10).  Like Luke, who has Jesus born into a setting of lowliness and poverty, Matthew also sets a thematic stage dominated by the Gentiles – the object of ministry and revelation.  It is the Magi who are challenged by the star and the promises.  The “chief priests and scribes” seem oblivious.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. Why would Matthew be so keen on lifting up the Gentiles?  What might have been happening in the time when he wrote this Gospel?
  2. What do the Magi represent to you?
  3. What does Herod represent to you? 

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.

All commentary and questions are copyright © 2013 Michael T. Hiller

26 December 2012

The First Sunday after Christmas - 30 December 2012

Isaiah 61:10-62:3
Psalm 147
Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7
Saint John 1:1-18


Background:  Sundays after Christmas
The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) faithfully reflects the readings from the Roman Ordo, which celebrates this Sunday as “The Holy Family”.  The reading from Sirach is replaced in the RCL with a reading from I Samuel, both of which ponder the duties of a son, and the growth in wisdom and vocation.  Likewise the second reading is shared in the RCL and the Roman Order – a reading from Colossians that reflects on Christian life in community and family.  The Gospel reading is shared as well, relating the journey that the Holy Family takes to Jerusalem, where Jesus astounds the elders and states that he must be about his Father’s business.

When the RCL was adopted by the Episcopal Church, the readings for this particular Sunday were not adopted and the theme of the Holy Family is not celebrated on this Sunday of the year (although some parishes call it that).  The Episcopal readings instead focus on the mystery of the Incarnation.  Not willing to leave behind the wondrous deeds proclaimed at the Eve of the Nativity and on the Day, the Episcopal lectionary remains, like Mary, to ponder even more.

Isaiah 61:10-62:3

I will greatly rejoice in the LORD,
my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise
to spring up before all the nations.
For Zion's sake I will not keep silent,
and for Jerusalem's sake I will not rest,
until her vindication shines out like the dawn,
and her salvation like a burning torch.
The nations shall see your vindication,
and all the kings your glory;
and you shall be called by a new name
that the mouth of the LORD will give.
You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD,
and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.

This pericope seems to a bridge joining the ideas of the second Isaiah, with the theology of another Isaiah.  Indeed, some scholars see these verses as a fifth Song of the Servant, while others connect it to another author.  Here, however, a personified Jerusalem speaks and rejoices in her recovery.  The vision here is not a divisive one, as in Haggai and in Nehemiah, but rather a more inclusive one, with Jerusalem as the one saved by the nations, “the nations shall see your vindication”.    Thus Jerusalem cannot keep silent but must “greatly rejoice.”    These verses recall some of the festivals of the Jewish liturgical year, namely the feast of Tabernacles, when there were processions with lighted torches.  How does this connect with the Christmas witness?  Perhaps we need to think of the people who “waited in darkness…on them light has shined.”  The action moves from the angels who proclaim a good song noting what God has done, to those who are the recipients of God’s good grace, here Jerusalem.  Like Jerusalem we rejoice in that God has visited us in the person of Jesus Christ.

Breaking open Isaiah:

1.     Have you ever been returned to a place or a status that you had been lost forever?
2.     How did that feel?  Did you rejoice?
3.     Whom do you know that need restoration in their lives?

Psalm 147 Laudate Dominum

How good it is to sing praises to our God! *
how pleasant it is to honor him with praise!

The LORD rebuilds Jerusalem; *
he gathers the exiles of Israel.

He heals the brokenhearted *
and binds up their wounds.

He counts the number of the stars *
and calls them all by their names.

Great is our LORD and mighty in power; *
there is no limit to his wisdom.

The LORD lifts up the lowly, *
but casts the wicked to the ground.

Sing to the LORD with thanksgiving; *
make music to our God upon the harp.

He covers the heavens with clouds *
and prepares rain for the earth;

He makes grass to grow upon the mountains *
and green plants to serve mankind.

He provides food for flocks and herds *
and for the young ravens when they cry.

He is not impressed by the might of a horse; *
he has no pleasure in the strength of a man;

But the LORD has pleasure in those who fear him, *
in those who await his gracious favor.

Worship the LORD, O Jerusalem; *
praise your God, O Zion;

For he has strengthened the bars of your gates; *
he has blessed your children within you.

He has established peace on your borders; *
he satisfies you with the finest wheat.

He sends out his command to the earth, *
and his word runs very swiftly.

He gives snow like wool; *
he scatters hoarfrost like ashes.

He scatters his hail like bread crumbs; *
who can stand against his cold?

He sends forth his word and melts them; *
he blows with his wind, and the waters flow.

He declares his word to Jacob, *
his statutes and his judgments to Israel.

He has not done so to any other nation; *
to them he has not revealed his judgments.

This psalm connects wonderfully the sentiments and actions of the first reading (Jerusalem rejoicing in her restoration) with the power with which God visits God’s people.  Probably written after the return, indeed after the rebuilding of Jerusalem (The Lord rebuilds Jerusalem), and celebrates God’s knowledge of them and of all creation (God counts the stars).  The verses also anticipate the Lucan theme of the lifting up of the lowly.  In a couple of powerful verses, the author describes the God who is truly above it all by describing God’s not being impressed by the “might of the horse” (the role of the horse in a war) or even by the might of human kind, “no pleasure in the strength of a man.”  Alter translates this phrase as, “not by a man’s thighs is He pleased”, making clear the sexual allusion is well.  Sexual life was for Israel it’s future, as it is ours as well.  God, however, is pictured here as the true future for Israel, and indeed, all the nations.

Breaking open Psalm 147
1.       Why is Jerusalem rejoicing?
2.       The psalmist sees God as not rejoicing in our powers?  What does God delight in when seeing us?
3.       What is your future in God?

Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7

Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian.

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!" So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.

Paul speaks to us about the suasion of our faith in our lives.  In the first two verses Paul differentiates between the Law that guided us, that tended us like a nanny or a servant assigned to us, and the faith that comes to us in Jesus Christ.  For Paul, the faith is freedom, and we are free to move about in life without an instructor or a nanny. 

The reading then moves to the subsequent chapter.  Here Paul wants us to understand the mission of Christ, who takes on our human nature (born of a woman) in order to complete that for which God sent him.  Thus the Christmas story is not just a charming recounting of childbirth, but a powerful reminder that God has come to us in time.  This coming has repercussions for us.  For now is not only Jesus the Son, but we are sons and daughters as well.  We are spiritually born so that we might recognize God as Father.  So we are not slaves, we are heirs.  It is a parallel life with and in Christ. 

Breaking open Galatians:

1.               What does Paul mean by “the fullness of time?”
2.               How is your faith freedom?  How is it not?
3.               How would you describe your relationship with God?  Would it be in family terms?

John 1:1-18

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, "This was he of whom I said, 'He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.'") From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known.

If we had doubts about what this Sunday following Christmas is truly about, the Gospel reading quickly sets us straight.  Here we have an almost rhapsodic meditation on the WORD, the logos, the breath of God.  Some think that these verses were already written when John adopted them as the prologue to his Gospel.  There powerful simplicity commends them to us regardless of their provenance. We witness creation through new eyes, and we see the power of God’s word (read Jesus) at the very beginning of creation.  But all is not about the mystery of Christ’s presence.  It is about Christ’s mission, and it John the Baptist who first serves as a witness to this mission.  Jesus’ mission supersedes John’s and moves it into a new realm into a kingdom and community of grace, or as John says, “grace upon grace.”  This is all about relationship – the relationship of the Son to the Father, and about how our relationship to God is radically changed in God’s word to us – Jesus.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. Why does John want Jesus present at the moment of Creation?
  2. What images come to mind to you when we speak of the Word of God?  The breath of God?
  3. Has there been a new creation in your life?

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

Almighty God, you have poured upon us the new light of your incarnate Word: Grant that this light, enkindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

All commentary and questions are copyright © 2012 Michael T. Hiller