Archive for the 'Epiphany season' Category

For Feb. 15, 2015: Last Sunday after Epiphany, Year B

The Reading                                                         2 Kings 2:1-12

When Elisha inherits the mantle of his adoptive father, the great prophet Elijah, he requests a double share of Elijah’s spirit, because the other prophets would know that was the true heir’s proper share. Elisha certainly needs it to be God’s voice to the God-spurning kings of Israel and Judah.

The Response                                                       Psalm 50:1-6

In Psalm 50, the Lord summons all the earth for judgment. Showing the Lord’s power are the consuming flame and the storm. He will be judge and prosecutor. Verse 7, not included here, is sobering: “O Israel, I will bear witness against you; for I am God, your God.”

The Epistle                                                            2 Corinthians 4:3-6

In the second letter to the Corinthians, Paul confronts a difficult question: why do some people not accept the gospel? His answer here is that they are being kept in the dark by someone powerful who is not our God, for our God is in the business of giving light.

The Gospel                                                            Mark 9:2-9

As Mark 9 opens, Jesus has foretold his death to the disciples, horrifying Peter. Then Jesus takes Peter and two others up on the mountain, where they behold Jesus transfigured in light beyond light with the two great figures of Jewish history and hear the divine announcement that Jesus is God’s very own beloved son.

 

Further thoughts

The 1982 Book of Common Prayer refers to this Sunday as the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, and it is certainly that. Methodists and Lutherans, among others, call it Transfiguration Sunday, from the Revised Common Lectionary readings that include the mountaintop experience with Jesus that so bedazzled and bemused Peter. (We Episcopalians, like our Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox colleagues, also celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration on August 6.)

A much older name for this Sunday that precedes Ash Wednesday is Quinquagesima Sunday. That is the name used in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, and it is the name under which, as a child more than a few decades ago, I learned about this Sunday in what is now the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Quinquagesima is Latin for ‘fiftieth’: this is the fiftieth day, Sundays included, before Easter. It is preceded less precisely by Septuagesima Sunday (the Sunday nearest the seventieth day before Easter: septuaginta is Latin for ‘seventy’) and Sexagesima Sunday (the Sunday nearest the sixtieth day before Easter). Together, these three Sundays make up the pre-Lenten season, the season in which, historically, Christians turned from the joy of Christmas and Epiphany and prepared for the solemnity of Lent. In the Eastern Orthodox world, the week up to Quinquagesima Sunday is the last week before Easter in which meat products may be eaten, and the week after Quinquagesima Sunday—“Cheesefare Week”—is the last week in which dairy products are permitted.

Among Roman Catholics, of course, there are the traditions of the Carnival season (from Latin carnis ‘of flesh or meat’), the period of hearty eating (and sometimes hearty partying) before the Lenten feast; in some regions, Carnival begins right after the Epiphany, in others it is the week before Ash Wednesday, but most commonly Carnival starts on Quinquagesima Sunday; it always ends the evening before Ash Wednesday. Since the 15th century this time has been known in English as Shrovetide, from the verb shrive ‘to hear confession and/or pronounce absolution: during Shrovetide one went to confession—got shriven—so as to be morally clean for Ash Wednesday. Shrove Tuesday is the same day as Mardi Gras (French, ‘Fat Tuesday’) or Fastnacht (German, ‘evening of the fast’), the day before Ash Wednesday on which, by tradition, one eats pancakes in order to use up the last of the butter (fat) and eggs in one’s house before Ash Wednesday morning.

In the 1960s and 1970s both the Roman Catholics and the Anglican communion turned away from observing the pre-Lenten season in order to emphasize the Epiphany. This shift in emphasis is certainly reflected in the Revised Common Lectionary readings, if we bear in mind that the Greek word ἐπιφάνεια (epiphaneia) means ‘manifestation’ or ‘appearing’. Just as Epiphanytide begins with the first manifestation of the Christ Child to the wise men, so it ends with the first appearance of Jesus in something of the Light from which he came before his birth and to which he has arisen.

What if, however else we observe Lent, we make a point of humbly sharing “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6)?

For Jan. 18, 2015: 2 Epiphany, Year B

The Reading                                                      1 Samuel 3:1-10

Priests in Israel were priests’ sons, except for Samuel. The son of a woman who had been barren for decades, he was dedicated to the service of God. In the verses after this reading, the Lord tells Samuel of the disaster in store for Eli and his proud, devious sons. Samuel himself goes on to be a mighty prophet and anointer of kings.

The Response                                                    Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17

Eli’s sons chose to sin and flout the Law because they assumed the Lord would not notice. Psalm 139 states a different case very clearly: the Lord knows where we go, what we say, even what we think, from before our birth—and, even when we sin, we are still marvelously made and wondrous works of the Lord.

The Epistle                                                          1 Corinthians 6:12-20

Though Samuel was not a priest’s son, his grateful mother consecrated him to God. The life and death of Jesus free us from the Law—but, as 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 points out, each of us is consecrated to God as God’s temple, and so we are not free to do just whatever we want to.

The Gospel                                                           John 1:43-51

In John’s gospel, once Jesus is baptized he seeks followers. Nathanael, initially skeptical, seems won over by Jesus’ use of scripture: “no deceit” favorably compares Nathanael to the trickster Jacob (Genesis 27), later renamed Israel, and the predicted vision of angels echoes Jacob’s dream at Bethel (Genesis 28:12).

 

Further thoughts

As the lections for the second Sunday after the Epiphany make clear, we are known and sought out by the Lord—but we all have choices to make, and even making the right ones cannot protect us from grief.

In the Old Testament, the boy Samuel hears the call of God and becomes a true prophet who anoints kings. But he grows up sundered from his own mother, his counsel to Israel is spurned, and he mourns the failure of the first king he anoints. In the gospel of John, Nathanael is blessed to be first to proclaim Jesus the Son of God, but later he is a horrified and secretive witness as the Son of God dies on the cross. In 1 Corinthians, Paul argues that Christians freed from sin are not Christians free to sin, for we are the Spirit’s temple; yet he frames his point in terms of men’s sexual purity and the baseness of the very body that the Lord so wonderfully made (Psalm 139:13), and the Body of Christ has dealt ambivalently with the human body ever since.

As I write, the bishop suffragan (successor to the current bishop) of the Episcopal Church in the diocese of Maryland has been charged with vehicular manslaughter and driving under the influence of alcohol, among other offenses. Because of choices she made on December 27, a man is dead and Facebook is aflame with allegations that Christians in general and Episcopalians in particular are hypocrites who mean to sweep the bishop’s misdeeds under the rug by wielding the magic broom of Jesus’ forgiveness.

The allegation that sticks here is that Christians are hypocrites. We are, for we are humans—humans who can make very bad choices, humans who sort each other into Them and Us and shame Them for the evil we fear in ourselves, humans who can then feel so terrified of that shame that we dare not reach for the hand of help. I write this not to accuse but as another such hypocrite.

Heather Cook’s choices remain her choices, mortal consequences and all: the grace of the Cross will not restore Tom Palermo in this life to his widow and orphans, and neither should it exempt Heather Cook from time in jail. I believe both propositions as surely as I believe that it is not at God’s bidding that anyone drives drunk.

That bad choices can be made to seem less attractive, and that even bad choices can be redeemed, is another matter—and the path to redemption, shadows and all, is best lit by the love that knows all frailties and loves not the less. What if it is each Christian’s proper task to follow Christ in being a stairway by which heaven opens and the love of God pours into this world?

For Jan. 11, 2015: 1 Epiphany, Year B

The Reading                                                                      Genesis 1:1-5

As Genesis tells it, the very first act of God in creation was to call light into existence; the second, to recognize that light (and all of creation) is good.

The Response                                                                    Psalm 29

Psalm 29 expands on the theme of the reading from Genesis. The voice of the Lord has the power to call creation into being, to break and bend mighty trees, to make the very mountains skip and buck. How remarkable that this enthroned Lord offers mere humans strength and blessing.

The Second Reading                                                         Acts 19:1-7

In the verses that precede Acts 19:1-7, Paul has arrived in Corinth and instructed Apollos, an Alexandrian Jew, in the faith. Now Paul travels northward to Ephesus where he finds a group of people baptized by John, but they do not know of the Holy Spirit. Paul baptizes them in the name of Jesus: this is a superior baptism.

The Gospel                                                                          Mark 1:4-11

The Year B lectionary introduces John the baptizer in Advent through the gospels of Mark and John, then repeats part of the reading from Mark in recounting the baptism of Jesus. It is Jesus who sees heaven torn open and the dove’s descent and who hears God’s “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

 

 

Further thoughts

The scriptures for the first Sunday after the Epiphany, also known as the Baptism of Jesus, all involve displays of power in speaking, though they play out differently. In Genesis 1:1-5, it is the power of God speaking that brings light out of darkness and launches the universe as we know it. Psalm 29 shows us God’s voice as powerful enough to make the created order behave anomalously—mountains scamper, sturdy oaks go limp, whole forests are denuded, the wilderness shakes (not so anomalous in California, perhaps). Everyone notices and is awed.

The New Testament readings are less spectacular. To be sure, in Mark’s otherwise spare account of Jesus’ baptism, heaven is not merely parted but ripped open so that the voice of God can proclaim his Son. Mark’s only other use of the root schizein ‘rend, tear’ is the moment of Jesus’ death when the temple curtain is torn from top to bottom (Mark 15:38), so this earlier moment is surely also significant. But Mark’s language suggests that the visions and voice were chiefly for Jesus’ eye and ear and heart, not to impress bystanders.

Acts 19:1-7 is even less showy: no writhing oaks, no heavenly host, just a wandering preacher who listens and teaches and a dozen people who hear with their hearts, till Paul lays hands on them. Then the power of God appears—not around or above them but in and through them, and through the love poured from a human hand.

As I write, the world still reeks of the blood of Charlie Hebdo. It is tempting to close and lock the doors, to pull into cliques, to reject that which is “other” while imagining that vengeance against those who don’t see things just my way is divine. A younger Paul succumbed to that temptation in his day. But what if being God’s child means opening doors? What if loving God really does require radically and unreservedly loving all God’s world?

For Jan. 4, 2015: Epiphany

The Reading                                                              Isaiah 60:1-6

Isaiah 60:1-6 proclaims, in the midst of terrifying darkness, an outbreak of light at the hands of God. Nations shall see the Lord’s glory, all the children of God will come home, and the treasures of the nations will stream in as gifts of hearts grateful for God’s graciousness and, finally and fully, unafraid.

The Response                                                           Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14

Psalm 72 calls down the Lord’s blessings on a newly crowned king and the king’s people. This is a portrait of the ideal monarch, who blesses the lives of all the people like rain after long drought, who has the very land in his care, to whom great gifts come because he rescues the helpless and the lowly.

The Epistle                                                                 Ephesians 3:1-12

Saul of Tarsus may have been the very best Jew ever—till a light like the one Isaiah described burst upon him and made him Paul, apostle to the Gentiles. In Ephesians 3:1-12, Paul shares the light: through Jesus Christ and by God’s design, salvation is for all the world.

The Gospel                                                                  Matthew 2:1-12

The only gospel to tell the story of the wise men visiting the Christ Child is Matthew’s. These men were astrologers, at a time when astrology was astronomy; it is Psalm 72:10 that has us call them kings. The prophecy that the scribes quote in verse 6 is adapted from Micah 5:2.

 

 

Further thoughts

The readings for Epiphany are the same for each of the three liturgical years. There is much to be said for rereading them, but it is vital that we read them freshly and that we see them in the here and now.

Neither Isaiah nor the psalmist is speaking of heaven or the hereafter. Isaiah’s great light and great joy arise not in heaven but through the thick darkness that covers earth and peoples in verse 1. And if the King’s Son of the psalm is dealing gently and righteously with the poor, the needy, the oppressed, and those who suffer violence, it follows that there still exist those who flaunt their worldly wealth, exploit the poor, tread on the oppressed, and savage and ravage whoever they can.

The Epiphany story shows us the opposite number to the King’s Son and a much more familiar portrait of power and its misuses. What Herod hears in the wise men’s report of the wondrous birth is a threat to his own power that he simply cannot countenance. Matthew 2:16-18 tells us what Herod does when the foreigners escape his clutches without telling him exactly where and when to find the infant usurper: he attempts to subvert the prophecy by sending troops to slaughter all of Bethlehem’s male infants and toddlers. As far as we know, neither his generals nor his advisers seem even to have tried to suggest that the order might be wrong. Instead, they just do their jobs, as generations of humans have done in similar circumstances and continue to do.

But the scandal of the gospel that Paul preaches, from experience, is that no one—no one—is too foreign, too lowly, too wicked or merely too wrong to be beyond the reach of God’s love. Furthermore, if violence is not God’s way to counter violence, as we know from the cross, then it is up to me to stop resorting to violent thoughts, words, and deeds (yes, even on the freeway). Speaking truth to power, even respectfully, may and probably will still earn me violent responses. But how else is my little corner of the world to learn the ways of God’s peace if I myself neglect to live it? And how else shall the darkness lift, unless I do my part?

 

For March 2, 2014: Last Epiphany, Year A

The Reading                                                                  Exodus 24:12-18

Moses is called to Mount Sinai to receive from God the Law by which Israel is to live. We have a vivid description of Mount Sinai shrouded in cloud, with the glory of God appearing like a fire on the mountain. Who could fail to be transformed by such a vision?

The Response                                                  Psalm 2

Psalm 2 may have been written for the dedication or rededication of a king of Israel: announcing a ruler as son of God was common in the Middle East, as is depicting one’s national god as more powerful than the gods of other nations. Might it be that God’s scorn is reserved for those who believe that they are in charge?

The Epistle                                                                        2 Peter 1:16-21

Peter of Galilee went up a mountain on a hike with friends—and saw his teacher revealed as God’s own Son. The second letter of Peter, almost certainly composed in Peter’s name rather than by the apostle himself, retells the story to confirm that it is no myth but rather a lamp leading us to the Light.

The Gospel                                                                       Matthew 17:1-9

The gospel tells the story to which the day’s epistle alludes: Jesus is revealed as the Son of God by being both transformed and acclaimed—but only for a little while, and he hushes it up.

 

Ponderables

An epiphany is a revelation, and the last Sunday of Epiphany brings us more than one.

The Old Testament epiphanies are grand, obvious, and enduring. Exodus reveals God in mountain-enveloping cloud and “devouring fire”—the sort of conflagration from which residents of tinder-dry Southern California flee in terror. Psalm 2 shows God easily angered and dictating terms to rulers who have presumed to challenge either the rule of God or the rule of God’s representative.

The New Testament epiphany, retold in 1 Peter, shares some features with the Old Testament epiphanies: as in the psalm, Jesus is recognized as God’s own son; as in Exodus, Moses is present, though here it is not Moses but Jesus whose appearance is transformed; as in both Exodus and the psalm, God’s people are awestruck to the point of terror. But where Moses the prophet took advantage of that terror in ruling God’s people, Jesus doesn’t. To quote the Christmas carol, “mild he lays his glory by” to be born to and among us; he orders the disciples not to make a big issue of who he is and what he does; and he keeps laying his glory and pride aside as he deals with nearly all degrees and conditions of people, from those terrified, sick, or outcast up through the most powerful religious and political figures in Palestine. This is a far cry from announcing whose sin has invoked this plague or that natural disaster or demanding the legal right to refuse service.

So what if truly following God means not flaunting God?

For Feb. 23, 2014: 7 Epiphany, Year A

The Reading                                                            Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18

Priests in Israel were Levites (that is, of the tribe of Levi), and the book of Leviticus begins by discussing the priests and their duties. Chapters 18 through 20 are called the “Holiness Code”; they lay out how all the people who are God’s are supposed to behave, and can make for uncomfortable reading.

The Response                                    Psalm 119:33-40

We continue reading from Psalm 119. This is the fifth stanza, called the heh section because in Hebrew each verse in it begins with the letter ה (heh). The psalmist prays to understand and follow the Law.

The Epistle                                                  1 Corinthians 3:10-11,16-23

The verses from Leviticus called us to be holy as God is holy. Paul tells us that we already are holy, for in this world God’s temple or dwelling place is in fact each of us—each one on the planet. What is more, we belong to each other: contrary to worldly wisdom, grasping for more will not make me better.

The Gospel                                                                  Matthew 5:38-48

As Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount continues, Jesus paraphrases Leviticus twice—extending it outward beyond our neighbor and calling us to love all as God loves. The difficult word perfect translates the Greek telios ‘complete’: the last verse might be rendered “Be as completely like God as you can be.”

 

Ponderables

Jesus misquoted Leviticus—with the goal of helping us to read Leviticus right.

The first quote, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”—alluding to Leviticus 24:19-21—is literally correct but subject to misappropriation. We quote it to justify what we feel we deserve from those who hurt us; we assume it assigns the minimum level of recompense that we are entitled to. In context, however, the verse specifies a maximum and so is not a spur to the human thirst for revenge but a curb. Jesus then goes even farther. If I truly follow Jesus, I should not be looking to get my own back, and I am not entitled to assume that other people intend to hurt or diminish me.

The second quote is a riff on Leviticus 19:18—but that verse does not counsel us to hate our enemies. In fact, the Leviticus reading specifies ways in which we are to deal lovingly with the poor, aliens, and people in our power. Jesus’ version reflects not what Leviticus says but where human wisdom—the human wisdom that Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians—tends to take it. Then Jesus blows our interpretation apart. He tells us that our God loves everyone enough to send good things not just to those who, according to the world, deserve them, but also to those who don’t.

What if we all really gave as good as we have gotten?

For Feb. 16, 2014: 6 Epiphany, Year A

The Reading                                                      Ecclesiasticus 15:15-20

The book of Ecclesiasticus or Sirach was probably written in the second century BC, by a Hellenistic Jewish scribe who wrote not just for Jews but also for Greeks seeking answers about life and faith and God. Though this is one of the Apocrypha—the books outside the Hebrew Bible, the Torah—we in the Anglican Communion believe it to be well worth studying.

The Response                                          Psalm 119:1-8

We begin reading from Psalm 119, the longest psalm of the Bible with 22 stanzas, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. This first stanza could have inspired the reading from Ecclesiasticus, with its praise of the consequences of choosing to follow God’s law.

The Epistle                                                               1 Corinthians 3:1-9

The writer of Ecclesiasticus told us that it is up to us to choose to do what is right. The Epistle continues to point out ways in which the community at Corinth is falling short of what God wants: it matters much less who gets credit for this or that ministry than that the will of God for the growth and salvation of all of us be done.

The Gospel                                                                    Matthew 5:21-37

Jesus announced in the Sermon on the Mount last week (Matthew 5:17) that he came not to abolish but to fulfill the Law of Moses. Now he extends the law: to be his, it is not enough to refrain from killing, adultery, or swearing falsely. Whatever we do to treat others as inferiors or objects for our gratification is wrong.

 

Ponderables

As Epiphany season continues, its themes turn from the revelation of God entering our world to the revelation that the Kingdom of God is within us, messy humans that we are. Ecclesiasticus poses this in terms of a stark choice—fire or water, death or life—that does lies in our own hands, and the psalm praises the happiness of those who choose life through obedience to the Law. Paul takes a different tack to arrive at a similar destination: we cannot earn salvation through obeying the Law, but we do have choices in how we respond to the great gift of grace—and, tellingly, in how we extend grace to others.

As Jesus says, he comes not to abolish the law but to fulfill it. In the gospel for 6 Epiphany he explains: the commandments prohibit murder, adultery, and other specific major offenses, but the point of them is for us to stand in love against anything or anyone that demeans or objectifies and estranges another human being. The prescription to cut off body parts sounds ghoulish to Western ears, but in Semitic society it was a very serious matter: one ate with one’s right hand only, so the effect of having that hand cut off was to disqualify one permanently from polite society. This difficult prescription is usually taken as hyperbole, but what if it is instead irony? What if we are the Kingdom of God, and we’re called to do our utmost to stand in love against alienation, both by those who estrange others—and by those who estrange themselves?