This season begins and ends in light. From the heavenly star to the radiant robes of transfiguration, Epiphany is about revelation, the kind of sudden brightness that lights up the landscape of a mind or a community or a whole social order. The light reveals, but not passively; it summons and sends.
These readings are rich in callings. Exiles, altar boys, prophets, and disciples - all are bidden. Come home, come and see, come follow. When Jesus appears, things get set in motion. Though we may not see where it all leads, we already have our marching orders. This is a light that moves us.
January 2, Epiphany: Feast of Racial Reconciliation
Psalm 72:1-14, Isaiah 60:1-6, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12
So abruptly does Isaiah of the exile announce a dawning of light in history that the scholars are prone to doubt this is the same voice as in the preceding chapters.
Surely the one who recites that drumbeat litany of transgression and judgment, whose promises sound more like threats, cannot be the same person who turns around to testify the dawn of return. A new writer must have stepped into the breach. The light of hope could not break so suddenly in heart or history. Only an incrementally progressive hope, something more akin to a studied optimism, is realistic. Judgment and true hope ought not be so closely pressed, or the one arise from the other.
Well, surprise. There it is (one may wager) in the prophet's single voice.
The homecoming envisioned is so overwhelming that the whole world seems swept along in its movement. Universal, as they say, and bordering on cosmic. A pilgrimage, general and complete, is in motion. It is not merely exiles who make for Jerusalem, but peoples and rulers, nations and authorities all. The scattering of exile is healed in a global accompaniment. Its theft is reversed by gift.
The Magi, in Matthew's telling, act the very embodiment of Isaiah 60. Are they strangers in the land? They stand for all nations and peoples outside of Israel. Are they kings? They kneel on behalf of all authority. Do they bear gifts? Thoughtfully packed from the ancient text. Then Matthew adds his ironies, bitter as myrrh: The Jerusalem king remains in the dark (wherein he schemes); the foreigners are directed farther on.
The concrete mystery of "all peoples and nations" also preoccupies Ephesians. St. Paul's voice, set in the dark of prison, attests a hidden truth come suddenly to light: Jews and Gentiles are both "partakers" in the promise. By "partaking," a meal is implied. They sit at common table. In light of Christ, the "dividing wall of hostility" (2:14) no longer comes between. To this degree, Epiphany is a feast of racial reconciliation.
The "principalities and powers" of racism and nationalism seem ignorant of the truth. They revive the hostility and rebuild the wall. That is why we, as the church, are admonished to make known to them the wisdom of God (3:10). Arise, dear friends, and shine.
January 9, Baptism of the Lord: An Authority of Freedom
Psalm 29, Genesis 1:1-5, Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:4-11
These texts bear the voice of God: It is in the air and on the wind, it makes the oaks whirl and splits heaven. But above all, as attested in the baptism of Jesus, it confirms identity and vocation in the Word. From voice, vocation.
It is not incidental that when Jesus later initiates his confrontation with the temple-system in Jerusalem, and the chief priests, scribes, and elders challenge him, "By what authority do you do these things?" (Mark 11:28), he takes recourse to John's baptism. In a way politically loaded, he thereby recalls the movement with which he'd identified in the Jordan, and the troublesome prophet arrested and executed by Herod.
Was that baptism, he asks them, from heaven or not (11:29)? If there is a trick in his own clever question back to the temple rulers, it is that he actually gives something of an answer to their challenge while saying he will not. He cites the renegade and charismatic authority of his baptism.
It is reported that when Martin Luther was assailed by temptation or suffered self-doubt in his struggle with church authorities, he used to sit in his study and recite, almost as a mantra, "I am baptized. I am baptized."
Need it be said unequivocally that baptism is the base authority for all Christian ministry? Not ordination. Baptism authorizes our freedom to be who we are uttered in the Word of God to be. And it authorizes our freedom to speak and act and witness in whatever situation we may find ourselves.
Is there any doubt that Jesus, a lay person himself, would return now and again to the beginning of his ministry, to the experience accounted at the beginning of Mark's gospel? In those waters he heard the Voice. On those waters he saw the Spirit hover. There his authority, and ours in him, deep and ancient as day one of creation, is voiced.
January 16: In Body and Name
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18, 1 Samuel 3:1-20, 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, John 1:43-51
The Word of God, says our first reading, was rare in those days. (Needless to say, we too know such times in life and history.) But then the Word comes calling. It sounds suddenly in the night, taking an unlikely form: the name of a Shiloh temple altar boy. The name and the summons are the Word at that moment. Imagine your own name uttered as the Word of God. Therein is your calling.
There is something wonderfully palpable about words in the Hebraic view. God speaks a new thing, at which "the two ears of everyone that hears it will tingle" (1 Samuel 3:11). The Word itself is something almost physical. In ancient Semitic culture, people would actually duck to avoid the path of a curse being uttered.
Further on in this text (3:19), to indicate the authenticity of Samuel's vocation, it is said that never were God's words allowed to fall to the ground! (They went, presumably, straight to their mark.) Little danger of that in our culture. Words are so eviscerated of substance and meaning they float away into thin air like so much pollution.
The Word is heard by Samuel and acknowledged by his mentor Eli. It effects a transition of authority from one to the other, setting in motion a whole new period in Israel's life.
The gospel lection is also about a transition: from the Baptist, a mentor of sorts himself, to Jesus. John's disciples take the clue and make the move. But talk about your palpable, bodily words: here the very Word incarnate.
Likewise, in 1 Corinthians, a momentous shift is implied in the phrase, "your [plural] body is a temple of the Holy Spirit" (6:19). It is a notion in line with the gospel idea: Destroy this temple and I'll build another in three days...but he spoke of his body (John 2:19-21). The community has supplanted the temple-system in a whole new era for Israel and the church. The body is the temple. And ethics, as Paul suggests, are become literally incarnational. The Word ought seldom be rare if so palpably present.
January 23: The Scandalous Freedom to Follow
Psalm 62:5-12, Jonah 3:1-5, 10, 1 Corinthians 7:29-31, Mark 1:14-20
It seems impossible to read this minimalist edition, this matter of fact kernel of the Jonah story, without recalling the drama that surrounds it in the person of the prophet himself. Jonah, let it be said, is more of an anti-prophet: The sum total of his prophetic utterances (speaking of minimalist) come down to five Hebrew words (3:4). And these from a guy who begins by refusing his call (1:3) and ends pleading for death in a self-righteous pout (4:9).
Who is the witness of faith in this tale? Why, the city of Nineveh - imperial capital of Assyria, enemy and oppressor of ancient Israel. Who exercises the freedom of repentance? An entire city of mythic proportion, a collective totality taking in great and small, government and king, even flocks and herds. They match the solidarity of sin in violence with the solidarity of freedom in repentance. Here is an ironic tale bigger than the whale. Of course the final freedom is God's - who also repents of anger in judgment.
But Jonah? He clings to his fear, to his bitterness, to his prophetic dignity and repute, to hatred of his enemies, the damned imperialists. From beginning to end, he can't let it go.
He is to that degree the countersign of discipleship.
When Jesus calls the four in Mark, they drop everything and follow. His summons is minimal and direct. The text, as Bonhoeffer puts it, is "ruthlessly silent" about any fuller information or their previous knowledge of him. They simply let go their nets, their "worldly" affairs, the security of a family business, and come.
This is the same scandalous freedom enjoined in Corinthians. Not any particular prescription, but the grace of "as though," which disentangles women and men from the order of the present system that is passing away. When Gandhi commended it to the truth warriors, he called it non-attachment. In it they were freed for radical commitment to personal and social transformation. Freed for risk and service.
Paul knew it and practiced it in his way. But its emblem and source, for us, is Christ. The gospel lection begins with John's arrest. That, in the logic of the world-system, ought to be Jesus' clue to lay low or head the other way. Instead, like a zen clap on the cheek, it signals for him the decisive moment, ironically the very opening of freedom. He walks in and through, inviting those who'd follow.
January 30: True in a Din of False
Psalm 111, Deuteronomy 18:15-20, 1 Corinthians 8:1-13, Mark 1:21-28
The book of Deuteronomy is cast as a farewell message from Moses, a last will and testament from a prophet who's been to the mountain top and looked over into the land of promise, toward the future of Israel and Judah. In the present text, a successor prophet is foreseen, though more is implied. It's almost as though the prophetic "office" were being sanctioned. Eventually this text would bear the weight of messianic expectation: the hope of "one like Moses." Jesus will be portrayed as filling the bill.
However, there are warnings here as well: a solemn charge to those who hear the prophet's message, and a warning against prophets who presume to speak a word not commanded by God (they give themselves over to death). The compunction to speak, it seems, carries more than one risk. And a people for whom the Word full force seemed too much to bear are now left with the ambiguities of discerning the true from the false. There lies the rub.
Such a din may have been raised in Galilee. When Jesus appears he calls out more than disciples; his presence summons antagonistic powers into the public arena. A conflict is provoked. When he teaches in the Capernaum synagogue, people recognize and acclaim the genuineness of his authority as distinct from the scribes. But immediately a voice cries out from their midst, "What have you to do with us Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?" (Mark 1:24). On whose behalf does the voice speak? In whose spirit?
Ched Myers suggests that in Mark's gospel this encounter initiates a continuing public clash between the authority of Jesus and the authority of the scribal elite. (See Binding the Strong Man, Orbis, 1988. Hey, for that matter, keep it close at hand for all the gospel lections of year B.) In Mark much of the discipleship teaching is played out against this conflict, even within it. The disciples struggle to learn true from false authority.
Would that this were only an ancient dilemma. Instead it is as biblical as the present moment. False prophecy has become the order of our day. From the justifications of imperial aggression to the assurances of technocratic fixers, from urgings of Madison Avenue hucksters to the piety of media-wise religious marketeers, the mimicry of the Word and the presumption of divine authority are rife.
We pray to discern the true in a din of the false.
BILL WYLIE KELLERMANN, a Sojourners contributing editor, is a United Methodist pastor and the author of Seasons of Faith and Conscience (Orbis, 1991).