Epiphany

Gifts Not Chains: Epiphany Wisdom for Foreign Aid

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The turn of each calendar year is often filled with an influx of charitable giving, much of which intends to assist those far beyond the borders of the United States. As rigorous debates surround the ethics and oversight of such foreign assistance endeavors, one of the more innovative contributions to this important conversation was produced by South Africa's renowned theologian, the late Steve de Gruchy. In consideration of the Magi and their Epiphany visit with Joseph, Mary, and the newly born Jesus in Matthew 2:1-12, de Gruchy offers a striking interpretation of the biblical text and considers its direct relationship with international relief efforts. As private giving directed to foreign aid continues to grow ( from $8.4 billion in 2000 to $19.1 billion in 2012 ), de Gruchy shows how benevolent intent can lead to oppressive impact, and Epiphany provides important wisdom to navigate the complexities of our policies and practices. 

Living the Word: Is There a Crack in Everything?

The Len / Shutterstock
The Len / Shutterstock

THE YEAR IS YOUNG AGAIN. Folks are making soon-to-be-broken New Year’s resolutions. Why not preachers? Resolved: Prepare to preach far enough in advance that the Holy Spirit has some time to work with me. Preachers I admire sketch an entire year out in advance. Pastor Ken Shigematsu at Tenth Church in Vancouver, B.C., suggests that we’re creative on 10-day cycles. So he begins working in earnest on a sermon 10 days before he preaches it. Whatever system you come up with, resolve not to preach “Saturday night specials.” Sure, the adrenaline is nice, but it’s as hard to be creative on demand as it is to be intimate on schedule. That way, when you have a brilliant insight you can see that it fits, say, 10 weeks from now, and that insight is not lost if it fails to live up to the demands of a sermon to be preached in 10 hours.

Epiphany is one of our best, most underutilized words. The chapel at our seminary is blessedly named Epiphany chapel. For no actual connection to God happens in preaching without the illuminating light of the Spirit. I like to preach through the old hymn “We Three Kings” at least once during Epiphany. It reminds us who God is: God is born in our flesh, hailed as prophet and as king, and will die at our hands. Especially during an election year in the United States, when many ridiculous things will be said about God, we do well to remember these particular claims about who God is.

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Bright Morning Star A-Rising

IF WE FOLLOWED the church calendar and celebrated Epiphany in January, we wouldn’t have to cram the wise men into the crèche to compete with the shepherds. We could save all the “Star of Bethlehem” songs to brighten the cold days of January. Obviously, the magi needed a few weeks to prepare and then travel “from the East.”

A new bright object in the sky was certainly an “epiphany,” but it was not totally unexpected. These magi were astrologers, the ancient astronomers of their day. To the east of Jerusalem lay Babylon, birthplace of astrology and location of a large Jewish community. The discovery of two astrological books among the Dead Sea scrolls showed that the sign of Aries the Ram in the zodiac represented the reign of Herod the Great in Judea. Since Herod was aging, it is not surprising that Jewish astrologers were watching this royal constellation.

In a television series called Jesus: The Complete Story, astronomer Michael R. Molnar notes an unusual astrological conjunction on the night of April 17, in 6 B.C.E., the year Jesus was most likely born. At that time, both Saturn and the sun were in the constellation Aries, and then the moon eclipsed to reveal Jupiter, king of the planets, also in Aries. Jupiter shone into the dawn, another auspicious sign of royalty. It was confirmation enough to send these astrologers on their way.

Perhaps if we celebrated Epiphany after Christmas, we’d have more time to learn about this epiphany and its remarkable interpretation.

Reta Halteman Finger, co-author of Creating a Scene in Corinth: A Simulation, taught Bible at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa., and writes a Bible study blog at www.eewc.com/RetasReflections.

[January 4] 

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Rivers in the Desert: Why New Year's Day Is a Christian Holiday

Design36/Shutterstock
Design36/Shutterstock

Growing up in Texas, fairly close to New Orleans, I knew all about Mardi Gras. It was a big deal in the South, replete with combinations of debaucherous consumption and self-exposure. What I didn’t understand, being the good evangelical Protestant that I was at the time, was that it actually was the celebration preceding the liturgical period of Lent.

It was only once I framed the excesses of Mardi Gras with the self-discipline and austerity of Lent that it began to make much sense. Not that the gratuitous self-abuse was then justified, but at least it made more sense, given the things everyone was supposed to give up during the weeks to come.

This got me thinking about how we approach New Year’s Eve, and framing it, too, by what we expect and anticipate from New Year’s Day. Yes, the celebrations of New Year’s Eve are, in some ways, just an excuse to indulge ourselves in excessive partying, but they also stand in contrast against the hopes we hold for the following day.

'Let Jesus Be Cursed!'

"NO ONE SPEAKING by the Spirit of God ever says, 'Let Jesus be cursed!'" insists Paul in his first letter to Corinth (12:3). Driving through Corinth not long ago, I found myself musing about the extraordinary spirituality that had grown up in the church he was trying to straighten out. Apparently, ecstatic worshippers caught up in charismatic excitement on the Lord's day were actually known to blurt out these shocking words: "Anathema, Jesus!" In a very brief period, the church there had come up with a mutation of the gospel in which only the cosmic, exalted savior, known through speaking in tongues and exciting miracles, mattered. The earthly person of Jesus of Nazareth had been a mere husk to be shucked off, they said. Only the Spirit-giving celestial Lord mattered. Jesus be damned! His teachings back in Galilee signified nothing; now they could concentrate on the prophecies that came hot and strong from heaven through the church's prophets—a belief that left plenty of room for all sorts of wild ethical "experiments," to put it mildly.

Well, no one actually utters "Let Jesus be cursed" out loud anymore, but, in a more subtle way, how prevalent is a pseudo-spirituality that relativizes the radical teaching of the reign of God! These readings bring us back under the authority of Jesus' witness in Galilee—and the reality that there is no Spirit, and no spirituality, except the one we receive as the driving energy to bring good news to the poor.

Martin L. Smith, an Episcopal priest, is an author, preacher, and retreat leader. His newest book is Go in Peace: The Art of Hearing Confessions, with Julia Gatta.

[ January 6 ]
Wiser Than We Think
Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

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The Seeds of Epiphany

In the dark days of Advent, we wonder when the birth pangs will end: Will light break into the darkest corners of our hearts, our families, our lives? Will God—can God—take the twisted sinew of our warped world and redeem it? Will we—can we—hold on through the night? Can we trust that light to come? These are the questions of Advent.

As we enter the season of Epiphany, new questions arise: Will we allow the light that has broken forth to illuminate the darkest corners of hearts, our families, and our lives? Can we—will we—follow Jesus as he untwists the mangled metal of our shattered souls ... and redeems it? Can we—will we—trust the light or will we hide from it? These are the questions of Epiphany.

The light of Epiphany illuminates in two directions: It flashes inward, revealing our twisted and fragmented souls, and it flashes outward, revealing the carnage and consequences of the lies our world has embraced and used to craft public policy, the lies we have believed and reinforced through our complicit acceptance, and the truth we must speak.

As we enter 2013, we look back and see that over the past four years much public good was done. Remember: The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act made it easier for women to fight pay discrimination. Remember the drama when Congress passed the Affordable Care Act and the Supreme Court upheld it, creating a path for tens of millions of Americans to finally receive health care. Remember the image of the last troops leaving Iraq.

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New and Noteworthy

OUTRUNNING DESPAIR
In the novel Running the Rift, by Naomi Benaron, a young Tutsi runner in Rwanda dreams of competing in the Olympics even as political tensions erupt into unfathomable violence. A story that gives both horror and hope their due. Winner of the 2011 Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. Algonquin

FINALLY, A “CHRISTMAS UNICORN”
Perpetually quirky indie artist Sufjan Stevens’ new 58-track, 5-EP Christmas collection Silver and Gold promises to offer “holly-jolly songs of hope and redemption.” Not your typical Christmas music, but who needs more of that anyway? Liner notes include essays by Stevens and Vito Aiuto of The Welcome Wagon. Asthmatic Kitty

ROYAL BEAUTY BRIGHT
The picture book Star of Wonder, written by Mary Lee Wile and illustrated by Sage Stossel, offers a charming retelling of the Nativity story. A companion website, www.starofwonderepiphany.com, includes crafts, activities, and music to include in family observations of Epiphany. Forward Movement

TASTE AND SEE
The Food and Feasts of Jesus: Inside the World of First-Century Fare, with Menus and Recipes, by Douglas E. Neel and Joel A. Pugh, tastily delivers on its title. Includes historical and cultural essays to entertain foodies and Bible buffs alike, plus more than 50 recipes. Rowman & Littlefield

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Epiphany: A Light to the World

A 16th-century depiction of the Epiphany from Germany. Via http://bit.ly/yeOf4J
A 16th-century depiction of the Epiphany from Germany. Via http://bit.ly/yeOf4J

Activist theologian Bill Wylie-Kellermann wrote that the Epiphany 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."

In popular understanding, of course, Epiphany is about the visit of the Magi, "wise men" from the East bearing gifts for the newborn Christ child. Since these Gentile visitors come from foreign lands, their search for Jesus and their homage to him have stood as sign and symbol that Christ's salvation knows no boundaries. (The parallels with our age, with the potential of digital media to transcend all boundaries, begin to suggest themselves.)

The story of the Magi has a dark side as well, mostly ignored in Christendom's celebration of Epiphany. On their way to find the babe, the travelers pay a visit first to Herod's court, where they're told to report back to him the location of the newborn. Fortunately, the wise men practice direct civil disobedience to the royal command, and thus they and the holy family escape Herod's wrath. But the children of Bethlehem, the "holy innocents," suffer the tragic consequences of Herod's duplicity. The lessons about relating to authority (i.e., the need to be "wise as serpents") are loud and clear.

The Light of God's Glory

Have you ever sat and watched a moth drawn into a light bulb?

Have you ever sat and watched a moth drawn into a light bulb? The moth simply cannot help but be drawn to the bulb’s brilliance. The season of Epiphany celebrates a theme a little like this - only we are the moths and the bulb is God’s glory. Throughout Epiphany we encounter again and again the inexorable attraction of God. Whenever God’s glory is revealed in the world, people, from the greatest to the least, are drawn to its brightness. Whether they are the kings and nations of Isaiah 60:1-6, the Magi of Matthew 2:1-12, the people to whom John the Baptist speaks in John 1:29-42, or the disciples of Matthew 5:1-12, all are drawn to the glory of God.

This pull is strongest when God’s glory is most apparent, so the Magi and the first disciples cannot resist being drawn into worship and obedience. Throughout history the people of God have struggled to reveal God’s glory to the world. We seem to be much better at concealing it - by keeping it to ourselves, squabbling about it, and sometimes even ignoring it entirely. The season of Epiphany not only challenges us afresh to feel the pull of God on our own lives but to seek constantly for ways in which we can reveal God to the world. Just think about what the world could look like if we succeed!

January 2

Summoned by Glory

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

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Sojourners Magazine January 2005
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A Light to the Nations

Just Who is Transformed?
Psalm 99; Exodus 34:29-35; 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2; Luke 9:28-43

Jesus, like Moses before him (as told in the Exodus passage), has the ultimate mountaintop experience. He goes up the mountain to pray, and there he meets God. That, of course, is the purpose of prayer. But for Jesus, the experience visibly transformed him. In Matthew’s (17:1-8) and Mark’s (9:2-8) versions of this encounter, Jesus is "metamorphosed"; Luke uses the much less colorful phrase "was altered."

We know that prayer is transforming. But who is really transformed here? Jesus has led for the most part a humble, ordinary human life. At the same time, he is the center of the divine event toward which all creation has been moving, and by which all creation is given the gift of salvation. His closest friends and disciples have heard hints of this extraordinary mystery—just a few verses before (9:22), Jesus foretold his death and resurrection—but this is their first glimpse of resurrection glory.

Peter’s reaction to this miracle, in typical salt-of-the-earth Peter fashion, is very practical: He wants to set up tents for Jesus and the distinguished visitors. But Peter just doesn’t get it—he did not know what he was saying, as Luke says. Some interpreters take this as a warning about the risk of trying to institutionalize a mountaintop experience, of trying to control and contain the mystical. Hiding away in tents, you might just miss the transfiguration!

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 1998
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