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Posts Tagged ‘Epiphany’

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They Went Home by Another Way

Last week’s post on the Epiphany generated quite a lot of comments, and I was grateful to know that it had resonated with so many.  Most of those who emailed did so to say that they too had wondered what had become of the gifts that the magi had delivered.  One, however, speculated that Mary and Joseph had politely thanked the magi for their thoughtfulness but had then refused the gifts.  Gold, frankincense and myrrh were just a bit over the top for people like them, and they knew it.

Two friends of mine shared a different approach to the story, and their comments gave me pause.  One wrote to say that every time he hears the story of the Epiphany he thinks of a song about the magi by James Taylor:  They Went Home by Another Way.  I could not recall that song, so I googled it, listened and immediately recognized the tune.  That’s also when I realized I’d never paid much attention to the lyrics.  Now that hauntingly lovely song is firmly fixed in my mind, and the next time I hear the story of the Epiphany I’ll access my mental link to the song.

a7794815-6bf6-4490-9cca-f689c8e22122A second friend, Eddie from New Mexico, wrote in the same vein, but with a nod to the Holy Family.  After the Epiphany Joseph and Mary also had a change of travel plans.  It was no longer safe for them and their child, and tradition says that they went into exile in Egypt.  There they stayed put until Herod died and it was okay to return.  And so Eddie offered this meditation:  “I wondered where they must have gone and how that must have been such an unexpected twist for them.  Yet, it was necessary.  So it is with us in so many ways.  Twists and turns in life, and some of them so unexpected.  Some good and some bad.  Through it all God is there.”

That’s a great take-away to draw from the Epiphany.  We don’t know how it impacted the shepherds, but it changed the lives of everyone else involved.  “They went home by another way” is just a more poetic way to say that after Bethlehem the lives of the magi, Joseph and Mary were never the same again.  For them the encounter with Jesus was life-changing.  They could not nor would not go on with life as it had been.  The circumstances demanded something new, and they rose to meet the challenge.

That, I think, is what can happen to us in the Epiphany.  When we encounter the Lord, be it in a conversion experience or in the daily twists and turns of life, we can never be the same.  Certainly we have to go back to our routines, but the routines demand something better of us.  Happily, that’s what the Lord likely had in mind for us all along.

7d2e1e6c-da40-4524-8eeb-822ecbfc8010NOTES

+On 7-9 January I participated in the annual community workshop of the monks of Saint John’s Abbey.

+On January 9th I gave a presentation on The Saint John’s Bible to faculty and staff from Saint Edward’s University in Austin, TX, who were visiting as part of a program entitled “A Year With The Saint John’s Bible.”  Following lunch and my talk they visited the new Bible Gallery in Alcuin Library.

+Not quite worthy of inclusion in my post today is a reference to a scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian.  Anyone who’s seen the movie can never forget the moment when the magi mistakenly present the gifts to the parents of the newly-born Brian.  The mom greedily grabs for the gold, and in a parting comment she thanks them for the gold.  “But next time just leave off the frankincense and myrrh.”

+The photos in today’s post are of medieval mosaics in the baptistery of the duomo in Florence.  At top the magi present their gifts to Jesus.  The second photo shows the magi being warned in a dream, and in the third photo they return home “by another way.”  Below is a scene in which the Holy Family goes into exile in Egypt.

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Jesus:  His Kingdom is not of this World

I find it curious that the gospels begin and end the story of Jesus with references to kingship.  The visit of the magi and their presentation of royal gifts clearly allude to the hopes of many who looked for a messiah who would be king.  Later, in the course of his ministry, Jesus consistently brushed aside those who would make him king.  Then, as Jesus endured the worst of his agony, Pilate mocked those aspirations with the sign he had fixed to the cross:  Jesus of Nazareth, king of the Jews.

For those who still try to leverage Jesus into power over others, the words of Jesus serve as a timely reminder:  “My kingdom is not of this world.”  On the contrary, his is a message of love, which after nearly 2,000 years is still capable of inspiring some people and disappointing others.

4d845af6-5ae1-4386-928f-48256b4ef549Every now and again I’ve wondered what in the world Mary and Joseph decided to do with the gold, frankincense and myrrh that the magi dropped off.  Regardless of what became of those royal gifts, however, they were symbols of what Jesus chose to reject.  They disappear from the narrative, never to reappear.

The story of Epiphany has one other important element that provides a good takeaway for us.  The magi came looking for a king, but they ended up finding the object of their quest in a very unkingly place.  Bethlehem was not the setting for royal births, then or now.  Bethlehem was definitely no Jerusalem.  But if it was no place for the birth of a king, it was suitable enough for the birth of a messiah.

Bethlehem then serves as a reminder that there are simply no excuses for backing away from doing the work of the Lord.  We may think we were born in the wrong place, that we are too poor, too young, too old, that we don’t speak well, or that we have no influence.  But the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem dismisses all that with a wave of the hand.

That’s the way the Lord does business.  Consistently the Lord still chooses to do great things through the least likely of people who hail from the least likely of places.  Given that, why would the infant of Bethlehem pass over the chance to do great things through us too?  For that I have no answer.  And so I pray that the Lord, who could turn water into wine, can work a similar transformation in us.

32886ef3-ca8b-49d0-b98a-14fccfc8f3eeNOTES

+At Saint John’s we only had a dusting of snow for Christmas, and so it was a stretch to call it a white Christmas.  However, we more than made up for it by New Year’s.  In fact, we got several inches, along with bitterly cold weather for a couple of days.  So it was that I celebrated New Year’s afternoon by clearing the snow off of my car.  It took twenty minutes, and by the end of it my fingers were stinging from the cold.  The photos in today’s post illustrate the beauty of the landscape that day.

+On January 3rd I flew to Phoenix for a short trip to visit with several alumni of Saint John’s University.  I also celebrated Mass on the Feast of the Epiphany for a small group, and today’s post is the sermon I delivered that day.

+On January 5th we celebrated the Mass of Christian Burial for our confrere, Fr. Kieran Nolan.  Fr. Kieran was born and grew up in the Bronx, New York, and among other things he served as rector of the seminary at Saint John’s and pastor of Saint John the Baptist Parish in Collegeville.  For several years he served at our priory in Fujimi, Japan, and he nobly endured a long illness before his passing.  Fr. Kieran was one of those larger than life characters whose mind was always churning with ideas, and some of them were even practical!  I and my confreres will miss him dearly.

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img_0090_2Save the Dates

The Christmas season is nearly over, save for any residual shouting.  Of course traces of it linger in the shops that haven’t already shifted their focus to Saint Valentine’s Day;  but in the liturgical calendar Christmas began to grind to a halt yesterday with Epiphany, followed by the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which takes place today.  That means tomorrow we turn our attention to the season that the Church labels “Ordinary Time.”  That’s the stretch during which we get on with the business of everyday life, or so you might think.  But that shouldn’t really be the case.

There’s a bit of chant that comes on the feast of Epiphany that hints that there are actually more things to come.  The chant dates back to the early centuries of the Church, and while most parishes long ago dropped it, in monasteries like Saint John’s we continue to sing it as if this were the eighth century.  It’s an excerpt from The Roman Martyrology, and this Epiphany our confrere Fr. Michael Peterson intoned it beautifully, just before the final blessing and dismissal at Mass.

Without the musical notation it has all the charm of end-of-Mass announcements of bake sales, pancake breakfasts, raffles and the schedule of meetings of the parish council.  But sung to the tune of the Easter Exultet, it has a solemnity that stops you in your tracks.  So I will quote the words in full, in the event that you’ve never heard or read them before.

img_0030_2“Know this, dear brothers and sisters, that, as we have rejoiced at the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, so by the grace of God’s mercy we announce to you also the joy of his resurrection, who is our savior.  On the 1st day of March will fall Ash Wednesday, and the beginning of the feast of the most sacred Lenten season.  On the 16th day of April you will celebrate with joy Easter Day, the Holy Passover of our Lord Jesus Christ.  On the 28th day of May will be the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ.  On the 4th day of June, the feast of Pentecost.  On the 18th day of June, the feast of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ.  On the 3rd day of December, the First Sunday of Advent of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom is honor and glory for ever and ever.  Amen.”

There you have the outline of the entire Church year.  At the very least it suggests that the Church calendar is not some random selection of feasts that haphazardly crop up when we need something to lift our spirits.  They are organized to tell a story, in installments, and it all begins on the foundation of Christmas.  Without Christmas none of the rest of it makes much sense.  With Christmas, however, you have a statement of faith that defines a way of life, and you have to make repeat visits to hear and experience the whole story.  In other words, if you’re going to be a Christian, Christmas is not quite enough.  But it is the necessary starting point on a pilgrimage to a full life.

img_0299_2In his sermon on Epiphany our confrere Fr. Ian reinforced this sense of continuity with his reference to the star of Bethlehem that guided both shepherds and magi alike.  Despite our inclination to think of that star in astronomical terms, its real meaning in the Christian story is allegorical.  The star represents light, and for us who are Christians the light of our lives is Christ.  Christ is the reference point for the decisions we make in life.  Christ is the anchor from whom we choose not to drift.  Christ is the foundation on whom we build our home.  In sum, Jesus is more than a sweet child in a manger.  He’s the one who ultimately calls us to follow him in living noble and loving and sometimes even sacrificial lives.  That is the wisdom we adopt for ourselves when we choose to follow Christ our light.

So there you have it.  If you hadn’t heard that Ash Wednesday this year falls on March 1st, you know it now.  So save that date and all the others on the list.  Meanwhile don’t fritter away the next few weeks of Ordinary Time as if they were pointless.  In fact, those weeks and days are gifts from the Lord.  Let’s use them well as we take a breather on the path to Lent.  And if all this is too much “church” for you, then remember, there’s always February 14th, the feast of Saint Valentine.

img_0105_2Notes

+On January 2nd and 3rd I participated in the mid-winter workshop for the monks of Saint John’s.

+From January 4th through the 7th I was in San Francisco with our University president, Michael Hemesath, for meetings with several alumni.  We did not have to wait very long for our first meeting, as we unexpectedly sat with two alumni on the outbound flight.  We met yet another on the return flight.

+On January 7th I attended the celebration in St. Paul of Irene Okner, on her 100th birthday.  On her 90th birthday I was honored to give a blessing, and at the time I  saluted her for an achievement that few others on the planet accomplish.  She had likely achieved immortality, “since statistics show that very few people die after the age of 90.”  We are already making plans for her 110th birthday celebration.

img_0291_2+The photos in today’s post all show works from the National Gallery in Washington.  The first is “The Virgin and Child with Saint John,” Florence, 15th c., by a follower of Andrea del Verrochio.  Second is “The Adoration of the Magi,” by Giovanni di Paolo di Grazia, Siena, ca. 1450.  Next is the “Adoration of the Magi” by Benvenuto di Giovanni, Siena, ca. 1470.  Following that is “The Flight into Egypt,” by Vittore Carpacio, Venice, ca. 1515.  At bottom is “The Madonna and Child,” by Domenico Ghirlandaio, Florence, ca. 1450.

 

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IMG_0145Epiphany: A Way of Life

[I delivered the following sermon at the Abbey Mass on the feast of the Epiphany.]

Several years ago I went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with some members of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre.  Like everybody else, I was moved by the experience of the holy city of Jerusalem and its church of the Holy Sepulchre.  The same was true for the church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.  But oddly enough, and to my great surprise, it was not those places that struck my imagination most deeply.  That big jolt was reserved for a Coptic church which we visited in the old city of Cairo.

That church had originally been a pagan temple, built years before the birth of Jesus.  Sometime in the 4th century it was recycled into Christian use, and inside was a shrine to the holy family.  Local tradition held that it was to that very neighborhood that the holy family had come to find refuge.  It was in that neighborhood, most likely Jewish, where somebody reached out and offered hospitality to an impoverished and frightened couple and their child.  It was then that it struck me.  If any of the local tradition was true, then I was inside one of the few buildings anywhere that Joseph, Mary and Jesus had lain eyes upon.  Conceivably that building had been part of their experience, and now it was part of mine.  That Coptic church tangibly connected me to the holy family in a way that nothing in Jerusalem did.

IMG_0146On the feast of the Epiphany we celebrate the revelation of God’s son to the peoples of the world.  Often we cast this feast in a sugary vision of magi visiting a manger in a cave.  It’s a wonderfully tranquil scene, and all seems calm and all seems bright.  It reinforces those words from the Roman Martyrology that affirm that Jesus was born when the whole world was at peace.

As lovely as that scene might be, the adoration of the magi hints at storm clouds on the horizon.  King Herod is anxious about his throne, and the magi are suspicious of his motives.  As for Joseph and Mary, dark rumors disturb their joy, and soon enough they are off to Egypt, with no idea of when or if they will ever return.  So it is that Mary had one more thing to ponder in her heart.  What might her son become someday, if he even lived to become an adult?

IMG_0378_2At Epiphany Jesus makes his first appearance on the world stage.  No longer is his birth a matter for Joseph and Mary and a few shepherds, because the circle is now set to expand.  Soon enough it includes Herod in his palace and draws in sages from a distant land.  Soon enough Jesus then meets those who gave them aid in Egypt.  And in time he touches his disciples, and the crowds that hung on his words, and the leaders who plot out his death.  In short, Mary had good reason to consider the words of Simeon, who prophesied that Jesus would cause the rise and fall of many in Israel.

At Christmas it’s easy to get caught up in the naive imagery of the manger and forget that Jesus came to be about his father’s business.  It’s easy to forget that Joseph and Mary and Jesus were political exiles who fled for their lives.  It’s easy to forget that someday Jesus would be a convicted felon and would suffer capital punishment by order of the state.  It’s easy — and convenient — to forget that Jesus puts a fundamental challenge to each of us who hear and read and meditate on his words.  Inherent in the feast of the Epiphany is the challenge that demands some sort of life-changing response from us.

IMG_0379_2Ultimately that’s what I took away from my visit to the Coptic church in Cairo.  2,000 years ago some people in the local Jewish community consciously chose to extend hospitality to three people who sought asylum in a strange land.  Those people likely had no idea who it was they helped, but they reached out anyway, and helped three pe0ple who turned out to be heaven-sent.

So what do we take with us from the feast of the Epiphany?  First is the realization that Jesus made his first appearances as a helpless child, and then he was a political exile and an immigrant.  Only later do we know him as teacher and the one who died for our sins.

Second, Jesus still appears to us, but he does so now in the faces of all sorts of people.  He’s in the faces of the poor child, the immigrants, and the asylum seekers.  He’s also seen in the faces of all those in distress and in those whose lives seem to be going well.  In short, Jesus does this to remind us that all are created in the image of God.  And by all he means all, not some.

IMG_0234_2Finally, what might we as monks take away from the feast of the Epiphany?  Given the Rule of Saint Benedict that we’ve chosen to follow, it seems to me that Epiphany has been designed especially for us.  Saint Benedict teaches that we are privileged to see Christ both in our confreres and especially in our guests.  He also reminds us that we’ll never run out of guests, suggesting that the experience of “God with us” is never-ending.  And so it is that we welcome into our lives our visitors in the guesthouse, our students and colleagues, and all who come to pray with us.

For monks and for all Christians, then, Epiphany is not meant to be seasonal entertainment.  It’s a way of life.  Epiphany is what we ought to experience every day as we rub elbows with the people whom God sends into our lives.  And it’s an experience that we take one step further as we gather around this altar to experience the “Lord with us” in his body and blood.  Let us pray today and every day that we continue to see the Epiphany of Christ, in ways imagined and surprising, both now and forever.  Amen.

IMG_0230_2Notes

+On December 31st, following evening prayer, we monks gathered to usher in the new year.  By tradition I and the monks on my floor in the monastery host the event, which includes card and board games, refreshments, and wonderful conversation.  At 9:00 pm, again by long-standing tradition, Brother Dennis and his helpers bring in pizza which they have made from scratch.  By  midnight the crowd has thinned out considerably, but the new year comes anyway.

+On January 2nd I attended the home basketball game between Saint John’s and Saint Mary’s University (MN).  I’d not been to a basketball game in ages, and it was nice to be there to see the good guys win.

+On January 3rd I was the celebrant at the Abbey Mass at Saint John’s.

+The photos in today’s post begin with the magi as they progress toward the manger scene in the abbey church (top two.)  Then follow two stained glass windows from the abbey of Reichenau in Germany, which I visited a couple of years ago.  In the final two photos is The Nativity by Petrus Christus, ca. 1450, and The Presentation in the Temple, by the Master of the Prado, ca. 1470.  Both are housed at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.

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imageEpiphany: It’s in the Stars

When the new year hits, most people I know craft resolutions that promise to reshape their destiny.  I’ve done it as well, despite knowing that by mid-January those life-changing resolves will be but a distant memory.

This year I decided to turn to astrology instead.  For one thing, if the movements of the stars and planets determine everything, then how can my own feeble actions thwart such forces?  This may very well explain why all new year’s resolutions ultimately fail.  So this year I’ve decided to give the stars a chance.  If they ordain it all, then who am I to go against the flow?

I surveyed the qualifications of several astrologers, and I immediately drew one shocking conclusion.  If the zodiac rules everything, then we should expect that all astrologers should be on the same page.  But they’re not.  In fact, they’re all over the zodiacal charts, and you are left to choose which predictions best determine the future you most want.

In that spirit, I narrowed my guides to two:  Susan Miller from The Washington Post, and an unnamed writer from The Onion.  The Post is an obvious choice, since it can be fairly accurate, when it chooses to be so.  I selected The Onion in  the spirit of modern journalism.  If you’re reporting a story, it’s always important to present an opposing view, no matter how off-the-wall the source may be.  The Onion itself is that opposing version of reality.  Its editors do it better than anyone; and best of all, they’re honest about their intentions.

imageMiller offered a year-ahead overview, which I thought could be a huge help to me as I step into 2014.  Her analysis for Virgo, my sign, was really encouraging.  “You’ll have the ability to make new friends in the first half of 2014.”  But then my paranoia asserted itself, and I wondered whether all those friendships might dissolve come July.

Equally fuzzy was her crystal-clear advice on the likes of Facebook and Twitter.  “Getting involved with social media will also benefit you now in ways you have not imagined.”  Since I write a blog, which I guess counts as social media, that sounded pretty good.  But then I began to wonder about those promised “benefits.”  Might they be wonderful, or might they be horrible?  Both have happened to people on Twitter, and we know some of the horror stories.  So I guess I’ll just have to wait and see what benefits come my way.

I finally realized what an exact science astrology is when I read this bit:  “The full moon weekend of July 12-13 may be divine or just the opposite — all will hinge on how things have been going all along.”  Needless to say, this was music to my ears.  I had been hoping to hear that.

imageAs of today, The Onion hasn’t offered any forecast for 2014, and so I settled for its prognosis for Virgo for the week of December 10th.  Its assessment was short and sweet and a real help to me.  “Nobody understands the excruciating pain you’re going through.  [So true.]  Although having to listen to you drone on and on about it is torture of a whole different kind.”  That last bit of insight was especially helpful.  If my friends can only think of their own pain while I share my tale of personal woes, then what good are they to me?  Thanks to The Onion I’m entering 2014 and expecting a lot less of people.  And as a bonus, this may help to explain why I might have no friends after July, as Miller seems to hint.

This sort of speculation may seem a bit irreverent, coming as it does from a monk.  Still, the astral sciences do figure in the gospels, and they are at the heart of Saint Matthew’s narrative of the Epiphany.  Whether one interprets magi to mean astrologers, fortune-tellers, or wise men, they nevertheless followed a star.  And when they discussed their mission with King Herod, he too wanted to know where that star was leading them.  All the while, Matthew writes as if following stars was the most natural thing in the world.  There’s no hint of judgment in his tone, despite the total absence of any record that Jesus, Mary or Joseph ever consulted palm readers or divined the skies.

imageAnalysts of ancient Roman culture have written about the grip that fate seemed to hold over the human imagination.  From the human perspective, unnamed forces controlled and guided life, and not unnaturally this engendered huge anxiety.  To what fate were people headed?  What would be their ultimate destiny?

By contrast, Jesus wasted no time on such despair and resignation.  That mechanical view of human existence was entirely alien to him, as it was to most of Jewish thought.  No, creation was intensely personal, and everyone had the possibility to live good and decent lives.  Better still, you had a responsibility to live such lives.  If not by choice, how could one possibly enter into loving relationships with God and neighbor?

It’s that religious conviction that causes me to enjoy astrology as benign entertainment, but nothing more.  When push comes to shove, I can blame the stars or anything else when things go right or wrong in my life.  But sooner or later my own responsibility kicks in.  So it is that I cannot put my life in the hands of fate.  I have to make some decisions.  I have to give life my best shot.  I have to be the one who makes the most of the talents and opportunities that God plops in front of me.

imageRather ironically, near the end of her reading for Virgo, Susan Miller suggest this very thing.  Perhaps because she has no desire to be pinned down exactly, she offers a bit of advice that undercuts the determinism that astrology seems to prescribe for us.  “In terms of fun and love, you have such a happy outlook, but it will be up to you to push back from your computer to go out and take full advantage.”

There you have it, straight from the seer’s pen, and I will write Amen to that.  And I would encourage you to do the same.

So as soon as you finish reading this post — and not until you’ve read every scrap of it, of course — push back from your computer and seize life.  Greet 2014 with optimism and determination, and live each day to the fullest.  After all, it’s what Jesus would want you to do.  He came that all might have life, and to have it in abundance.  He’d be keenly disappointed if all we did was to sit around, bewailing our fate.   His news is good news, and it doesn’t come from the stars.  Rather, it’s all a gift from God.

imageNotes

+On December 30th I concelebrated at a funeral that took place at Saint Patrick’s Church in Edina, MN.  It was a large and wonderful event, and no doubt the deceased was delighted that the Christmas decorations were still in place.  Christmas was her favorite day.

+This week I had the opportunity to visit the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.  It’s a great museum, with many outstanding collections — including one of the best Asian collections in the country.  Their items from medieval Europe are not so many, but adjacent to this text are two that I found particularly lovely.  The first is a Nativity by Fra Angelico, painted on a poplar panel, ca. 1425-30.  The second is the central panel of a tryptic by Bernardo Daddi, painted ca. 1312.  Both are timely for the Christmas season.

image+On December 31st the monks gathered to celebrate the coming of the new year.  We are not nearly as ambitious as some revelers; and given that many monks retire early, we push the schedule ahead.  This  year, as in the past, several monks together prepared home-made pizzas, which arrived at 9 pm.  Meanwhile, monks enjoyed conversation, card and board games, and each other’s company.  Like many of my confreres, my body clock seems to be in tune with the Maritime Provinces of Canada.  So at 10 pm we declared it to be midnight and celebrated the new year.  Then I went to bed, assured that the die-hards would represent us when the new year came at midnight, Central Time.

+Not surprisingly, artists for thousands of years have incorporated the signs of the zodiac into their work.  The enclosed photos show a fresco on the ceiling outside of the former office of the abbot.   They were painted by Brother Clement, a monk of the Benedictine archabbey of Beuron in Germany.

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