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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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