Saturday, January 06, 2007

Happy Epiphany!

Today in Italy is the feast of the Epiphany. This is the day the Church celebrates three luminous mysteries of the life of Christ. The first is the adoration of the magi (which tradition numbers as being three, Casper, Melchior and Balthezar). The second is the Baptism in the Jordan, and third is Jesus's changing of water into wine at the wedding feast of Cana.

We can talk about how the magi represent the nations and how the gentiles came to recognize Christ as God and how the light of the star illuminated the magi to come to know Jesus. We can talk about Herod as being the one who is afraid of change and uncertainty, looking for security and how the magi represent those who leave everything to seek out God (thanks, Marta). But concerning the magi, I want to focus on the gifts: gold, frankinsense, and myrrh. Gold is a gift for a king and therefore is supposed to represent royalty. Frankinsense is for offering to God and so is priestly. And myrrh, since it was used in funeral rights, is for burial, and in this sense is profetic since it foreshadows Christ's burial.

Yet, we don't have these gifts... gold, frankinsense, and myrrh. So what can we give the child Jesus? How about the gold of charity, in thought, word and deed? And what about the frankinsense of prayer, especially thanksgiving, praise, and petition? What what about the myrrh of dying to sin, dying to ourselves... that is being united to Christ's death?

The last one might especially sound morbid... dying to oneself... death. But we have to remember that the gift of myrrh that we can Jesus, is not our death in general, but our death to sin and to egoism... our death in Him... a death united to his passion, and thus ultimately also united to His resurrection. So, if we remember that we are not dying to ourselves unto ultimate death, but dying to ourselves unto Life, this then has an aspect of hope and the joy of the Resurrection! The dying to ourselves becomes "the time of pruning" mentioned in the Song of Songs 2:10-13, a springtime growth (by the way, this is the real meaning of the word "Lent," "Springtime").

Tha Baptism in the Jordan: Okay, we can talk about the first Theophany and how the Baptism of Jesus represents the first appearance on earth of the Holy Trinity: The voice of the Father, the Spirit descending upon Jesus in the form of a dove, and Jesus. We can also talk about how Jesus, in being baptized, places himself in the context of sinful humanity even though he is the sinless one. But, what I would like to mention about the Baptism is the link to the paschal mystery. In response to their request to be at his right and at his left, Jesus says to James and John "Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?" (Mark 10:35-40). Here Jesus is making a reference to his passion as a baptism. And we know that the Paschal Mystery, Christ's dying and rising again is a fulfillment of the figure of the first paschal mystery, the crossing of the people of Israel through the red sea on dry land. And we know that God did not liberate his people from the slavery of Egypt back then for no good reason, but rather to make covenant with them at Sinai and give them the law. Likewise, God liberated us from the slavery of sin in the passion, descent into the underworld, and resurrection of Jesus in order to make a new convenant with them and give them a new law (Holy Spirit at pentecost... and it wasn't so much a new law or new covenant as much as making new and fulfilling the figure of the old, making it into the reality prefigured).

So the baptism of Jesus, what do we have? Jesus is baptized (think, entering into the water). The Spirit comes upon him, and he is sent out into the desert for fourty days where he was tested by the devil (and he overcomes the temptations).

What happened in the first passover? The people passed through the water, received the law and then wandered in the desert for forty years where they were put to the test and are unfaithful. Only after wandering as pilgrims and strangers were they brought into the promised land.

What relevance does all this have in our lives as Christians? First we can see the meaning that Jesus's Baptism and time in the desert have. Jesus fulfilled what was lacking in the first exodus. Where the people of Israel were unfaithful to God and gave into temptations, Jesus does not give in but overcomes those temptations. He has "overcome the world."

But also let us look at it this way, the believer in Christ, in being baptized into Him and into His Paschal Mystery, in a real though mysterious way, shares in the mystery of the new Passover and the new exodus. We too, in and through Jesus, are liberated from the slavery to sin. We too receive the Holy Spirit, the new law, as it were, at the Sinai of Pentecost.

And so where does that leave us? We, like Jesus, and like the people of Israel of the first exodus, are in the desert, on pilgrimage toward the promised land (with the difference that this promised land is our true inheritance - heaven - and we mysteriously already partake of that reality in and through Christ, since he has ascended bodily into heaven... there's the "already and not yet" spoken about in theology... how we already share in the heavenly mystery but in an way that is still not fulfilled). Like the people of Israel were given Mana in the desert, we are given the true bread of angels to sustain us on our journey. Like the people of Israel were put to the test in the desert, so too is our life on this pilgrimage toward the promised land, filled with trials and we are put to the test. The difference being that Jesus was already put to the test for us and so our being put to the test is simply a sharing in His... it is making up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ. And we walk, as Jesus did, until our personal calvary (again one of participation in Jesus's Calvary for those, who being baptized in Christ, are living a life ever more united to Christ). The fact that Jesus was already put to the test for us, means that He can give us the strength to endure. This is what he means when he says "In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world." We also hear in Hebrews 4:15-16 that "we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin. So let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help."

What does this all mean? What it means is that the journey of faith we enter into through baptism, is not one that will be devoid of trials. What was it that Francis said, that he did not consider one to be a friend of God unless one had already suffered numerous trials and tribulations. Now, that might sound pessimistic, but maybe instead it is necessary to be realistic about life. And not just "realistic" in the sense of a smoke screen for pessimism, but realistic so that faith can turn into real hope, and not just be a Pollyanna wishful thinking. Embracing the reality of life, that it is full of trials, that it is not unlimited here on this earth, that it requires commitment and will mean pain at times, is embracing the cross. And when we as Christians embrace the cross, we embrace the one died on the cross, the Risen One. So we do not embrace a death unto death but a death unto the illusion that we are immortal and all powerful, we embrace the poverty of spirit and the meekness of the beatitudes, coming to realize the truth about our human existence, so that God can truly be glorified when he shows his power in the midst of our limited experience.

This gets into the third mystery of the Epiphany, the changing of water into wine at the wedding feast of Cana. It is not just about a neat parlor trick. It is a symbolic gesture. A wedding feast... ulimately it is Christ who is the Bridegroom and we the bride. So, not only does God love us in our limited and humble nature, but in making the new covenant with us, he did not just symbolize a marriage between God and man, as he did in the past, but actualized it in the incarnation. This sheds light on what St. Romanos the Melodist wrote in his Kontakion for the Nativity,
“High King, what have you to do with beggars?
Maker of heaven, why have you come to those born of earth?
Did you love a cave or take pleasure in a manger?"

The "answer" is that He loved us and wanted us to be united to Him, but we could spend forever complating the "answer" (and I hope we will spend forever doing just that).

So, in coming to understand what our life really is about, in becoming humble, accepting the cross, accepting our limitations, only then can we begin to understand the greatness of what God did for us and continues to do for us. Only then can we begin to sound the height and depth and breadth and width of God's love. And won't this make the journey joyful?

Happy Epiphany and Bon Voyage!

(Baa, Baa, Baa! Much I say, and little I do! St. Juniper pray for us)

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