On Hoskin Avenue in Toronto, Ontario, Canada two esteemed institutions of theological training face one another from opposing sides of the street: Wycliffe College in the Evangelical or low-church Anglican tradition and Trinity College in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. Several years ago, a friend of mine visited both schools during Eastertide, and upon arriving at Wycliffe she discovered a large sign out front that proclaimed, “He is risen! He is not here!” She further discovered, however, that someone had taken a large marker and underneath scrawled, “He is across the street!”
While this humorous slight was surely done in jest, the reality is that we often find ourselves in truly pitched battles about the right ways and the wrongs ways to do things, and we quickly lose sight of the higher and deeper calling we have to transcend our divisions for the sake of the Gospel. Nowhere better do we see this than in today’s Gospel reading. The stories of Jairus and the hemorrhaging woman display in sharp relief the reality that God’s work in the world transcends every single constraint or parameter that we might want to put on it.
On the one hand, we find Jairus, a man of power and influence. As leader of the Synagogue, it is clear that he is a man who “should know better.” His compatriots scorning of Jesus suggests that his kind of people do not need help, do not need healing, do not need a savior. In the tragedy of his daughter’s illness, however, Jairus sees his own brokenness and is humbled in his helplessness. On the other hand, we find this unnamed woman who has suffered from twelve years of hemorrhaging. She is left destitute, and her affliction puts her in a state of constant ritual impurity according to Jewish law. Her kind of people seem beyond help, beyond healing, beyond salvation. Yet, her audacity compels her forwards. Both this unnamed woman and Jairus fall at the feet of Jesus in recognition of his Kingship, in recognition of his healing and transformative mercy. And what does Jesus do? He simultaneously names and acknowledges the faithfulness and sincerity of both the unnamed woman and Jarius, the low in this story and the high, the poor and the rich. Christ transcends all of the seeming constraints in order to respond in mercy and love. Let us pray that we too can have the same humility to recognize our own powerlessness and the same audacity to ask the creator and redeemer of the universe for the truly life giving transformation that we all desperately need.
And what do we as the Church become when we live into these principles corporately? We become a community of generosity, wholeness, and love. We become a community that incorporates the rich and influential insider and the marginalized and oppressed outsider simultaneously and seamlessly. Imagine what the Church would like today if we recommitted ourselves in earnest desperation to the heart of the Gospel, if we put aside our divisions to welcome everyone in love in the name of Christ. Imagine if the prayer on our lips every moment of every day was, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Imagine the witness that this would have in the world, in our nation, and in our very city.
At the end of the day, the sign at the beginning of the sermon was not completely wrong. Yes, Jesus is risen and not in the tomb, and yes Jesus is with us when as we gather ourselves in this congregation to worship him, but Jesus in case we forget is also across the street. Jesus is out there as much as he is in here. When we live into our mission to be a Christ-centered, Kingdom-centered faithful community, filled with generosity and love, we play our part in bearing witness to the truly earth shattering and transformative healing that Christ offers to a broken and hurting world. Let us therefore be reinvigorated in our faith, renewed in our hopes, and reoriented towards the work that truly matters. Amen.
Mt 2. 1-12
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Once again, the Feast of the Epiphany, with its tale of three seers traveling with the guidance of a star to find the Baby Jesus in an unlikely place. The wise ones bring gifts that symbolize the true nature of the Incarnation and the complete identity of this baby—gold, for His royalty; frankincense for His divinity; and myrrh for His humanity—for His full sharing, with the rest of us, in vulnerability to innocent suffering and to death. In religious painting the gift givers have been portrayed as one coming from Africa, one from East Asia, and one from Europe—a way of saying that the true identity of Jesus attracts the whole of humanity to the place of His birth.
We all know these as the meanings of Epiphany. We also know that in the past generation a new meaning has developed in everyday talk: people say “I had an epiphany,” meaning a new and unexpected insight or realization. Sidebar: in linguistics, being a “prescriptive grammarian” is not good form—linguists say that usage trumps rules of correctness—but I want to be a bit prescriptive this morning and say that strictly speaking, as Christians we don’t have epiphanies, rather, we witness them. The word “Epiphany” comes from two Greek particles: phanein, which means “appearance” and epi, which means movement “up, out, away” from something. So epi-phanein is an appearance projected outward—a manifestation of the true nature of a being. The notion of epiphany includes a perceiver as well as a source of appearance. But one doesn’t have an epiphany, one may witness an epiphany, recognize it.
Or not. Epiphanies are easy to overlook, which is why the word connotes surprise. God does not force Epiphany on us; its recognition comes through quiet inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Without that inspiration Herod was unable to see the true nature of the baby Jesus, and so was the inn keeper, who had no room to house a pregnant girl who arrived from out of town about to give birth. So too, later in Jesus’s life, would Caiaphas the high priest, and Pilate the Roman governor fail to recognize Who Jesus Really Was. But at the beginning of the life of Jesus the elite scholarly travelers from the east and the humble shepherds who had come even earlier to the manger—smelly workers whose work was despised—whether privileged or unprivileged, those visitors were drawn to the stable as witnesses to Epiphany, in and through the Spirit recognizing something wonderful in the baby Jesus.
As the Epiphany season continues, manifestations of Who He Really Was continue—in the stories of His Baptism, the summoning of the disciples, the witness of the insane man in the synagogue at Capernaeum who calls Jesus “The holy one of God,” the healing of a sick woman. The Gospel accounts as a whole are stories of Epiphanies, of their witnesses, and of those who overlooked them.
Through this season the Church invites us to become more and more observant and perceptive witnesses of Epiphany—as we grow in understanding of the true nature of Jesus as revealed in scripture and tradition, as we come to see Jesus more and more clearly in the sacrament of the altar, and as we come to see Jesus in the world beyond these walls, in our daily rounds and far away. In Matthew’s gospel (Mt. 25. 37-40) Jesus tells of the righteous ones who ask their King “But when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty, and give you a drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you? And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.”
Epiphanies surround us here and now, and if we attend to them they become opportunities for witness and action. It is up to us to see and act. As St. Teresa of Avila said, “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”
St. Teresa’s words point to an even deeper meaning of Epiphany for us. Having received the Spirit of God in Baptism, in that new life we have been given the capacity to recognize the Epiphanies around us now. But there’s more than that—through our Baptism we become “very members incorporate” (as Archbishop Cranmer said) in the body of Christ—which is to say nothing less than that the Incarnation that began in Bethlehem continues in us here today. Through Baptism you and I are not only empowered as witnesses of Epiphany, but re-created, re-born as manifestations of Epiphany Itself—as icons of Christ for this time and this place. Here is what St. Augustine said in the late Fourth Century about our participation in the body of Christ (Sermon 272): “Listen to the Apostle telling the faithful: You are the body of Christ and its members. So if it’s you that are the body of Christ and its members, it’s the mystery meaning you that has been placed on the table of the Lord; what you receive is the mystery that means you. What you hear, then, is ‘The body of Christ’, and you answer, ‘Amen’. So be a member of the body of Christ, in order to make that Amen true.”
“The body of Christ. Amen—yes.” Liturgical scholars have noted this understanding as one aspect of the origins of genuflection in the ancient Church. In St. Augustine’s day, converts before their Baptism—catechumens--were allowed to attend the scripture readings at the beginning of the Mass, but then were required to leave as the offertory began. They waited together outside the entrance to the church, and as the baptised worshippers came out after Mass, the catechumens would kneel before them, because they had received the Body of Christ at the altar and now were going forth to re-present Christ in the world.
As we celebrate once again a new season of Epiphany, let us pray not that we may “have” an Epiphany, but that we may become more and more perceptive witnesses of Epiphany, wherever those manifestations of Christ may appear to us today. And let us dare to pray for even more than that—not only for you and me to witness Epiphany but for you and me to be Epiphany. Here. Now.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.