How is it that ye sought me? Wist ye not that I must
be about my Father’s business?
St. Luke ii. 49)
Today we begin the mystical season of Epiphany. Epiphany comes from the Greek word επιθανεια, meaning manifestation, shining forth, or striking appearance. In the Greek churches the Feast of the Epiphany is also known as Theophany, which means Vision of God. Both titles point us to the luminary and enlightening qualities of the season, as our souls lovingly pursue the manifestation of God the Father's will in the life of His only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ. In this season we are called to wonderment, discovery, and amazement at the Divine Light which will reveal the life, wisdom, and love of God in His Son.
So today we turn to the supernatural revelation or manifestation of God’s life in the birth of Jesus Christ. The paradigm that affords its discovery is found in the spiritual journey made by the Wise Men who came from the East, chronicled by St. Matthew in his Gospel. Their spiritual search began with a scientific study of nature. The Magi, or Wise Men, were astronomers who studied the movements of the planets and stars to discern and glean those permanent principles that define created existence. Following what we might call the God-given natural light, they discovered the truths and laws of nature. But in the midst of their celestial contemplations their vision was distracted, their reason disturbed, and their hearts pierced by the beams of a brighter Light shining from a greater star, the likes of which they had never seen before. To be sure it was a star, but its presence and power captivated them so inwardly and spiritually that they were drawn externally and visibly to follow it. In fact, by the time we learn of them in St. Matthew’s Gospel, we see that it had moved them to travel… from the East… to Jerusalem. (St. Matthew ii. 1) Moved above and beyond their stationary study of the laws of matter, motion, and gravity, these Wise Men were moved to find God’s spiritual reformation of all earthly existence in the birth of the promised King of the Jews.
Following this Divine Light, their search swept through Jerusalem and into the throne-room of King Herod the Great. Where is he that is born King of the Jews? they enquire. For we have seen His star in the east, and are come to worship Him. (Ibid, 2) As Bishop Andrewes reminds us, they do not ask the King whether the King of the Jews was born. They do not query when He was born, how He was born, nor do they even ask who He was. By the time they reached Jerusalem, the star had already made them into believers. They want to know Where He is? For born He is, they are sure…. His star is up. It is risen. Therefore He is risen too. (L.S.: Sermon, Dec. 25, 1620)
And yet this Light which they followed did not lead them directly to the birthplace of the King of the Jews. Revelation demands a real effort from those who would rightly interpret it. (The Christian Year in the Times, p. 34) The journey made by the Wise Men was no easy task. They had traveled from afar and as aliens into foreign territory. These were Gentiles who came from Persia or beyond into Roman-occupied Palestine, the children of those who in olden times had held all Israel captive, and now were so captivated by the newborn King of the Jews that they sought to worship Him! Thus the Wise Men might have feared that Herod and the Jews would take opportunity to settle an old historical score. So too, they came as barbarians from beyond the borders of Octavian Caesar’s civilized Empire, and so had no assurance of Roman protection. Yet more than these threats from without, there were threats from within on the ground of their souls. They were walking by faith with no absolute knowledge of the where, when, why, or how of their unusual spiritual odyssey. Their faith would be tried and imperiled by doubts and uncertainty. And what of the natural exhaustion bound to impede the progress of such a long journey? Truly, these Wise Men must have been possessed of a courageous faith that enabled them to persevere and persist in their search for this new King. And so, as Bishop Andrewes has written: They were neither afraid of Herod, nor ashamed of Christ; but professed their errand, and cared not who knew it. (Idem) So they confessed and denied not, believed and proclaimed that the promised King of the Jews had been born and that, come what may, they were determined to find Him. For, as the Bishop suggests, they were so desirous to… be there as soon… as they possibly might… that they broke through all these difficulties. (Ibid)
Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. (Hebr. xi. 1) The supernatural Light in the sky not only generated their faith but inspired them to seek out and find the reward of their belief. The Wise Men’s astronomical learning led them beyond nature to find a supernatural truth. But in order to discover where the King of the Jews is, the Light that guided them needed to grow stronger and clearer through Jewish prophecy. Abraham was promised an heir in whom all the families of the earth [would] be blessed. (Gen. xii. 3). Isaiah had foretold that nations that knew not [Israel would] run unto [her] because of the Lord… [and to find] the Holy One of Israel. (Is. lv. 5) But when the Wise Men asked, Where is He that is born King of the Jews? they must have been astounded to learn that Herod and the Jews had not been watching and waiting for this coming King. That the Gentile scientists’ faith should reveal this birth to God’s own people seems extraordinary. And yet just as the star was no mere star, so these new believers were no commonplace believers. The supernatural Light was revealed to unexpected people, in an unexpected place, and took them on an unexpected journey to find an unexpected King in unexpected surroundings. None of this should surprise us. The supernatural Light gave birth to faith that moved an alien people out of an alien place to a King who would be treated as alien, who was hidden and concealed to His own people. For, He came unto His own, but His own received Him not. (St. John i. 11) When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. (Ibid, 3)
The chief priests and scribes had reminded Herod of Micah’s prophecy that Christ should be born in Bethlehem of Judah. Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found Him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship Him also. (Ibid, 7-9) Herod had no intention of worshiping a king who came from a world in which he did not believe. He enquired diligently about the timing of the star’s appearing so that he could kill off any potential usurpers of his earthly throne. But over and against the sinful incredulity of a selfish King, the faith of the alien Gentile Wise Men was growing with new knowledge of past Jewish prophesy. It turned out that the unusual and extraordinary star had brought them to an unusual and extraordinary king who was born in an unusual and extraordinary place, generating in them an unusual and extraordinary faith. So, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way. (Ibid, 9-12)
In the end their faith is rewarded because they have searched diligently for the child. (Idem) They have found Christ, the King of the Jews, and so they fall down and worship Him. They have been moved to bring gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. They have found this spiritual king, and so they must surrender their earthly treasure, gold. (Ye cannot serve God and Mammon. (St. Matthew vi. 24) To bear the earthly presence of this Heavenly Visitor, the air must be purified of the profane and perverse with frankincense. (Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of His glory. And the posts of the door moved at the voice of Him that cried, and the house was filled with incense. (Is. vi. 3,4) Finally, the King whom they come to worship is the One who is born to die, and so they bring myrrh, a burial ointment. (He hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows; yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities…and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Is. liii. 3-6)
The supernatural Light has led the Wise Men to the source of that Wisdom which alone can redeem and save humanity. If we, like they would find this Wisdom in the King of the Jews, we must follow His star in faith. Then we shall find that God’s own Word is made flesh only in the humblest, most inconspicuous and unlikely of places – the manger or cave beyond the earthly comfort of the King’s palace or even a local Inn. We shall find Him, as in today’s Gospel, not first and foremost with his natural mother and stepfather, but in the Temple and about His father’s business. (Idem) In this King we shall find that life which alone leads to salvation, where Divine truth rules and governs the human heart, and from there shines forth as a star of hope to the tired and perplexed in this sin-weary world. Then with all Wise Men, we shall sing with Robert Bridges the song of the star that leads all men to the place where God and man meet in one heart:
Mortal though I be, yea ephemeral, if but a moment
I gaze up to the night’s starry domain of heaven,
Then no longer on earth I stand; I touch the Creator,
And my lively spirit drinketh immortality.
Nay lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them.
(St. Matthew xiii. 29)
We have said that our Epiphany-tide is a Season of Light. And the Light that we have been trying to follow in faith, to see and understand, to embrace and cherish, is Christ’s Light. And so we have been learning that this Light comes to us to make new life and love in our hearts and souls. But there is a danger associated with this Light. We must remember that there is a difference between flashing, blazing, or sparkling light on the one hand, and enduring, growing, and maturing Light on the other. The first light is experienced as fleeting, occasional, and at best temporary. It is found, generally, with the kind of person whose spiritual life is characterized by part-time highs, cheap thrills, and instantaneous gratification. The second Light, being Christ’s Light, is far more demanding, since it desires and longs to overcome, overtake, rule, and guide the whole of a man’s life. It is found in the kind of person who intends that his conversion should be the first moment on a long journey into healing and transformation, redemption and sanctification, with the reward of salvation.
Now the problem for most of us is that we are always wanting Christ the Light to manifest and reveal Himself to us in the manner of the first light. We want signs and wonders, we want glamour and glitz, we want our walk of faith to be full of transfiguration moments. We expect that because we are faithful church-going Christians, our journey should not be marked by struggles, difficulties, temptations, and distractions. We expect that our common life together in the church should be perfect and that our soul’s journey into God should be the same.
But our Lord knows otherwise and never intends that we should be mistaken about the nature and character of our journey into His Light. This is the reason for the parable which he offers for our meditation this morning. Let us listen to what He says. The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field….(St. Matthew xiii. 24) In this parable we are told that the kingdom of heaven is identified with a man, whom we should recognize as Christ the Son of Man, the Life and Light of God the Father, who wishes to sow the seed of new life into the hearts and souls of new Christians who would follow Him. And yet no sooner has He done this than we read that while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares – which we ought to see as temptations – among the wheat, and went his way. But when the blade [of wheat] was sprung up, and brought forth fruit, then appeared the tares also. (Ibid, 25, 26) What is interesting is that God, through His Son, sows only good seed, but that a devious and mischievous enemy, the Devil, comes in the night – while men slept, when they were weak and powerless. St. John Chrysostom tells us that the Devil did not sow before this, because he had nothing to destroy, but when all had been fulfilled that he might defeat the diligence of the Husbandman [the Son of Man]. (Catena Aurea) The devil had always tried to trap the ancient Jewish people; but with renewed vigour and determination he attacks Christians. The enemy intends to quash, quell, and quench conscientious and earnest Christians as they journey into Christ the Light. And the devil’s ways are so devious and cunning that until the Christian begins to spring up as a blade of righteousness, the Christian does not recognize the temptations that come from the field of tares that surround him. Prior to his growth into holiness, through Christ the Light, the Christian sees only other men or other plantings that look very much himself. The tares are men who have surrendered to the devious corruption of the Devil. For, as Christ says in another place, ye shall know them by their fruits. (St. Matthew vii. 16)
So we read in the parable that the servants of the householder came and said unto him, Sir, didst not thou sow good seed in thy field? From whence then hath it tares? He said unto them, An enemy hath done this. (Idem, 27, 28) What the Christian realizes, as Calvin remarks, is that wicked men are not created by the devil, but, having been created by God, are corrupted by the devil and thrown into the Lord’s field, in order to corrupt the pure seed. (CC: volume xvii) The Devil desires to interrupt and prevent Christ the Light from reaching and growing the good seed, and so he plants potentially distracting and corrupting tares in the Lord’s field or the church. And the Christian’s response to this invasive malice and malevolence seems logical enough; he wants to pull up the tares and burn them so that his spiritual experience is free of temptation, struggle, and distraction. Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up (Ibid, 28), the servants ask?
But the Lord’s answer is direct and deliberate: Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn. (Ibid, 29, 30) Here we find a rebuke of that Christian zeal and passion to root out all evil with force and suppression. Before God’s judgment day, it is always wrong for Christians to use violent means for the suppression of error (R.C.T.,Parables, pp. 80, 81), as Archbishop Trench remarks. The Lord clearly means to warn Christians against forced conversion of the evil to the good. For one thing we do not really know who is wheat and who is a tare. You will remember that the wheat and tares look very much the same before each grows up and bears fruit. God [alone] knows the secrets of the heart. (Ps. xliv. 21) Christians must not uproot the tares before the time of harvest, since their hope must be not for the destruction but for the conversion and salvation of tares into wheat. A man who is a tare today might become wheat or fruitful seed tomorrow.
Come to think of it, shouldn’t we all beware of the danger of becoming tares ourselves? Isn’t the real point of the parable that we all are liable and susceptible to the temptations and enticements of the Devil? To be sure there are men who become tares rather easily and quickly since they have never experienced the desire and passion of Christ the Light. But if the tares bother or distract us, so that we judge and condemn them, hasn’t the Devil made us into tares and not wheat? Haven’t the tares become false gods or idols to us because we are so moved, defined, and obsessed with their sins that we have forgotten the need to confess our own in the Light of Christ’s forgiveness and mercy? Then the Devil shall have so possessed and moved us by his corruption and perversion of the world, so that we truly become tares ourselves.
This is where I think the parable reveals its true force in our lives. The Lord allows the Devil to tempt, provoke, and distract us. The point is that we must not be overwhelmed by the temptations of sin whether they confront us in other men’s lives or in our own. To be sure, we are called to resist the continual presence of temptations, their determination to sever and break our complete reliance and dependence upon God. But this is just where they can be turned round for our good, and we can beat the Devil at his own game. Far from being the occasion of our unfaithfulness and disobedience to God, they can yield in us a more vigilant, acute, and cautious determination to please God in all our lives. Temptations are not sins, and they need not make us into tares. In a positive way, they can reveal and disclose to us, through Christ the Light, our own weakness, fragility, frailty, and powerlessness. What we learn through the tempting and alluring lives of the tares is that we can become the wheat of God or the good seed only through his power and constant care. To be made good, we must depend all the more upon Christ the Light to grow us up and into the fruit that he intends us to become. And more than this but just as important and instrumental to our becoming that fruit is the need to pray for the conversion of those who are now tares into the good seed or faithful sons and daughters of God. If the tares have helped us to become good seed, why shouldn’t we help them into the same state?
Today, my friends, let us be determined to become the good seed sown by the Son of man. To do so, let us thank God for the temptations, struggles, and difficulties that the tares of this world bring to us. When we become aware of sinful behavior, let us look within our own souls and see if we don’t often indulge the same sin or follow the same temptation. Let us thank God for the temptations of the tares, which in their own way, remind and recall us to our deeper dependence upon Christ the Light. Rather than their being flashing, blazing, or sparkling lights that lead us into superficial spirituality, and thus sin and sorrow, let them generate in us that deeper need for the Light of Christ that alone grows us as good seed into perfection. And, let us never be content that those tares should remain tares. When the Apostle this morning, tells us to put on…bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering; forbearing one another, and forgiving one another…putting on [also] charity, which is the bond of perfectness, (Col. iii. 12-14) he means that we should desire that the tares become wheat because Christ the Light desires that all men should become His good seed. If our relation to the tares is one of hope for their conversion, the Light of Christ shall shine forth out of us and into the lives of the tares, whose conversion is no less intended and desired by God. For, Christ the Light longs to shine into all men’s lives, drawing us and them closer and closer to the day, as Archbishop Trench remarks, [when] the dark hindering element [of the tares will be] removed [from the lives of the faithful]…[and] the element of Light, which was before struggling with and obstructed by it, shall come forth in its full brightness. That shall be the day ‘of the manifestation of the sons of God’; they ‘shall shine forth as the sun’, when the clouds are rolled away, they shall evidently appear, and be acknowledged by all, as ‘the children of Light’….(R.C.T., Parables, p. 86)
You can only apprehend the Infinite by a faculty that is superior
to reason, by entering into a state in which the Divine Essence
is communicated unto you."
Illumination and enlightenment are the themes of Epiphany tide. Επιϕανια is the Greek word for Epiphany, and it means manifestation or revelation, showing forth or shining forth. For Christians it refers to the disclosure of God’s love, wisdom, and power in the life of Jesus Christ---the Divine Life calling and summoning all men to the centrifugal center of reconciliation and communion with God. It is like the sun that opens the eyes not only to sight but understanding, whose rays inspire the human mind to discover and elicit the meaning and definition of existence. The illumination or enlightenment which comes from God through Christ to all men relates not only to our vision but also to the power that can change us. Through it men are invited to participate in the life of God beginning here and now.
And yet the light through which Christ manifests and illuminates God’s life and presence is not easily apprehended and accepted. If it could be, reason would acquiesce and adapt to its nature quickly, perhaps as swiftly as it assents to the proposition that two plus two makes four. But, as Plotinus reminds us, a faculty greater than reason is needed to pursue this truth, discover its meaning and enjoy its power. That faculty is called faith, for faith alone admits what it does not have, but desires to obtain and enjoy. Think about it. When you first fell in love, you did not yet have or possess the one you pursued. You had faith and confidence that there was something mysterious, deeper, and concealed that you wanted to embrace and cherish. Your faith pursued the object of your love in order to seek out and find a hidden reality, a deeper meaning attached to the one you trusted was meant for you! God works in the same way. He intrigues us, call us to follow and search out His meaning and desire with confidence that the truth is there to be discovered, as He progressively reveals Himself from the heart of His inner being. We can find Him only if we believe and trust that something most beautiful and meaningful is waiting to be disclosed and loved. If all that there is to know about Him were revealed externally, visibly and instantaneously to the human mind, there would be no place for a faith that follows and a love that grows.
So in Epiphany-tide our faith seeks to find and know our love. But the curious feature of our lections for the first three Sundays in this season is that of confusion. Have you noticed that in our recent Scriptural readings ignorance and uncertainty seem necessarily to precede enlightenment and knowledge? In them, we should have found that belief and opinion desire to overcome not-knowing and spiritual darkness. Where is He that is born king of the Jews? We have seen His star in the east and have come to worship Him, (St. Matthew 2. 2) the Wise Men ask. Something stirs these men to seek and quest after what they do not yet possess or know. Their faithful conviction or trust tells them that a star points to some deeper meaning and truth hidden in the birth of a poor child. And so they learn that their treasures exist for the sake of something higher, that God wants their riches to be surrendered for the sake of some deeper knowledge and some greater love. This was wholly unexpected and unanticipated.
Confusion and the unexpected compel those who love God to become more determined and diligent in their search for His truth. Last Sunday we found an example of the same kind of confusion. Joseph and Mary were alarmed and frightened at the prospect of losing their son Jesus. So they sought Him out. Their faith took them on journeys after knowledge and understanding, but here their love drives them through fear and terror. They hurry back to Jerusalem because they believe they have lost Jesus. Their faith has not completely prepared them for the unexpected, and so they become disheveled and confused. They find the child and exclaim to Him, Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us, behold thy father and I have sought Thee sorrowing. (St. Luke 2. 48) They are befuddled and perplexed further by His answer: Why is it that ye sought Me? Wist ye not that I must be about My Father’s business? (Ibid, 49) And yet, what do we read? His mother kept all these sayings in her heart. (Ibid, 51). In Mary’s heart there is a stirring towards knowledge and understanding because she trusts that there is more to be revealed and known in the life of Her Son.
Jesus is the wisdom of God that confounds human expectations. Jesus is also the power of God, who will transform the world. In today’s Gospel, now some years later, it would appear that Mary, once again, believes that she understands Her Son. She has pondered much and thinks now that finally she has a greater hold or grasp on who and what He is. He and she are at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. The wedding party has run out of wine. She has sensed the Divine love that His infant kingship has manifested; she has discovered Divine wisdom through His child-like rebuke; now she seeks to enlist His Divine power to overcome an earthly necessity. She knows Him, so she thinks, and points out the obvious: [Darling,] they have no wine. (St. John, ii. 3) The Mother believes, evidently, that Her Son’s mission and ministry is custom-made for the present predicament. Jesus thinks otherwise, and so proffers another firm rebuke. Woman what have I to do with thee? – or as a modern translation puts it – Woman, why involve Me in this? –or another – What does this have to do with Me? (Ibid, 3) It is followed by a harsh reminder: Mine hour has not yet come. (Ibid, 4) No doubt Mary felt, once more, the overwhelmingly powerful sense of her own ignorance and confusion. She does not entirely know Her son, yet Jesus does follow through with a miracle. But Mary knew that Faith must follow, love must grow, and so she commands the hired servants, Whatsoever he says, do it. (Ibid, 5) Jesus speaks: Fills the waterpots with water, (Ibid, 7) and they obey. Jesus then concludes: Draw out now, and bear unto the governor of the feast. And they bare it. When the ruler of the feast had tasted the water that was made wine, and knew not whence it was: (but the servants which drew the water knew;) the governor of the feast called the bridegroom, and saith unto him, Every man at the beginning doth set forth good wine; and when men have well drunk, then that which is worse: but thou hast kept the good wine until now. (Ibid, 8-10)
But notice this. Jesus does not merely produce new earthly wine at an earthly wedding for earthly men who had well drunk. Had he done so, the men who had well drunk would not have been able to taste the new wine. When men get to drinking, their palates and taste buds become numb to the quality of a vintage. But we read that the governor of the feast realized that the additional wine was of a vastly superior quality than all that they had hitherto drunk! So not only has Jesus made new wine through the power of his Heavenly Nature, but He has enabled a wedding party of well plied drinkers to taste the difference! What has transpired is not only the transformation of water into wine, but the extreme conversion of drunken men whose senses are miraculously revived and rejuvenated to know that a miracle has been performed on them also!
Of course, today’s miracle is a sign and symbol of what Christ always intends to do with us. If we are in search of miraculous earthly solutions to earthly needs and desires, we shall remain too drunk to perceive and know the intention and purpose of Christ’s coming to us. Christ Jesus is the power of God and the wisdom of God. (1 Cor. i. 24) He comes to put new wine into new bottles (St. Mark ii. 22) that the wine may change and transform those who believe into those who know and gladly receive the drink of His love. Faith follows, and love grows. This is where faith begins to take possession of the knowledge of Christ’s meaning and mission for us. Woman, what has this to do with me and thee? Mine hour is not yet come. (Ibid) Jesus will indeed perform this miracle, but only as a preparation and rehearsal for the best wine that will be saved until last. The best wine is yet to come. And that wine will be drunk once the Son of Mary pours forth from his hands, his feet, and his side that blood of new life that becomes the drink of salvation.
So the circumstances that define the dialogue between the Blessed Virgin and Her Son in today’s miracle are a cautious reminder of what we not only already believe but know. For we read of today’s miracle in order to remind us of that wine that Jesus saved until last. For us, the hour has [already] come. The new wine of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross is poured out for us today. By some miracle of heaven’s infiltration of the earth, the wine that we shall drink in the Holy Eucharist can become for us the all-healing, curing, redeeming, and sanctifying blood of Christ’s love for us. The questions we must answer are these: Will we, in our receiving of the new wine of Christ’s blood, be transformed by it? Will we remember that He always saves the best wine till last? And for every time that we receive it, it ought to be much, much better than it was before. It should always be moving us through better to best! Why? Because in it is found nothing short of Christ’s incessant and eternal desire to make us new, better, even best in our receiving of it. And it isn’t that it ceases to be wine. It is and will be wine. But let it be for us that new spiritual wine that is discovered to be the eternal vintage of Christ’s love for us. And with the poet let us pray:
Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,/
Which my God feels as blood; but I, as wine.
(Agony: George Herbert)
O LORD, we beseech thee mercifully to receive the prayers of thy people who call
upon thee; and grant that they may both perceive and know what things they ought to do,
and also may have grace and power faithfully to fulfill the same;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(Collect Ep. I)
In Christmas-tide we directed our mind’s eye to the new birth of Jesus Christ in our hearts and souls. And so now in Epiphany-tide we move out of birth and into clear Light of day, in order that from birth and infancy that same Light might begin to instruct and teach us about the nature and character of the new life which God desires us to live. Epiphany comes to us from the Greek word, επιφανεια, and it means manifestation or striking appearance. And in the Eastern Churches Epiphany is called also Theophany, meaning the vision of God. So this season is all about contemplating the Light of God in Jesus Christ, which is the manifestation and striking appearance of His vision and understanding of human life as it was meant to be, from God’s perspective, and according to His plan and purpose for us.
Today we have jumped from Jesus’ birth as recorded in the Christmas narratives and the Epiphany visitation of the Three Wise Men to the only record of Jesus’ adolescence, where we find Him in the Temple at Jerusalem. I should say that we know nothing of the period between Jesus’ birth and his sudden appearance in the Temple at the age of twelve, and then between today’s manifestation and the beginning of His adult ministry. St. Luke, alone, chooses to record this singular event from the period between Jesus’ birth and His reappearance in adult life. But let us see how much is revealed and manifested in this brief but informative encounter. It will help us to understand the vocation and calling which each of us has by way of incorporation and perfection in the Mystical Body that Jesus is beginning to form and create out of Himself.
In this morning’s Gospel we read that Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the Passover. And when He was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem after the custom of the feast. And when they had fulfilled the days, as they returned, the child Jesus tarried behind in Jerusalem; and Joseph and his mother knew not of it. (St. Luke ii. 41-43) St. Luke is in the habit of identifying Joseph by his first name, since he was the foster-father but not natural Father of Jesus. Jesus’ natural Father is God the Father, as we shall learn soon from Jesus’ own lips. So the family had traveled up to Jerusalem for the Feast of Passover. That his foster-father and mother did not realize that Jesus was missing as they began their return to Nazareth should not surprise us. Ancient Jewish families included the many members of an extended clan who customarily traveled together. The adults often entrusted their young ones to elder cousins as they made their respective pilgrimages. Yet still there is something of a spiritual symbolism in the fact that His parents did not know that He was absent from the traveling clan. Did His parents understand and see where Jesus truly was even when He was safe and secure under the roof of their own home? Could it be that His spiritual whereabouts were as yet hidden and concealed even from those who had first-hand experience of the Angelic Prophesy of His nature and destiny?
At any rate, only one day passed before Mary and Joseph realized Jesus’ absence. We read: But they, supposing Him to have been in the company, went a day’s journey; and they sought Him among their kinsfolk and acquaintance. And when they found Him not, they turned back again to Jerusalem, seeking Him. (Ibid, 44,45) Again, His parents’ assumption that He would be safe and secure amongst their kinfolk is natural enough. There is no real surprise in this way of thinking, for His parents were concerned about His physical whereabouts. They might even have intuited that He might have bee about His spiritual business, but their natural inclination and disposition led them to assume that His spiritual business would first and foremost involve his blood relations. Surely if their Son was to be great…called the Son of the Highest…the heir of…the throne of His father David (St. Luke i. 32), He might be expected to respect and honor His family first, as all good Jews did, and so begin His ministry with kith and kin.
But, as we know, such was not to be the case. Mary and Joseph returned to Jerusalem and spent three days trying to find their child. Evidently – by reason of the time it took them to find Him – they did not know where to look. Truly they did not know His whereabouts, because they had never really known where Jesus was spiritually. And this would be in no small measure due to the religious vision and knowledge which circumscribed those pious convictions, reinforced by the doctors and scribes of the Temple. Thus, finally, after three days they found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions. And all that heard Him were astonished at His understanding and answers. (Idem, 46, 47) Jesus was where the Jewish people claimed to know and serve God best. And, being but a child, He humbled Himself in hearing them out. But that didn’t stop Him from questioning them, and thus provoking those questions which elicited amazement at His understanding and answers. Jesus had come into the midst of the scholars and doctors of theology, and then called them down and into His seeming insignificance and anonymity in order to reveal God’s wisdom and truth.
Mary and Joseph were amazed at their son for different reasons. The last place where they expected to find Him was in the Temple dialoguing with the scribes. Their amazement is soon followed with an emotional scolding. Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? Behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing. (Ibid, 48) Jesus retorts with a gentle but firm rebuke: How is it that ye sought me? Wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business? (Ibid, 49) In other words, Why were you seeking me? Did you not know that I must be involved with my Father’s affairs? His earthly mother and foster-father are wholly confused with His answer: they understood not the word, which He spake to them. (Ibid, 50: Wycliffe) All are astounded, bewildered, and perhaps even unhinged by what this child Jesus had to say. And He went down with them, and came to Nazareth, and was subject unto them: but His mother kept all these sayings in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man. (Ibid, 51,52)
Where is Jesus? is the question that confronts us on this First Sunday after Epiphany. But perhaps the question is best put the other way round: Where are we? This is the question that Jesus comes to ask of all those who will follow Him. He was about His Father's business and that might take Him anywhere, as here it took Him to the Temple. He claimed that He remained behind in the Temple because where He was, was the wrong question to ask. His question to the scribes and doctors of the Temple was: Where are you spiritually? The same question was implied in His answer to His mother: Why did you seek me? For you should have known where I was and always am. That His parents did not understand His answer is part and parcel of every man’s need to discover what Jesus is doing and where we are in relation to Him. Jesus doesn’t move; we do! He is where He has always been, with the Father and doing His work. He was with God from before all beginnings as the Word through whom all things were made. (St. John i. 3) He was with God from the moment of His human conception until His Ascension to the Father, revealing, manifesting, and disclosing the Father’s will as He wrought the work and labor of our salvation. He is with the Father today in our Gospel lesson, preferring His Heavenly Father’s business to the expectations and demands even of His earthly parents. He is with us today desiring to incorporate us into his youthful excited passion to seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, that only thereafter all other things [might be] added unto [Him and us]! (St. Matthew vi. 33)
So where are we spiritually today? Are we looking for Jesus in all the wrong places? Do we expect Jesus to be where we are, at our beck and call, being subject unto us before He surrenders Himself to the Father’s will for us? Do we expect to find him in those places and spaces where we do what we darn-well please? Do we assume that Christ is blessing our endeavors because we feel so? Christianity is not about feelings; it is about facts. And the facts of Christ’s real presence have been tried and tested for two thousand years. The facts lead us to Christ’s life, what Christ is doing, and what He is doing is always being about His Father’s business. You see, salvation doesn’t begin and end with us. It begins and ends with Jesus. This is why St. Paul in this morning’s Epistle tells us to present our bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is [our] reasonable service. (Rom. xii. 1) For, it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy. (Rom ix. 16) It is only when we depart from where we are and enter into what Christ is doing that we can be sanctified and saved. Should we choose to be conformed to this world, and not to be transformed by the renewing of [our] mind, that [we] may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God, (Ibid, 2) we all shall perish.
Dear friends, today let us enter into the labor and work of the young Jesus at the Temple in Jerusalem. Let us, in conformity to Christ, attend [to our] Heavenly Father’s business, and to make all other business give way to it, (Comm. M. Henry) that we may both perceive and know what things [we] ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to fulfill the same. (Collect) And should we fail to acquire immediate answers and solutions to the confusions and perplexities that accompany our journey in Christ, with the Blessed Virgin Mary let us with deepest faith and trust keep all [His] sayings in [our] heart[s], (Ibid, 51) until, through Him, [we] shall [increase] in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man. (Ibid, 52) Amen.
And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us,
(and we beheld His glory, the glory as of
the Only Begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.
(St. John i. 14)
This evening you and I bring our Advent journey to a close. In Advent we toiled and labored to cast away the works of darkness and put upon us the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life. (Advent Collect) In Advent season we struggled to die to ourselves that Christ might be born again in us on this Christmas night. Christmas is really all about Christ’s birth in us. And this is why our English Reformers opted to preserve the Gospel reading from St. John that was first used in the ancient Latin Western Church. They did this because they knew that Christmas was about much more than past history. Christmas is about conversion, being born from above, or being born again as Christ, who is Emmanuel – Christ with us and for us, is born in our hearts and souls, yes even on this Christmas night.
Now, to be sure, being born again is no easy business. It doesn’t just happen. Instantaneous conversion is a hard thing to come by easily. Actually it is something that God alone can bring about. And for the ancient Latin Fathers the most articulate expression of God’s conversion of the world and the men who inhabit it is found in the Prologue of St. John’s Gospel. For there, after a mystical vision, St John learns and teaches that all created life finds its beginning, middle, and end with the eternally-begotten Word of God’s love. St. John, according to Holy Tradition, lived a very long life. He was probably the youngest of the Apostles and is referred to in his own Gospel as the disciple whom Jesus loved, who also leaned on His breast at the [last] supper. (St. John xxi. 20) He alone amongst the Apostles stood at the foot of the Cross, and to him was entrusted the care and service of the Blessed Mother. Later he evangelized in Asia Minor and was thought to have outlived all of his Apostolic brothers who died as Martyrs. St. Irenaeus of Lyons, a 2nd century Church Father, tells us that after Saints Peter and Paul were martyred, and after Saints Matthew, Mark, and Luke had compiled their Gospels, St. John wrote his while living in Ephesus. (Ad.Haer. iii. 1.1) He was an old man when he wrote his Gospel and Epistles, and so looks back not only over the Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension of Jesus Christ, and Pentecost, but also upon the life and witness of his friends in whom Christ was born again and reconciling the world to himself.
St. John knows that Christ has ascended to the right hand of the Father, and since that time has been reconciling the world to himself in the hearts and minds of Christians everywhere. But how should he begin? He knows of Matthew and Luke’s accounts of Jesus’ birth. That terrain has been covered, he thinks, so what more can be said? And then he realizes what he must do. Matthew and Luke have told of Christ’s earthly birth. But Jesus Christ’s birth was no mere mortal entry into the external and visible world of time and space. St. Luke had recounted Mary’s conversation with the Angel who said to her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.(St. Luke i. 35) St. John must speak not only of the Son of Man, but of the Son of God. His beginning must move beyond time and space, and find its root in the heart of God.
For, it is the heart of God’s love that has left its deepest impress upon the life of John. John was called the disciple whom the Lord loved. (St. John xxi. 20) And the love which Jesus shares with him is indicative of an intimacy and closeness in friendship that the other disciples seemed to miss. But John perceives Jesus’ love always, and in that lasting impression he finds the love of God at work in the life of his Lord long before he understood the meaning of his life. By the time John writes his Gospel he has been progressively altered and redefined by the love of Jesus that has never ceased to come to him through the Holy Spirit. And so, St. John is intent upon articulating just how God’s own Son was the product of the Father’s eternal Love. God is love, and he that abideth in love, abideth in God and God in him. (1 St. John iv. 16) John remembers that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him. (Ibid, 9) John who has been living in and through the Son realizes that the Son is the expression, utterance, voice, or the Word of the Father’s Love. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (Ibid, 1) What St. John says is that before all beginnings God and His Word of Love existed. (The Mystery of Eternity, Mouroux, p.34) Furthermore, He says that all things were made by Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made. (Ibid, 3) Through his Word of Love, God chose freely, without compulsion or need, out of sheer joy and ecstasy, to make and to create all things. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. (Ibid, 4,5) Through his loving Word, God gave life to all things. But he gave also meaning, definition, truth, intention, and purpose through the life that was the light of all men’s potential consciousness. The living and loving light offered itself always to the minds and hearts of men, who alone were called to see and understand, to cherish and treasure the knowledge and love of God. But the living and loving light encountered resistance, obduracy, and hardness of heart from the souls of sinful men. There was a darkness in man that could neither comprehend nor overcome the living and loving light. But that was the true light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. (Ibid, 9) This living and loving light informs and defines all human life. He was in the world, and the world was made by Him, and the world knew Him not. He came unto His own, and His own received Him not. (Ibid, 10, 11) The same loving light never ceases to shine forth into the creation, making and creating, conserving and preserving, defining and informing, and calling and summoning His own – all men - though thought of him never so much as crosses most of their minds. But to those few whose eyes are opened, ears unstopped, hearts softened, and minds opened to his coming, something radically new begins to transpire. But [to]as many as received Him, to them gave He power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on His name: which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. (Ibid, 12, 13) The same living and loving light, God’s eternal Word of Love, desires to come to those who freely and willingly, and inwardly and spiritually receive Him that they might be born again, born from above, born of the Spirit as they become his own. And the Word [of God’s eternal Love] was made flesh and dwelt among us. (Ibid, 14) John sees and knows, receives and embraces, cherishes and treasures that Word of God’s Love that was made flesh and dwelt among us in the life of Jesus Christ, and he continues, we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father full of Grace and truth. (Ibid, 14)
So John has articulated his vision of the eternally-begotten life, light, and love of the Father’s Word or Son. What he sees is that the Son is the mirror Image of the Father’s Love, passion, and desire. He sees that this Love is not only what creates and makes, conserves and preserves, beautifies and adorns, but what also finds and rescues, saves and delivers, protects and defends, redeems and sanctifies. The evil that opposes the Word of God’s Love is never an obstacle to God’s determination to save and deliver the people whom He forever longs to reconcile with Himself. You see, John’s Prologue is not merely the theological articulation of a beginning that had no end. This Word made flesh is life, light, and love, and John remembers Jesus’ words: I am come that [you] might have life, and that [you] might have it more abundantly. (St. John x. 10) And in another place: Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God…. Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. (St. John iii. 3, 5-7) And, again, If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him. (St. John xiv. 23) Jesus Christ, the eternally begotten Word of God’s [Love is] made flesh so that the beginning which He shares with the Father might become the source and origin of our new spiritual birth that issues forth into a life that ends with God in Heaven. This is the eternal Love that moves St. John to write to us on this Christmas night. This is the eternal Love which can move from his heart to ours.
Christmas must be all about the Word of God’s Love made flesh in us. At Christmas time Christ desires be born again in you and me! True life, light, and love are found in the eternally-begotten desire of God’s Word for us. On this Christmas night, God’s Word made flesh speaks to us and awaits our response. Will we be born again? Let us close with the words of Arthur Edward Waite.
WITH a measure of light and a measure of shade,
The world of old by the Word was made;
By the shade and light was the Word conceal’d,
And the Word in flesh to the world reveal’d
Is by outward sense and its forms obscured;
The spirit within is the long lost Word,
Besought by the world of the soul in pain
Through a world of words which are void and vain.
O never while shadow and light are blended
Shall the world’s Word-Quest or its woe be ended,
And never the world of its wounds made whole
Till the Word made flesh be the Word made soul!
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons: