Based on the Bible readings we have heard recently, you might think we were in the season of Epiphany. Last Sunday, we had two accounts of divine epiphanies, one to Moses and one to Jesus’ inner circle. Today, we get another two epiphany stories, one to the prophet Elijah and one to a boatload of Jesus’ disciples.
Let me start out by setting the scene for the epiphany to Elijah. Elijah had bested the prophets of the pagan god Ba’al in a contest and ordered the losers in the contest to be executed. Queen Jezebel, in turn, ordered that Elijah be executed. He ran away to a cave on Mount Horeb to hide and to bemoan his fate.
There, in that cave, Elijah hears the voice of the Lord asking him what he is doing hiding in a cave. Elijah complains that he is the last faithful Israelite left in the land and is now under a sentence of death. The Lord then instructs Elijah to go out onto the mountain and await his appearance. Here is where things get really interesting! Instead of instantly obeying, Elijah waits in the cave for a sign. First, there is a great wind. Elijah stays put. Then, there is an earthquake. Elijah stays put. Then, there is a great fire. Elijah stays put. In each case, we are told, the Lord was not to be found in these terrifying phenomena. Last but not least, there is the faintest of whispers, the merest of murmurs. At long last, Elijah leaves the cave to meet with the Lord, rightly discerning that the Lord has finally arrived. We are told that he covers his eyes with his cloak, lest he be struck dead by the sight of the Lord’s face. Outside that cave on Mount Horeb, the Lord asks Elijah the very same question he had asked before. And again, Elijah gives the very same answer. It is as if he has learned nothing about the power of the Lord! He is still afraid. He is still discouraged. He is still bone-weary. At this point, the Lord shows him mercy, allowing him to retire after he has trained up a successor.
Today is the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, and the story of the Transfiguration completes the season by bringing us back full circle to the theme of manifestation. (As you may know, the English word epiphany derives from the Greek word for manifestation.) The season started on the Feast of the Epiphany with the story of the Magi, symbolizing the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles. Today’s Gospel story deals with another epiphany, the divine manifestation of Christ to his three closest disciples.
This year, we hear Matthew’s account. And in some ways, his version is the least difficult. In the other accounts, it’s not clear how we are meant to understand this story. Is it real? Is it describing something factual that any bystander would have been able to witness? Matthew’s Gospel helps us here. In this Gospel, Jesus himself refers to what has occurred as a “vision.” Is it real? Yes, but on a level of reality that transcends the everyday. Would any bystander who was at hand have been able to witness this event? Maybe not. Divine visions often belong to the realm of private mystical experience.
Given that the Transfiguration story is a vision, we should not be surprised by the occurrence of symbolism that requires interpretation. And we find such symbolism in the very first words of the account. The Gospel reading starts by telling us that six days after the Confession of Peter, Jesus takes his three closest disciples to a mountain top. Now in the Old Testament, many numbers had special numerological significance. But 6 isn’t one of them. There is only one place where the number 6 has a special significance—in the story of Moses on Mt. Sinai that we heard read in the first reading. For six days, a cloud covered Mt. Sinai; on the seventh day, God spoke to Moses from the cloud. In the story of the Transfiguration, the very timing of the event has symbolic significance. It hints that what is about to happen is as momentous as the giving of the Law to Moses.
Echoes of the Epiphany resound in today’s Gospel reading. Last Sunday was the feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, and we heard St. Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism. As I stated last week, that account is the principal reading in the Eastern Church on the feast of the Epiphany, whereas in the Western Church the story of the Magi is proclaimed. Today we get a second echo of the Epiphany in John the Baptist’s account of Jesus’ baptism—or to be precise, in his remembrance of that recent event.
In Matthew’s account, Jesus sees the heavens open up and the Spirit descend like a dove. It isn’t absolutely clear if anyone else sees what Jesus sees, or hears what he hears. St. John’s Gospel answers that question. John the Baptist also saw the descent of the Holy Spirit at Jesus’ baptism. And for him this was the sign he had been waiting for that the One who was coming into the world had arrived.
The Baptist announces to all within hearing distance that Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” One wonders exactly what he means by this curious expression. Elsewhere, Jesus is proclaimed as the great Shepherd of the sheep, a reference to his status as the Messiah. But here, he is not the shepherd, but the sheep, and a baby one at that! The most common interpretation of this metaphor is that John is equating Jesus with a paschal lamb, the animal that was slaughtered, roasted, and eaten once a year in commemoration of the Exodus. The blood of a paschal lamb was a symbol of redemption. Recall that at the first Passover, the Israelites smeared their lintels with the blood of a lamb, so as to be spared from God’s wrathful visitation upon Egypt. While the killing of a paschal lamb was not originally a sacrifice, by Jesus’ day, when only the priests in the Temple were permitted to slaughter the lambs, the slaughter and communal sharing of a lamb was commonly thought of as a Temple sacrifice. We see this sacrificial understanding of the Passover when St. Paul writes, “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us,” a phrase that should sound rather familiar.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.
I would like to start out by commending you all for braving this morning’s storm to attend church. By so doing, you have undoubtedly added to your treasures in heaven. Now for the actual sermon!
Last Friday was the feast of the Epiphany. In the Western Church, the focus of that feast day is the manifestation of the Christ child to the Gentiles in the persons of the Magi. But in the Eastern Church, the focus is the Baptism of Jesus. So in a sense, this Sunday is a liturgical tip of the hat to our Eastern brethren. And as the focus of the day is baptism, the Episcopal Church commends this day either for baptisms or for the renewal of baptismal vows. That explains the insert found in your bulletin.
Our readings begin with a poem about God’s Servant, taken from the 42nd chapter of Isaiah. I call it a poem, because the Hebrew is written in a classically poetic style. But the reading comes across more as a service of installation or commissioning than an actual poem. The unnamed Servant of God is first commended to the listeners. Then, he is directly addressed by one who speaks on behalf of God. We learn that this anonymous figure has received God’s Spirit and will be a bringer of justice to all nations, not just to Israel. He will be a light to open the minds of those who live in spiritual darkness. And he will free those who are imprisoned, both literally and metaphorically. What is particularly striking about this Servant of God is that he will be exceedingly gentle to the weak and the vulnerable: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.” Now, the identity of this Servant of God is a source of some debate between Judaism and Christianity. Our Jewish brothers and sisters see the Servant as a personification of Israel, while we Christians have consistently maintained that the Servant of God is none other than Jesus Christ. And today’s Gospel reading, we see that Isaiah’s proposed service of commissioning was, in fact, fulfilled in the baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan.
O God, by the leading of a star you manifested your only Son
to the Peoples of the earth: Lead us, who know you now by
faith, to your presence, where we may see your glory face to
face; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns
with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
X Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.
Today we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany—sort of, but not really! The feast of the Epiphany will be celebrated in actuality on Tuesday. But the Gospel readings are, in fact, the same. So you can consider this a preview of coming attractions, like a movie trailer.
The Epiphany is an ancient Christian feast day, even older than Christmas. Like Christmas, it is a feast of the Incarnation. Since Incarnation happens to be the title of our parish, it is quite fitting that three of our stained glass windows touch on the visitation of the Magi, a story long-associated with Epiphany. We have three crowns, three gifts, and a miraculous star. You get extra credit if you can spot them! But the Epiphany has a somewhat narrower focus than Christmas; it focuses on the manifestation of the Incarnate God to the Gentiles. I like that word “manifestation,” but the more common word “appearing” works just as well. As you may know, the word “epiphany” comes from a Greek word meaning “manifestation” or “appearing.”
The Gospel reading for today is that well-known story of the Magi. The story is too well-known, in fact, for we know more than the Bible ever tells us! We know that there are three Magi, despite the fact that the Bible never gives us the number. We know that they are really foreign kings, despite there being no mention of this in the Scriptures. We know their names are Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, and that one of them is African (this latter fact was only ascertained in the 12th century).
Dear friends in Christ, the glory of the Lord has shone upon us, and shall ever be manifest among us, until the day of his return. Through the rhythms of times and seasons let us celebrate the mysteries of salvation. Let us recall the year’s culmination, the Easter Triduum of the Lord: his last supper, his crucifixion, his burial, and his rising celebrated between the evening of the seventeenth day of April and the evening of the nineteenth day of April.
Each Easter – as on each Sunday – the Holy Church makes present the great and saving deed by which Christ has for ever conquered sin and death. From Easter are reckoned all the days we keep holy. Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, will occur on the fifth day of March. The Ascension of the Lord will be commemorated on the twenty-ninth day of May. Pentecost, the joyful conclusion of the season of Easter, will be celebrated on the eighth day of June. And, this year the First Sunday of Advent will be on the thirtieth day of November.
Likewise the pilgrim Church proclaims the passover of Christ in the feasts of the holy Mother of God, in the feasts of the Apostles and Saints, and in the commemoration of the faithful departed.
To Jesus Christ, who was, who is, and who is to come, Lord of time and history, be endless praise, for ever and ever. Amen.
O God, by the leading of a star you manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth: Lead us, who know you now by faith, to your presence, where we may see your glory face to face; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.