Yesterday was the Epiphany. In the western liturgical calendar we focus on the adoration of the magi. Historically though, two other Gospel events are also celebrated, the Baptism of Jesus of Nazareth in the Jordan by John the Forerunner and the Wedding at Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine. Among the Eastern Orthodox the feast is more commonly known as the Theophany and the focus is on the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan. All three events are about enlightenment and God manifesting in human flesh.
Attend to the icons of these events.
These events and icons deepen our understanding of the birth of Christ, the Holy Nativity. Each is a showing forth of God in our midst, and offers enlightenment as we contemplate them.
A hymn for the feast of the Epiphany, “Hastis Herodes impie”, in the Benedictine daily breviary, sets these three events together:
O cruel Herod, why the fear
That Christ has come to take your place;
His Kingdom is not here below,
Who promises Heaven’s reward.
The Magi saw the star above
They followed it upon the way;
They found the true Light by its light,
And with gifts confessed him as God.
When the Heavenly Lamb descended
Into the rivers crystal waves,
He cleansed in us the dross of sins
Which he himself had never done.
A new revealing of his power:
the water reddened into wine;
Its nature changing in response,
When at his word it was dispensed.
Jesus, all glory be to you
Who has appeared to us this day;
To Father and to Paraclete
Likewise be praise forevermore. Amen
The coming of the magi does show that Jesus wasn’t to replace Herod. Jesus’ threat to Herod wasn’t that of a rival claimant to being king of this client kingdom of Rome. The magi aren’t Jewish, yet they come and adore the toddler Jesus as their king, bringing valuable and symbolic gifts.
Epiphany in the western tradition is the day God in human flesh is manifest to the gentiles through the the magi as representatives. These magi are sometimes called kings because they come to represent the nations of the earth, the rulers of the nation’s paying homage to the one they are created to serve.
The baptism of Christ is also a manifestation. The magi come and recognize in the toddler Jesus an authority and honor and power, in the baptism of Christ we have manifestation of God in Human flesh and God as Trinity, the Father’s voice, the presence of the Spirit and the son as the bodily human person Jesus.
The Wedding at Cana is more obscure, the manifestation in its immediacy is hidden, the light shines forth from this event only in retelling and meditation. But it is the first sign that Jesus Christ performed according the Gospel of John. Such an ordinary and small thing to provide wine at a celebration of the wedding of someone who is unknown to us. Just an ordinary inconsequential human being like all of us. And yet that is where by the urging of Mary, Jesus’ mother, we find a beginning of our enlightenment.
All these events are enlightenment, manifestation. They are the meeting of heaven and earth. These all are physical, political, fleshly enlightenment.
They can also easily be misunderstood.
All this is rooted in that God the Son (Word and Wisdom) became flesh and set up tent in our midst. God in the incarnation has made home in matter and in our flesh. Our enlightenment begins in seeing God in human flesh, Jesus of Nazareth, a Jew. We can easily miss that this insight comes from attending to the powerless, the inconsequential and the obscure, and not the powerful and prominent.
God in human flesh reorients our loyalties and priorities. It always already challenges every political order as partial, relative, and incomplete. It reveals that all powers are to serve Christ but also shows that they always end up serving their own ends, their own attempts at survival and perpetuation.
The transformation, the justice and righteousness, we seek can’t be found in the powers and governments. Rather these powers and governments are in these manifestations shown to merely be unwilling and often unwitting servants of God. They are in need of continual unsettling and continual call to move towards what they aren’t and can only be as limited historical entities.
God comes as a human being not as a representative of a state, or power, or government. The path of justice isn’t found in the ordering of power, but in the solidarity of a humanity and physicality joined to God through the person and flesh of Jesus of Nazareth. Justice is found and shone forth in God’s love for what is deemed by the powerful as lowly, inconsequential, and weak. Justice is found in those that the powerful believe need their help, patronage, and leadership. It is in this one despised, like the masses of humanity throughout history, that God transforms the world and brings justice; through an announcement and act of love.
Jesus of Nazareth the Beloved is of no consequence or significance. Until the voice from heaven speaks, no one gives any attention to this man from Nazareth and even after that some question what significance this person Jesus can really have. God doesn’t bring about transformation through the halls of power but through an unknown oppressed human being, whose life goes unregarded by the powerful and educated of his day. This is enlightenment and justice, Jesus of Nazareth the Christ, the Beloved, in whom we, all of humanity and all the cosmos, are one with God.