I confess to being a Romantic and this year I have fallen in love with Epiphany
I love the central idea of the Manifestation – the exploration of the many ways that we see God, that we find Him and He finds us – in particular, the idea that God found us in Jesus Christ and that we can find God in Him
I love the Magi – the wise men the astrologers who were what we might now call ‘seekers’
I love the star which is the light of Christ – the beacon for us to follow and the torch by which we might show the way to others
I love the hymns with their return to the minor key – I have never really grown out of being a melancholic, moody adolescent – like We three kings of orient are with my favourite verse:
Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone cold tomb.
I love the link to Isaiah’s chapter 60 which is a kind of second subject in the Epiphany symphony – ‘Arise and Shine for your light has come and the glory of the lord has risen upon you.’
One distinguishing thing about being Ordained is the commitment to say the daily offices, ideally both morning and evening prayer
In the last week we have been saying these verses of Isaiah 60 each morning
And each evening we have been singing the hymn ‘Worship the lord in the beauty of holiness’ (If Fr Adrian is present then he actually makes us sing it)
And so truly: mornings of joy give for evenings of tearfulness!
This hymn is of course based in part on our psalm for this evening – Psalm 96
Did I mention that I have also fallen in love with the Psalms? – though that was some time ago.
I had been looking for a book on the Psalms to go a little deeper into them and I asked Adrian to recommend one – he suggested The Psalms – Translated Interpreted in the Light of Hebrew Life and Worship by Elmer Leslie which he feared may have written before I was born. I checked and he was right – in fact it was written in 1949 only shortly after my Father’s birth – but it is very good!
From this book I learned that 96 is a very appropriate Epiphany psalm as it is believed to have been written for annual festival of the enthronement of the Lord – when Yahweh was worshipped as king of Israel
Moreover, it begins with another of our Epiphany themes – making things new
‘O sing unto the Lord a new song’
Part of the effect of saying the Office is to slow us down during a busy day and to pay attention. Another is to introduce pieces of scripture in juxtaposition to one another. When we do this we see resonances and connections – we notice things we have not seen before – we make things new and, with God’s help, we can sing a new song
One of the things one immediately notices is the profound interrelatedness of the Old and New testaments – in particular, in the Psalms and the Prophets.
Modern translators in their wisdom can obfuscate some of these resonances
So in our reading from Ezekiel in the gender neutral language of the NRSV we have just heard:
He said to me, mortal, I am sending you to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me
Nothing special about that – but then if we use the verbatim KJV translation we get:
He said unto me, Son of man, I send thee to the children of Israel, to a rebellious nation that hath rebelled against me
‘Son of man’ making a link with the language Jesus uses to describe himself in the Gospels
Sometimes, however, the modern translation is helpful. The King James renders Ezekiel thus:
And he said unto me, son of man, cause thy belly to eat, and fill thy bowels with this roll that I give thee. Then did I eat it; and it was in my mouth as honey for sweetness.
I am thinking Swiss roll or fig roll?
But no! Of course it is a rolled up papyrus scroll – that he is talking about.
And when one thinks of that image, of eating a scroll of words, is it fanciful to connect those words with the ‘Word’ in the first Chapter of John’s Gospel? The Word which was made flesh and which we consume in the Eucharist? But I am getting ahead of myself…
In the opening chapter of his letter to the Galatians, Paul writes ‘God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace’ thereby making a reference back to the 49th chapter of the prophecy of Isaiah which we heard at our Eucharist this morning:
Listen to me, O coastlands,
pay attention, you peoples from far away!
The Lord called me before I was born,
while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.
And so when we have Paul recalling the revelation of God to himself – a manifestation of God – he is comparing himself to the prophet Isaiah
Did I mention that I have come to love St Paul?
I have had a series of Pauline epiphanies in the course of my training
The first came when I read those great words later in the book of Galatians
As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:28-29)
I loved the rhetoric of the language and the theology – and indeed the ethics.
The greatest epiphany though came when I read the passage in 1 Corinthians 11
For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’
You are doubtless familiar with the words
But what did this mean – for I received from the lord? Did he not get this information from Peter and James – the apostles who were there?
But then he says in the letter to the Galatians as we have just heard:
For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
When God, … was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.
What is this? Did he not get instruction about Christ from the apostles?
Certainly, we struggle to find details of Christ’s life or teaching in the letters of Paul.
Did this also make sense of the mysterious omission of Eucharistic language in John’s account of the last supper?
A further dimension to the mystery became apparent to me when visiting a synagogue in Kingston as part of my training – the service was a bit like this one – singing of songs including the psalms, a reading from the Torah and preaching on it
Then as we left the prayer hall for tea and coffee we were offered a piece of bread and a small glass of wine
And they do that every week as a celebration not of a death but of life – of the gifts of God. A celebration – a eucharist?
So what are we to make of this? Is it possible that the celebration of the Eucharist is not the handing down of a tradition of the actual last supper by the Apostles but rather a re-interpretation of a well-established Jewish ritual into a Christian context by Paul?
Personally, I think that is too much. But it does seem that Paul was at the very least one of the first to see the significance of these events as we understand them and to see them in the light of the theology of Passover- Paul’s divinely inspired interpretation of Jesus death as the sacrificial victim – the ultimate firstborn – the consecration of a new covenant.
Whatever the hermeneutics of these ideas, what surely matters most is his recognition that this meal symbolised the end of fear of death and the celebration of a spiritual communion of all people in Jesus Christ.
But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace towards me has not been in vain.
Assuredly there is the ‘beauty of holiness’ in this
We have been challenging ourselves in this season of Epiphany to say where we find God
For me God is to be found in the connectedness of all things. And so the interconnectedness of scripture is in itself a Manifestation of the divine
For me Christ appears each week in bread and wine in a moment of sublime connectedness – where the present meets the omnipresent, the immanent the transcendent, where everything which has happened meets everything which shall be, where the Passover meal meets the Messiah, where history meets story and faith finds hope.
And wherever we find God, our response should surely be that of Paul – to tell our story of where we find Him and to proclaim it to others ‘so that they too might come to believe’
If we are looking for a New Song for 2017 then perhaps we can make it this. Amen
Sermon preached by Christopher Hancock at St Martin of Tours, Epsom on 15th January, 2017