We are three days from the Feast of the Epiphany. In the six month long season devoted to the telling of Jesus life, we have moved in 36 hours from Wise Men beholding an infant to the baptism of that infant as an adult thirty years later. And only here does the Gospel of Mark begin.
Nine or ten verses in sits the narrative we just read:
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Now that is the quintessential epiphany. Epiphanos means showing in Greek a manifestation..a curtain raising. It s not a strictly religious word: I once heard a college classmate describe a hoped for date as an epiphany in a red sweater. But he ended up in seminary so maybe the word cannot ever completely escape its accustomed context.
Epiphanoi are all about surprise, slack jawed awe..anything BUT business as usual. If you want a summary of the Epiphany season, you can t do much better than an old chestnut of a hymn, #135, which takes you through a star, a birth, the transformation of water into wine at a wedding, acts of healing and exorcism, and concludes with a verse that reads: Manifest on mountain height, shining in resplendent light, where disciples filled with awe, thy transfigured glory saw.: There Jesus, suddenly luminescent, stands with Moses and Elijah the embodiments of Law and Prophecy.
So .. we begin the season of showings; it s bracketed by the Star in the East at one end and the Transfiguration at the other. Now the Transfiguration is to be the turning point of Mark s Gospel: it s the end of the honeymoon. The disciples debates about who will be the greatest in the coming Kingdom lead by their very own personal rabbi is about to turn South metaphorically as well as geographically. One minute they are jockeying for position, playing who gets the best seat and sounding like any bureaucracy that ever assembled, and in the next minute they re watching their backs, and probably the exits. Peter tries to recover from the vision by suggesting they build the three booths for Jesus and Moses and Elijah; It s a trial balloon that Jesus promptly deflates with the observation that since the Messiah must suffer and die perhaps we d would do well to hold off on any capital campaigns. The next time anybody asks Jesus about signs or showings, he s overlooking Jerusalem in tears and observing that we re about done with signs and showings& the only sign you get, he says, is the sign of Jonah. The cry from the belly of the whale. God help us. Lord have mercy.
So, on the first of March this year, Epiphany will evaporate. Welcome to Lent. Hang around here and three days after the Transfiguration story we ll visit deserts, we ll wear ashes, and say psalms reminding us that any understanding of life that anesthetizes itself from the reality of death becomes, in the end, obsessed with it. We live in the first culture in history imagines death as something that only happens to others and therefore treats it as failure, best not discussed. It s the mentality of the driven student substituting achievement for life – who now says, mess up on your SAT s and you re dead; later she forges ahead to become the policy maker bombing villages in order to save them. ) Lent says let s look at that& put down your lists that you make to keep the world I orbit .. Even the little observances that force giving up stuff that our addictive lifestyle enforces within us, can feel like a small death .. Jews can say the same of Sabbath, especially to the work addicted, as can Moslems of Ramadan. In the midst of life we are in death.
Of course, that life/death all wrapped together transition is covered in a heartbeat by Mark, whose favorite word is immediately. . It s one verse away from today s early Epiphany lesson. The narrative reads:
and a voice came from heaven, “Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased.” The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him. Biblical narratives are haunted by the desert. It sees life in sharp relief in the shadow of the absence of life. I ve been in the desert outside of Jerusalem. You don t want the tour bus to run out of gas.
I have to say it was illuminating to see that desert. Only afterward did I come to realize that as a general rule, epiphanies are followed by trips to the desert sooner rather than later: Paul, blind for weeks after the appearance on the road to Damascus. Jesus met by privation without and real demons within. I think of the fact that we probably cannot hear anything but the tapes of our own certainties outside of what Richard Rohr calls liminal space, the place where we are forced into silence, made to get in touch with what s real, what s important. It s only the liminal spaces that make sense of Audens lines . . . the garden is the only place there is, but you will not find it until you have searched for it everywhere and found no place that is not a desert; the miracle is the only thing that happens, but to you it will not be apparent until all events have been studied and nothing happens that you cannot explain; and life is the destiny you are bound to refuse until you have consented to die.
I don t choose to go to those places. Anyone who practices centering prayer faithfully can attest to the initial gift of serenity followed by a busy subconscious that starts serving up the parade of fears that the tapes of well defended ego is no longer sitting on. So Epiphanies beyond the red sweater variety are things I m content for you to have, or for me to have but safely in the past. I now remember almost fondly the three hours in a South Dakota Oglala Sioux sweat lodge thinking for the first half of the time that I was going to suffocate and confronting the fact that if I was to stay there I needed a different mind. in the aftermath Paul s words about being transformed by the renewal of your mind made a glimmer of sense. But I really understand the boredom of captive teenagers dozing off in required chapel at 8am, before God is up. I, like them, have a heavy, vested interest in keeping this religion stuff as predictable and boring as possible. The only thing scarier than the possibility that God does not exist, is the fact that God does.
I m a slow learner. Only after decades has the pattern of the way the church orders time begun to make sense to me. It starts after the Thanksgiving turkey, spinning a story of pregnancy and expectation, then birth, and then in a handful of epiphanies do we get to see why the birth was so significant. That s as far as my ego driven understanding can go. Beyond that is the desert the place where everything falls apart. The worst thing that can happen happens. But then & It is the Easter promise that that worst thing coming true is not the last word. I don t know what to say of the fifty days of Easter. The promise of Pentecost is that if we care for each other and pray our lives, we ll be given words of witness in our own place and situation. The truth is that left to my own devices, I cannot fathom or affirm any season beyond Epiphany. I think on most days, the routine days, the days spent in earnest discussion of who gets the best seat days, (or the ecclesiastical equivalent: Who is saved? Who does God love most? ) .. that faith is an Epiphany faith, not an Easter faith. Easter faith is faith on the other side of what I don t let myself think about on most days. That faith is a gift of the desert. And that faith can only come to a different mind, a mind we are most likely to develop only in those places where we say lord have mercy or in the martyred Archbishop Romero s words I can t. You must. Show me the way. That s the faith that has passed through the belly of the whale.
Which bring me to baptism. The central image of baptism is drowning. Just as I think other denominations wimp out using sacramental grape juice, so we wimp out sprinkling babies a far cry from bringing people up naked from a pool of water, clothing them and giving them a new name. That s closer to a liturgy that acts out resurrected life. The clothing and naming is followed by confirmation anointing sending out. As when the whale burps Jonah up onto the beach..and God says & now that I ve got your attention, lets go through it again..I want you to go to Nineveh and tell the people what I asked you to say before you fled what seemed to you a desert and hopped that boat&
I love that I ve been so graciously invited to preach in this particular church on this particular day. The Sunday of the Baptism of Our Lord in St. James Church. The most famous line in James letter, as picked up by your e-mail address, has always made Christians, especially the protestant Christians, profoundly nervous: Be ye doers of the Word and not hearers only.
Choosing between faith and works is like choosing between eating and breathing. And baptism says a great deal about faith as something we do.
It invites us into action, and says nothing about our states of mind.
The basic vows are not rocket science:
Will you continue in the apostles teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons and whenever you fall into sin repent and return to the Lord?
Choosing between faith and works is like choosing between eating and breathing. It s both or neither. Each generates the other. But the way of each is through the desert. We pray Lord have mercy to the God a large piece of us does not believe in. We pray in order to believe. And occasionally, we extend ourselves to those in need; we open to the pain of the world not because we really believe those in pain carry Christ; we simply put ourselves in those fearful places where Christ might show himself to us more believably in people we most fear, or least understand than through those Sunday School pictures of what a friend of mine described as a 16 th century Italian girl with a beard. The Spirit will have to show us. The baptismal vows assume that we are sailors. We raise the sail, we set the rudder, & the wind is the Holy Spirit s problem. The Church whose faith stops at Epiphany is the church that has turned faith into a work, a personal possession, an esoteric rabbit s foot. The Baptismal vows will not keep us out of the desert. But they will keep us from having both sides of the conversation with God. Do the Baptismal drill. The rest is the Holy Spirit s problem.
In this season of Epiphany, I have to say I ve personally had very few epiphanies. No flashing lights or visions. Still I suspect I ve had all the epiphanies I can stand. There have been moments of lucidity. Years ago, Jules Pfeiffer published a cartoon sequence that depicts a frumpy house frau delivering a monologue. It goes like this: Last night George and I went to a party and I had a lovely time and I thought George had a lovely time but I noticed that George jaw was flexing like it always does when he s mad ..so I said what the trouble George, what s my crime tonite. And George blew up. Do you ever listen to yourself talk, Martha& my house, my car, my my my& there is no our in this relationship..do you ever think of our Martha. For a while it really bothered me but I thought of something that made me feel much better. Who s George& my husband. So I don t worry about it any more.
I remember laughing, but also felt a little haunted& caught out identifying with that smugness and neat disconnection. In much of my relationship to much to the world I felt like the glib newscaster who reads off the prompter, pretending to understand the motives of those whose language and customs and hopes and fears he glibly characterizes into a smooth segway into the next commercial. Not a God bearer in sight. No room for miracle. From time to time I d ask God to show me that that s not all there is.
There was no response. It felt like death. There was only the drill that was the baptismal vows. Do the drill, Bill. Perhaps doing the will of another will be better than pursuing your own. To this day, I cannot report a Damascus Road. I can simply say it s better. In moments when you and George, and Martha take your place in my imagination as God bearers whom I m not here to judge, it s much better. I really don t understand it. The Gospel is even stranger than the world, and the world is becoming very strange indeed.