Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Holy Theophany of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ

Titus 2:11-14; 3:4-7 / Matthew 3:13-17

For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men...

There is an art, and a special kind of luck, in the opening of gifts. Open the best ones first, and what remains, however good, however well-intentioned, will necessarily either pale in comparison, and so disappoint the one who receives, or eclipse the gift of greater worth, and so disappoint the one who gives. Wait too long to disclose the gift long awaited, even if the recipient did not even know how much he wanted it, and the desire to open the gift at all may well wither and wane. Both surfeit and dearth, both too early an anticipation and too delayed a revelation can all spoil what out properly to be the joy of giver and receiver alike.

So, what is there to be said of the gift of the grace of God that brings salvation? To be sure, God was willing to delay his merciful coming for quite some time, at least many thousands of years, depending on when one imagines the appearance on the earth of man, properly so called. Yet, even then that grace of God, the Word of God himself, Son of the eternal Father, came among us in the flesh, God, like a good giver, did not spoil the surprise all at once. Piece by piece and step by step, the glorious mystery was allowed to unfold, each opening seemingly the best and most hoped for, only to be undone by a gift of love altogether unanticipated in its heart-achingly profound depths. From the Annunciation we were led to the Nativity, and thence to the happy witness of the angels and shepherds, of ox and ass. Yet, this was not enough. To the heights and heaven and to the elect nation of Israel was added the witness of the riches of the nations, the kings from the East, the Magi, seeking a foreign king promised by the prophets of a God not their own, who nonetheless they recognized as Lord over all.

Were the Christmas mystery to end here, all might be well. We might, that is, think all had been done that need be done, that all peoples, Jew and Gentile alike, had been made privy to the merciful appearing of the grace of God that brings salvation. But for God, the expert giver of gifts, this was not enough. To each appearing, he has gladly added another. Even as the glorious appearing of Jesus Christ in the cave to Mary and Joseph was extended to the shepherds, and to them the witness of the Magi, so later was added not merely the voice of the hosts of heaven, but rather the voice of the Father himself at the Baptism of the Lord in the river Jordan: This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.

Indeed, we know that God was not content to end there, which may well have been the final moment, the clear declaration of the peace the Father had declared between heaven and earth, between Jew and Gentile, and so called each and all that he might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works. Beyond the banks of the Jordan we can witness Jesus' first public miracle in the transformation of water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana, and beyond there to his ministry of healing and exorcism in Galilee, or his wondrous Transfiguration on Tabor, to he triumphal entry into Jerusalem, his terrible but no less glorious Passion, his Resurrection and Ascension, the sending of the Spirit, the fearless preaching of the Apostles and no less fearless witness of the martyrs, and the global witness to Jesus Christ even to the present day.

Which of these can we say is the best gift, the definitive appearing for which every preceding gift was a prelude, and to which every gift to follow was a witness? Was it all about the fidelity to the promise made once to Adam and Eve of the son who would crush the serpent's head, the promise made to Abraham in his gift of faith, the giving of the Law amid cloud and fire on Sinai, the dwelling in the Temple in Jerusalem, the promise made to the exiles upon their return to the Land? Can we place the definitive moment in the cave at Bethlehem, the banks of the Jordan, the village of Cana, the Mount of Olives, Golgotha, the Tomb, or the Upper Room? Or, might we not rather say that, in Jesus Christ, who is at once the consummate Giver and Gift, every gift, every manifestation, every epiphany and theophany, is the center? Who would be able to say that his later knowledge of the mystery of the Passion was not prepared for by a childhood delight at the babe in the manger? At the same time, can we really say, after a lifetime of turning in the sins of our adulthood to the image of the Crucified, that we are not turned in a newer and deeper way to the Cave of Bethlehem, as though the Cross were meant to send us back to that moment of his first gracious appearing in the flesh?

On this day Thou hast appeared unto the whole world, and Thy light, O Sovereign Lord, is signed on us who sing Thy praise and chant with knowledge: Thou hast now come, Thou hast appeared, O Thou Light unappproachable.

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