Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6
|January 3-4, 2015, Epiphany, Cycle B|
Today the Bridegroom claims his bride, the Church, since Christ has washed her sins away in Jordan's water; the Magi hasten with their gifts to the royal wedding; and the wedding guests rejoice for Christ has changed the water into wine, alleluia.
Today we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany which is a very ancient celebration in the Church, dating from at least the 4th century. It is a feast that celebrates the manifistation or revelation of who Jesus is as the Son of God. As we heard in the antiphon from Morning Prayer for today that I opened with, over the centuries it included at various times: the baptism of Jesus, when the Father's voice and the Spirit in the form of a dove revealed that Jesus was the beloved Son of God; the wedding feast at Cana when Mary asked her son to turn the water into wine as a sign that Jesus had God's power, as well as the story of the magi we heard in today's Gospel, when the magi's interpretation of the star, and Herod's priests' interpretation of Hebrew Scripture reveal Jesus as the Messaih and king.
We all know the story we sang about in that opening hymn, We Three Kings, don't we. We might even know their names: Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar. And of course, bolstered by the images all around us, even here in church, and on countless Christmas cards, we know that these 3 kings visited the holy family in Bethlehem in a stable, with Jesus in a manger and Mary and Joseph standing around him, together with the shepherds who had been sent by the angels. But how do we know all those things? Other than the fact that there were magi, which means a Persian priest or sorcerer, and they followed the appearance of a star to visit Jesus, none of those details are in the bible. Matthew says that when they found Jesus, they entered the house, not a stable, and saw the young child, not a baby. And of course, Matthew's birth story does not mention the shepherds; nor does Luke's account which has the shepherd story, mention the magi.
So what is going on here? What is going on is a fundamental human thing. Cognitive science over the last 30 years has started to discover what people have intuitively known forever and that is that we human know things primary as stories. We learn faster and remember longer when a subject is embedded in a story. Some researchers would go as far as to say that this is the only way we know things. In any case it is clear from human behavior over the centuries that when we only have a few bits of information, we either construct a coherent story to contain those bits of information or we quickly forget them. And to be effective the story must be coherent and it must incorporate details that are familiar to us.
Jesus was well aware of this and so most of his teaching is in the form of stories. For the story to work it has to be something that makes sense to us, and that uses other bits of information that we know. When Jesus told the story of the sower of the seed, it is quite likely that he was standing somewhere where he and his audience could see rocky ground, and ground overgrown with thorn bushes, and lush tilled ground that had crops growing on it. He used the image of a fisher for men to explain to his newly chosen disciples what he was calling these fishermen to.
Matthew's tells the story of Jesus birth in a way that the unexpected and, to his community, hard to understand reality of who Jesus really was, could be easily understood using familiar pieces of information from scripture, from midrash (rabbinical commentary and stories based on the Torah) about Moses, and most likely from bits of oral tradition about Jesus' birth. And because Matthew's story leaves out many details, over the years people have filled them in with more of the story so that the reality of Jesus being the Son of God, and later, his mission to the Gentiles as well as the people of Israel became easier to understand and remember. And it worked. Even into our times this story is remembered and sparks other stories about the reality of who Jesus is in things like O'Henry's story of love, The Gift of the Magi.
This is neither the time nor the place to giva bible study course or a lesson in cogition theory. What struck me as I reflected on this Gospel story was how important it is to have the right story about our faith. Our practice of anything always reflects what story we use to know that thing. What is the story that leads us to show up here in church today? The new evangelization is not just about increasing the number of people coming to mass. We only have to look back to see that many of those who are no longer in the pews are missing because of the story that led them here in the past. Many of them, and sadly some who are still in the pews, are here because their story tells about a God who is a severe judge, ready to punish any break of the rules. I was with a group of friends this week who were discussing who God was to them and how that affects their lives. Several of the people stated that they had difficulty believing in a God who, according to them, would punish innocent people and inflict such terrible violence on the world. Frankly I would not be able to believe in a God like that either. Some of us are here today because of a story that says we will be punished if we didn't come. That story makes for lousy evangelizers.
The story that I know, from reading scripture, from prayer, from practicing my religion, and from my experience of life is quite different from that, and is why I am here. The story I know is about a God who created all of this out of love so that creation, in particular human beings, might experience that love and respond to it. In order to make it possible for us to love, God gave us free will. We have used and continue to use our free will to act in ways that are anything but loving. But God has promised that creation will indeed be drawn into the eternal loving relationship we call Trinity. And so He sent his only son, who showed us in painfully human terms how much God loves us, and to what lengths God will go to respect our free will and still love us. Then through his Son, he anointed us to continue to act in loving community in a way that will eventually transform this world that sits in darkness and the shadow of death into the paradise filled with the light of Christ. You and I are the Body of Christ who has come into the world to free it from death, and war, and racism, and oppression, and sickness. God's power will do this and we are the instruments of this power. What I do or what you do will not determine if this kingdom of God will come but it will determine how quickly. The bottom line of this story is that every choice I make either brings creation closer to being the Kingdom of God here on earth, or it delays it, or God forbid, it moves it away from that.
The story we accept in our heart about what it means to be a Catholic will determine how we practice our faith. I pray that all of us make sure we have a storyrelects the reality of God's love, one that compels us to share so that others can experience that love.