Christ Church Ridley Park
Year A Baptism of Our Lord
January 9, 2011
Pearls for the Journey
As you may be aware, the Feast of the Epiphany is on January 6th, following the twelve days after Christmas. What you may not be aware of is that the Feast of Epiphany is actually more ancient than that of Christmas. The feast of Christmas is a relative latecomer to the liturgical scene, not having been celebrated until on into the fourth century. Epiphany was first celebrated in the late second century.
Originally, the feast of the Epiphany commemorated more than just the visitation of the Three Kings. It was actually part of a trilogy of events remembered on this day, three events symbolizing the manifestation of Jesus’ true identity. On Epiphany was once remembered the manifestation of the Christ Child to the Magi, the revelation of Jesus’ sonship at his baptism in the River Jordan, and our Lord’s first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee.
Anglicans have traditionally focused on Epiphany as just the visitation of the three wise men. However, the authors of the Episcopal lectionary revision (schedule of readings in the back of the prayer book) restored the ancient associations made in this trilogy of manifestations by designating them to be read on successive Sundays. The present lectionary we have just adopted, the so-called â€œCommon Lectionaryâ€ shared with other Protestant churches has now changed this historic trilogy to Year C, the year we have just concluded.Â So hearing about the Magi on the Feast of the Epiphany, today about the baptism of Jesus, in Year C we hear about the wedding in Cana of Galilee in John’s Gospel.
There seems to me something appropriate about stringing these events together. While there were certainly decisive moments in the manifestation of Jesusâ€™ true identity to humankind, such as the Transfiguration which we shall read the last Sunday after the Epiphany, it is in stringing together many such events that a pattern of God’s action begins to emerge. And I believe that as we come to know the character of a person less through a single event, and more through a sequence of events, so it is we come to know God through more than just one particular revelation, but through a series of revelations in which we come to see discover a pattern of God’s way with us. Perhaps revelation comes to us less as a solitary diamond and more like a string of pearls. It is not just a glimpse of the heavens parting and a dove descending, but it is also wise men following a star, water into wine, waters made calm, and a blind man given sight.
Could it be that in our own lives there are also such patterns of grace to be discovered? Frederick Buechner, the author of the book, A Clown in the Belfry, wrote a wonderful little essay titled “Faith and Fiction”. In this essay he casts his mind back over his life and discovers epiphanies which on the surface could be read as chance incidents of no particular significance: a dream one night about a beloved friend who in the dream threw Buechner a piece of thread that stuck to his suit. The dream seemed so very real to Buechner. In the morning, at breakfast, his wife said she just found on the carpet a thread matching that description.
A coincidence? Possibly…
Buechner also relates the story about fortifying himself in an airport bar before engaging in his least favorite form of travel. Sitting at the bar he found a tie clip with his very initials.
Another coincidence? Possiblyâ€¦
And a third incident he relates is of kneeling at the altar rail one morning and a priest saying to him as he placed the host in his hands “The Body of Christ, Freddy.” The words touched him deeply at a particularly vulnerable moment.
An incident of no special significance? Maybeâ€¦
Buechner came to discover later on that other clergy had such a practice as addressing communicants.
One might ask whether such events are of no particular value. Or could they be string of pearls which God attempts to place around our necks? Buechner tells us that faith is the bet we make on the possibility of a pattern, a pattern in our daily grind which gives us hope that a Pattern Maker is reaching into our lives, attempting to guide us and encourage us along the difficult road.
Just before Christmas one year in one of my former parishes I was standing in the chapel celebrating the Holy Eucharist. As I looked down into the silver paten (the round dish on which the bread is consecrated) I was startled to discover the Madonna and child gazing up at me from center of it. I looked away, then back again just to make sure I wasn’t imagining the whole thing. There it was. She and the Holy Child were definitely staring right at me. I was not mistaken. I was not only startled, but quite shaken. Contrary to what wonderful things you may believe about your clergy, such events are not in our everyday experience. My mind raced ahead to the significance of this epiphany. Suddenly I realized that what I was looking at was only a reflection of the painting above the altar, skewed by the concavity of the dish.
Whew! What a relief!
Only a reflection of a painting up above! Or was it perhaps another pearl for my necklace, a message from another world? Was it yet another epiphany, a manifestation of grace as I search my life for evidence of a pattern in which I might see reflected the face of God. I look down at my necklace. Each year it grows a little bigger. I suppose I could take the skeptic’s view that such random occurrences mean nothing, just a flash in the pan – or the paten. But I choose to bet that these epiphanies are the genuine article, real pearls. And it is because I choose to bet on their authenticity that a pattern of God’s attentiveness to me has emerged in my life. God is continually strewing such pearls along my path. If only I were observant enough. Occasionally I am – and I am grateful for such glimpses into that other world toward which we are all pointed.
Frederick Buechner says at the very end of his essay on “Faith and Fiction” just these two words: “Pay attention.”
They are words well taken: Pay attention. Perhaps in our attentiveness we will discover the evidence for which we have been seeking, evidence which all along has been right under our noses.