Though Epiphany was on Sunday most of the United States, and isn’t until Wednesday for others, the readings this week are all about the holy day. It’s a celebration of the revelation of Christ’s divinity. Epiphany originally celebrated three different events in Christ’s life, all of which, in their own way, reveal his divine identity: the arrival of the Magi, his baptism in the Jordan, and the wedding at Cana. Today’s reading, from St Peter Chrysologus:
Today the Magi gaze in deep wonder at what they see: heaven on earth, earth in heaven, man in God, God in man, one whom the whole universe cannot contain now enclosed in a tiny body. As they look they believe and do not question, as their symbolic gifts bear witness: incense for God, gold for a king, myrrh for the one who is to die.
Today Christ enters the Jordan to wash away the sin of the world. John himself testifies that this is why he has come: Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world. Today a servant lays his hand on the Lord, a man lays his hand on God, John lays his hand on Christ, not to forgive but to receive forgiveness.
Today Christ works the first of his signs from heaven by turning water into wine. But water [mixed with wine] still has to be changed into the sacrament of his blood, so that Christ may offer spiritual drink from the chalice of his body.
I love this description of the Christian life, from St Hippolytus:
The saying “know yourself” means therefore that we should recognize and acknowledge in ourselves the God who made us in his own image, for if we do this, we in turn will be recognized and acknowledged by our Maker. So let us not be at enmity with ourselves, but change our way of life without delay. For Christ who is God, exalted above all creation, has taken away man’s sin and has refashioned our fallen nature.
In the beginning God made man in his image and so gave proof of his love for us. If we obey his holy commands and learn to imitate his goodness, we shall be like him and he will honor us. God is not beggarly, and for the sake of his own glory he has given us a share in his divinity.
“His holy commands” do not distort or enslave our nature, rather they re-form us into who we really are: bearers of the divine image.
Last week I thought a lot about Mary, since she was the topic of discussion at RCIA and the word “co-redemptrix” came up a few times. If you were reading along, you’ll know that while that particular term is contested, the central idea—that Mary’s consent was a unique and necessary part of our salvation—is not really debated. Still, I was a bit worried that I was getting too carried away with Marian devotion.
I’m feeling pretty vindicated by St Bernard of Clairvaux this morning. Here he is, writing in the twelfth century, addressing Our Lady directly, imagining himself at the moment just before Mary’s “yes”:
You have heard, O Virgin, that you will conceive and bear a son; you have heard that it will not be by man but by the Holy Spirit. The angel awaits an answer; it is time for him to return to God who sent him. We too are waiting, O Lady, for your word of compassion; the sentence of condemnation weighs heavily upon us.
The price of our salvation is offered to you. We shall be set free at once if you consent. In the eternal Word of God we all came to be, and behold, we die. In your brief response we are to be remade in order to be recalled to life.
There was a moment between Gabriel’s message and Mary’s response when all of heaven waited with bated breath. At that moment, the whole world hung in the balance: only with her free and full consent could the divine plan move forward.
She was an essential part of what God wanted to do!
If you’ve been keeping up with the blog for a while you’ve probably noticed that once a week or so I just post a quote from a saint or a Church father or mother. Usually I pull these from the Office of Readings, part of the Liturgy of the Hours, which is the official prayer book of the Church.
For example, the first reading in the season of Advent is from St. Cyril of Jerusalem, a theologian from the fourth century. Here he covers some ground that informed yesterday’s post about the Ascension icon:
We do not preach only one coming of Christ, but a second as well, much more glorious than the first. The first coming was marked by patience; the second will bring the crown of a divine kingdom.
In general, what relates to our Lord Jesus Christ has two aspects. There is a birth from God before the ages, and a birth from a virgin at the fullness of time. There is a hidden coming, like that of rain on fleece, and a coming before all eyes, still in the future.
At his first coming he was wrapped in swaddling clothes in a manger. At his second coming he will be clothed in light as in a garment. In the first coming he endured the cross, despising its shame; in his second coming he will be in glory, escorted by an army of angels. We look then beyond the first coming and await the second.
For me, readings like this every morning have rooted my own thinking in Sacred Tradition, the wisdom that has been handed down from the apostles and unfolded in the Church over the centuries.
It is a glorious privilege that God should grant man his eternal image and the likeness of his character. Man’s likeness to God, if he preserves it, imparts high dignity.
So we must turn back our image undefiled and holy to our God and Father, for he is holy; in the words of Scripture: Be holy, for I am holy. We must restore his image with love, for he is love; in John’s words: God is love.
The Lord allowed death to enter this world so that sin might come to an end. But he gave us the resurrection of the dead so that our nature might not end once more in death; death was to bring guilt to an end, and the resurrection was to enable our nature to continue for ever.
“Death” in this context is a passover to be made by all mankind. You must keep facing it with perseverance. It is a passover from corruption, from mortality to immortality, from rough seas to a calm harbor. The word “death” must not trouble us; the blessings that come from a safe journey should bring us joy.