January 9, 2011

God in Man made Manifest I

Welcome to Epiphany. In the liturgical church calendar, this is the time between January 6 (Feast of the Epiphany) and Ash Wednesday. This year Ash Wednesday is rather late, falling on March 6, so we have a nice long Epiphany season. Of course, the Feast of Epiphany on January 6 is the day we remember the visit of the Magi to Jesus.

During Epiphany the lessons relate to how Jesus was revealed as the Son of God through his works and life. I’ll be exploring how Jesus is manifest today and especially how to ‘manifest’ Christ in our lives using one of my favorite Epiphany hymns (#135 in the Episcopal 1980 Hymnal).

The first stanza of “Songs of Thankfulness and Praise” a hymn used in the Episcopal, Lutheran and other denominations, says Jesus was ‘manifested by the star to the sages from afar’. My favorite line, however, is the reoccurring line throughout the hymn: 'God in man made manifest.' That is what Epiphany, indeed the entire church year, is about-coming to know the One who as Paul says, “…Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6-8)

So let’s look at the first verse of Christopher Wordsworth’s poem/hymn.
Songs of thankfulness and praise,
Jesus, Lord, to Thee we raise,
Manifested by the star
To the sages from afar;
Branch of royal David’s stem
In Thy birth at Bethlehem;
Anthems be to Thee addressed,
God in man made manifest.

Wordsworth turns looks at the first Gentiles to know of the birth of Messiah. They followed the star to the 'Branch of royal David’s stem.' We are invited to join them in ‘songs of thankfulness and praise.’

Two thousand years later it can be easy to forget that these non-Jewish visitors were an astonishing thing. The Holy One of Israel was God ONLY of the descendents of Abraham according to the teaching of priests and scribes. Gentiles were outside the faithful and even those who wanted to worship in the Temple could go no further than the Court of the Gentiles. In fact (and this is something I only just learned) there were signs in Greek and Latin warning Gentiles, even Roman citizens, to not go any further on penalty of death. (see photo) This outer court was where the merchants and money-changers operated, too. The scene of Jesus cleansing the Temple took place in this area.

The visit of the Magi to the Incarnate Lord was unexpected and would have been anathema to the priestly class. However, they were the forerunners of all the non-Jewish believers through the generations, including you and me.

As inheritors of the faith of the ‘sages from afar’, what is our response to the Word made Flesh (John 1:14)? One answer is found in the rest of the passage in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. “If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 2:1-5)

Paul encourages us as followers of ‘God in man made manifest’ to take the mind of Christ and to think of others first. As servants of God, we are to become servants of each other as we “work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:2:12-13) Unlike the ancient Gentiles, prohibited from entering the Temple, we can trust God to be with us daily precisely because Jesus was ‘God in man made manifest.’ Because of that we can joyfully do what the hymn advises offer ‘songs of thankfulness and praise.’

Remember the prayer from Thomas Merton I quoted last week? Merton notes “I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me…” Both Paul and Merton agree, it is God who works in and through us daily to act as servants of one another. In that way we can begin to manifest—show Christ to the world we are in.

It's a challenge to be servants to each other, no doubt about it. Maintaining a thankful attitude is one way to start serving those around us. I am always amazed at how much difference a simple smile can make for someone having a rough day. Jotting down what you are thankful for at the end of the day (some call it a thankfulness diary) can be an aid to remembering that there are wonderful things happening every day, even if the car stalled and the computer crashed! So with 'songs of thankfulness and praise', let's enter this Epiphany season.

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