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Epiphany II, 2011
by Richard Spear

"Thus saith the Lord of hosts: In those days it shall come to pass, that ten men shall take hold out of all languages of the nations, even shall take hold of the skirt of him that is a Jew, saying, We will go with you: for we have heard that God is with you."
-Zechariah 8:23

In this prophecy, Zechariah appears to be looking ahead to a time when peoples of various ethnic backgrounds --"out of all languages of the nations" as he says-- will look to Judaism for religious guidance. However, in the 6th century BC this would have seemed to be a most unlikely development. Even though the Persian King Cyrus had just permitted the Jewish exiles to return from Babylon to rebuild Jerusalem under a Persian governor, neither they nor their religion excited international interest or respect. The Jews --repeatedly defeated and recently exiled-- certainly did not give foreign nations the impression that God was with them.

Even some six centuries later, at the time of Jesus' birth, Zechariah's prophecy of the influence of the Jewish religion would have seemed somewhat more likely, but not particularly persuasive. Our Lord's Epiphany --his showing forth to the Gentiles-- initiates a drastic change that would eventually transform Judaism into Christianity and make its teachings relevant to humanity as a whole. Thus, among eastern Christians, the importance of the Feast of Epiphany actually outshines that of Jesus' nativity celebrated at Christmas.

Another profound change was also underway in those six centuries after Zechariah's prophecy and its effects are very much with us today. Historians tell us that it arose among Ionian Greeks who loved a clever argument. But however it came about, this historic period saw the development of systematic logic and its wide application to human experience. Now a rational approach to our life situations is often effective, as well as intellectually satisfying. We like seeing logical connections, and we revel in explaining them to each other. We enjoy deriving "answers" to our questions. Our confidence that we (or at least somebody) can explain every situation we meet --is based on the idea that every mystery is capable of logical explanation and, in fact, needs to be explained in this rational way.

In next Sunday's Gospel reading, for example, St. John doesn't report that Jesus' disciples tried to explain how at Cana the water became wine. Instead, he speaks of Jesus' glory appearing and his disciples' believing in him. In recent times, educated people have become so conditioned to demand rational explanations, that it is difficult to escape from a modem mentality, even in so minor a matter as Jesus' first recorded miracle. I say "minor matter" because John's point in recounting this incident is merely to show Jesus' mission was being validated in his disciples' eyes --and they "believed on him." However, this physical happening is sufficiently unexplained to put us modems to worrying about the irrelevant detail: i.e. just how the trick was done.

The real strain on human reason begins with such a mystery as that oft-quoted passage at John 3: 16: " So God loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, to the end that all that believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." The sacrifice of Christ is the central Christian mystery. It sets our Christian faith apart from Judaism, as well as every other human belief system.

In writing to the Corinthians [I Cor I: 20 ff] St. Paul neatly summarizes the difficult character of this mystery: through the crucifixion of His Son, "hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? ... we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness." As spiritual descendants of those rationalist Greeks, we inhabit a society even more dependent upon its human mental resources than theirs was. For many of today's people, a belief in progress, philanthropy, technology, political correctness, or some other construct has effectively displaced an awareness of God's love as the primary force in this world. Does this help to account for a worldwide increase in despair and violence?

Epiphany signals an opportunity to the world, fulfilling Zechariah's prophecy that some will say, "We will go with you: for we have heard that God is with you."

Holy Trinity Church, Waterville ME
Richard Spear

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