The French liturgist Jean Corbon gave me a new understanding about the ascension of Jesus when he refers to the “eternal ascension” of Jesus. In other words, it is not a static one-time-only event but part of an ongoing process. Where the Head has gone the rest of the Body is going. The same thing could apply to the feast of the Epiphany. The ancient tradition used to refer to at least three events as the epiphany, the visit of the Magi, the wedding feast at Cana, and the Baptism of Jesus. But really Jesus’ whole life as well as his passion, death and resurrection were an epiphany. And there is an ongoing epiphany too, in the world, in the Church, in us.
The first reading that we heard from the Book of the prophet Isaiah sets the stage for us. The Church only gives us a little bit of it (Is 60:1-6) but the poem that it begins seems to go on and on; as a matter of fact pretty much the rest of the book is one long canticle. We’re now in what is called Trito-Isaiah, the third part of the book, and the timing of it is very important. The author is writing after the return from the Babylonian captivity, and specifically what he is writing about is Jerusalem and the Temple that is in the process of being restored. He even mentions an altar that had been rebuilt, so we can date it pretty accurately, between 538 and 515 before the Common Era. Now hear these words specifically referring to Jerusalem the holy city itself: Arise and shine; for your light has come, the glory of the Lord has shone upon you… his glory will appear over you. That of course is the glory of the Lord, the presence of God, the shekinah, if you will, resting over the holy city and the Temple in the form of light. But what’s even more marvelous about it is that all these other nations are being drawn to that light also, non-Jews, mind you. As Isaiah prophecies in another place, My temple shall be a house of prayer for all people, anyone from any land who calls the name of God will be welcomed. So they are coming from Midian and Ephah, from Sheba, from Kedar and Nebaioth. If you go a little farther into the poem than we heard today you also hear about Tarshish, which scholars speculate was actually a place called Tarsessus that was way out in what we would know now as southeastern Spain, literally for the people of that time the end of the known world. Even they would see the light that is shining over the Temple, over the rebuilt Jerusalem. Foreigners will build up your walls and their kings shall minister to you. So this is a first epiphany that we are hearing about, the glory of God shining like light on the Temple. We’ll leave off to the side for now the very complicated issue of whether or not this prophecy was ever fulfilled even partially, or if there is hope that it still will be in the future, or what is going on in contemporary Judaism, but it is safe to say that this revelation to Abraham and the covenant with the children of Abraham was meant to be for everyone. Of course it meant even in its narrowest sense that all nations and peoples would acknowledge this one God, stream toward Jerusalem, and follow the Mosaic Law.
The parallels with the story we hear from the Gospel of Matthew (2:1-12) are not too hard to see, and of course we Christians believe that the prophecy is actually being fulfilled in him, Jesus as an epiphany, the epiphany of someone in whom the fullness of the godhead dwelt bodily, in the Word-Made-Flesh. The light of course is now shining over this manger scene. And I can’t help but think of Palm Sunday for a moment: Behold your king shall come to you, riding on a donkey! It’s almost a burlesque mockery of royalty. And here too, instead of going to a palace the three wise men are being led to a stable, but the light is shining over it. Richard Wilbur’s famous Christmas hymn: “… a barn shall harbor heaven, / a stall become a shrine.” We are invited to the humility of Bethlehem. It’s tempting to think that the stable itself now has become the temple, but I want to call you once again (for the umpteenth time) to that little snippet in the Gospel of John Chapter 2 when Jesus says, ‘Destroy this temple and I will raise it up again in three days,’ and the Jews challenge him but John tells us off to the side in a stage whisper, He was talking about the temple of his body. These wise men have come to offer their gifts to this temple, the temple of Jesus’ own body. The light isn’t shining over the barn or the stable; the light is shining over Jesus who is in the barn, the temple of Jesus’ body. Yes, the stall becomes a shrine because it is like a tabernacle; it’s housing the holy of holies––the body of one in whom the fullness of the godhead dwells bodily. And so, Jesus says, ‘I am the light of the world,’ and so there is a second epiphany, with the light over the temple.
But it is safe to say, as John said in the prologue to his gospel, that in spite of the fact that many of the original followers of Jesus were Jews, his own did not know him. The Jewish people did not accept the fact that the prophecy had been fulfilled in Jesus and that he was the Messiah. And so in these wise men from the East we have a prelude to the Roman centurions and the Samaritan woman in the Gospels, the folks coming from God-knows-where as a foreshadowing that, as Paul tells us (Eph 3:1-6), the covenant has broken out of its container––the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. But it is not just because the Jews rejected Jesus (not all of them did): Paul says this is what was supposed to happen all along! This was all part of the plan; it’s the mystery made known by revelation… not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets.
Of course there is at least one more step and that is in some way the Church itself, the Church that is in a very real sense the Body of Christ, with the head and all its members. And as often as people are drawn to the Church, or drawn to Christ through the Church it is because the Church too is an epiphany, the Church too is a temple built of living stones. The followers of Jesus too are a light, and the glory of the Lord shines upon them. But there is a caveat to that, a big IF: if they follow that other prophecy of Isaiah, If you loose the bonds of injustice, undo the thongs of the yoke, let the oppressed go free, share your bread with the hungry, bring the homeless poor into your house, cover the naked… then your light will break forth like the dawn (Is 58:6-8), then you will be an epiphany. In the same way Paul lists the fruits of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23): if you show forth joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self control, then your light will shine forth, then you will be an epiphany. It’s not enough to simply tell people that we are the true church, the true religion. We have to be an epiphany. We say, “Come to church!” and they say, “Where’s the welcome? Where’s the love? Where’s the joy? Where’s rest for the weary? Where’s the place of safety?” Wise people are always drawn to the light.
Unfortunately, I am afraid that often the church (whether we are speaking her in a narrow sense of the Catholic Church or of Christianity in general, the Body wounded by sin and division), Jesus and the gospel are known more by their caricatures than by their reality. As Fr. Bruno reminds us so often, there was this massive breaking out of our container too that happened with the 2nd Vatican Council, when we suddenly realized that Western European culture did not sum up the gospel, and in some way Western Christianity itself does not sum up the gospel, that we could be in dialogue with other denominations, other cultures, other traditions, not that they would contain new revelations but that they might have realized something of the epiphany that we ourselves had not noticed yet. It may be that total pagans (and you know I use that word affectionately) have seen the light and become light and that’s why they are so attractive. Every time I see the solar panels at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center or the organic garden at Esalen or the programs at Mount Madonna Yoga Center, I think, they must have caught something of the light, like these three wise men did, in an unexpected place. The words of Benedict XVI, which Pope Francis cited in Evangelii Gaudium: “It is not by proselytizing that the Church grows, but by attraction” (No. 14). It is not by proselytizing that the Church grows, but by the light that bursts forth from us.
And the same thing with religious life. We lament the lack of vocations in our church. In his message opening up the year of the consecrated life, which we read in refectory the last few weeks, Pope Francis wrote,
That the old saying will always be true: ‘Where there are religious, there is joy.’ We are called to know and show that God is able to fill our hearts to the brim with happiness; … that the authentic fraternity found in our communities increases our joy; and that our total self-giving in service … brings us life-long personal fulfillment. … The consecrated life will not flourish as a result of brilliant vocation programs, but because the young people we meet find us attractive, because they see us as men and women who are happy! Similarly, the apostolic effectiveness of consecrated life does not depend on the efficiency of its methods. It depends on the eloquence of our lives, lives that radiate the joy and beauty of living the Gospel and following Christ to the full.[i]
And the same thing applies to us here at New Camaldoli. A young friend of mine was here at the Hermitage for our Ora et Labora program, and before he left he and I had a good talk, reflecting on his experience with us. And he said at one point something that was reminiscent of what Thomas Merton said of Gethsemane at one point early in his monastic life: “Father, I think that New Camaldoli is like the center of the world for its spirituality and its charism.” And he especially thought youths are so in need of what we have. He had the epiphany! He was like a wise young man from the East, he saw the star rising over New Camaldoli when Herod missed it. Maybe I am Herod some days; I cannot see the star. I think too of how often our guests come to us and they have the epiphany, and reflect it back to us, an epiphany that we often cannot see ourselves. It’s not about us, it’s about this life we have been given; it’s about the presence of God that is in this place, soaked into the walls and bursting through the landscape in the sunrise and sunset.
Last point: not just the church as a collective but we too as individual living stones are a continuation of the epiphany. We are each of us an epiphany! Fr. Deiss used to say, “If people are not attracted by the Church, it is because we are not attractive. And the Church is each one of us.” And the same thing applies all the way down: If people are not attracted by the religious life, monastic life, it is because we are not attractive. And religious life, monastic life, is each one of us. John tells us that Jesus’ body is the Temple; Paul and Peter tell us God’s temple is holy and you are that temple. Jesus says, I am the light of the world and in the next breath he says, You are the light of the world and Paul says You are light in the Lord. We each of us are, or are meant to be, a temple filled with the light of Christ, the light of joy, the light of God’s love. Each one us is meant to be an epiphany.
[i] Message of the Pope Francis on the opening of the Year of Consecrated Life, II:1.