epiphany: they don’t come empty handed

(We celebrated the Solemnity of the Epiphany today, January 6, and also chose this day to officially welcome Frs Ray Roh and Stephen Coffey as full members of the Camaldolese Congregation, after the three year trial period. Our brothers from Incarnation in Berkeley were also in attendance. What joy!)

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There are two aspects of this feast of the Epiphany.

The first is the most obvious perhaps and gets highlighted in both of the first two readings. The fire of Judaism is breaking out of its container; the energy of Judaism is spilling over the sides of its vessel. There is that unique revelation, the specific intuition of the Hebrew tribe: the intuition of monotheism––that God is one; the revelation of covenant––that the Divine wants to be in relationship with us, a relationship like a marriage, Lover to Beloved; along with (as Fr. Scott mentioned the other day) the strong ethical sense of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Now, however, we followers of Jesus believe that in the teaching of the gospel that intuition has grown to its universal appeal and universal application, articulated in a way that everyone can understand and everyone can belong, not depending on blood line or outward rituals, but depending only on enough poverty of Spirit to allow the love of God to be poured into one’s heart and pour back out like a stream of living water.

Besides the prophecy of Isaiah which we hear today––Nation shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn…(Is 60:3)––I remember that verse that Bruno loved so much from Isaiah 49: ‘It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel. I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation shall reach to the ends of the earth’! The prophets, especially Isaiah, have been hinting at this universality, and now in Jesus that intuition becomes a reality. And the wild thing is that (as Scott has again pointed out this week), not only that kernel of revelation and intuition, ironically it is really under Christianity that the Hebrew Scriptures themselves too become so widely universally known because the followers of Jesus retained the entire Jewish Bible––more books than even Jews recognize––as the foundation for our own.

But there’s another side to it. The strongest image of this feast is of these three wise men coming to visit this child bearing their gifts. Not only are these men symbols of the Jewish revelation breaking out of its container, and the rest of the world, spiritual seekers outside of the Hebrew covenant, breaking in and entering the promise; the uniqueness of this event is also in the fact that they don’t come empty handed. They had their gifts to bring too, and their gifts were received and welcomed. I first got this understanding from Abhishiktananda; this was the detail that was so important for him in dealing with Indian spirituality, and is applicable to folks who come to us from other traditions in general. These wise mean come bringing their treasures with them and their treasures were laid at the crèche of the infant Jesus, and received, along with their uncircumcised flesh.

And just so, the bigger lesson for us from this is that when people come to Christ, when people come to the Church, they don’t come empty-handed. They don’t have to leave everything of themselves behind, they don’t have to leave behind all the treasures that they found in far-flung lands. Not only who they are but what they have to offer is received and welcome. Whatever is good about them and their culture is recognized as not only pre-Christ but pro-Christ, already a seed of the Word that comes to full fruition in Christ.

Both of these aspects also strike me as salient to our other celebration today, witnessing as Fr. Ray and Fr. Stephen transfer and re-affirm their monastic vows under our congregation. In a sense what we are witnessing is its own living homily about the Epiphany, a parable acted out: not only do the Camaldolese get to shine a little bit brighter light––down to San Luis Obispo, to a whole new group of oblates and friends of the Monastery of the Risen Christ. But these two men don’t come empty handed either! They come bearing gifts––to us, to our community, to our congregation, and these gifts are received and welcomed. Ray with his years of ministry background, his pastoral sense, his countless years of retreats, preaching and singing, founding the new community in San Luis Obispo; Stephen with his immense intellectual acumen, teaching and preaching skills, years as prior administrator, ministry to the oblates. They bring with them the treasures of the Charismatic Renewal, the School for Spiritual Directors, of Bernard Tolomei and the Olivetan Congregation. This is nothing short of a win/win situation. Just as everyone who comes to the Church comes bringing gifts, so everyone who comes to our community and communion comes bearing treasures and builds up the beautiful Body that we are.

And this is what is meant to happen for each one of us each time we celebrate the Eucharist, every day, every time: we don’t just passively observe bread and wine being offered up and consecrated. We don’t come empty handed: we are meant to actively lay our lives, our gifts and our talents down on that altar just as the visitors from the East laid their gifts at the crèche of the infant Jesus. And the marvelous thing is––the promise is, the reality is––we, our lives, our gifts, and talents, get lifted up and received and welcomed, accepted and transformed into the Body of Christ, just as these re-affirmed vows that get laid on the altar. But it’s not just Ray and Stephen’s vows that get accepted; it’s Ray and Stephen themselves, and we ourselves, who once again get received as the Lord has promised, and our hope shall not be disappointed.

With the three wise men from the East, with Ray and Stephen, in response to the summons of the Word today, let us too offer our gifts on the altar and at the feet of Jesus, already rejoicing in the knowledge that they and we will be accepted, lifted up, made more fully into the Body of Christ.

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