Sunday, May 31, 2009

1-7-2007: Epiphany (C)

Isaiah 60:1-6/Psalm 72/Ephesians 3:2-3,5-6/Matthew 2:1-12
The vagaries of the calendar rob us of a week of the Christmas Season this year. This Sunday we celebrate the Epiphany but conclude the Christmas Season the very next day as we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord (usually celebrated on the Sunday following the Epiphany). The Epiphany marks the manifestation of Jesus to the world through the eyes of the Magi not long after his birth. Jesus’ Baptism, though, didn’t take place till he was thirty or so -- a lot of years to cram into a liturgical twenty four hours. But maybe there’s wisdom to be discovered in this accident of time. After all, there’s only one episode recorded of Jesus in the canonical gospels between the Epiphany and his Baptism: when an adolescent Jesus, while on a visit to Jerusalem, runs away from his parents to hang out in the Temple. The gospel spin makes the case for a precocious Jesus as he debates the old lawyers with panache. His mom wasn’t nearly as impressed, and scolded him for causing her and Joseph so much worry – typical teenager…

Imagine if the canonical gospels had recorded scenes in the life of the teenage Jesus (maybe they’re canonical precisely because they didn’t). What, do you think, might we see? Did teens in ancient times struggle like teens do today, with issues about belonging and loneliness, sexual awakening, self-esteem…acne? How would the gospels convey Jesus’ unique identity amid adolescent confusion? Or would they insist that Jesus was above the fray, totally in command of his person, no doubts or fears, worries, or the like? Perhaps the evangelists were particularly prudent in omitting stories from those who might have known Jesus when. God, for certain, was quite wise to send his Son before the invention of home movies.

The bookend feasts of Epiphany and Baptism encapsulate -- in deafening silence -- the life of Jesus as teen and young man; but highlight, nonetheless, the question of identity. Despite humble circumstances, the Magi recognize in Jesus the birth of a king -- and pay homage. And during his baptism the divine voice intimately claims Jesus as his own: “You are my beloved Son…” Recognition of one’s identity by external sources, however, does not guarantee a parallel recognition by the subject himself. But, here, I venture onto thin ice (heresy lies in the frigid waters just below), musing about Jesus’ self-consciousness vis-à-vis his identity.

Silence in biography invites speculation; it fuels imagination. Ever wonder, for example, what happened to that gold, frankincense and myrrh? Did Joseph use them to pay for the flight to Egypt or buy that new shop in Nazareth? Or did Jesus find them one day hidden in the back of the closet or under his parents’ bed, leading to a lot of teenage questioning about origins and destiny? Textual ambiguity in biography also leads to questions. For instance, why do Mark and Luke differ from Matthew in recording God the Father’s words spoken at the Baptism? Matthew records: “This is my beloved Son”; as if he were writing solely for our benefit – that we, the onlookers, might recognize Jesus’ true identity. But Mark and Luke posit: “You are my beloved Son”; as if Jesus needed the affirmation.

Both the Epiphany and the Baptism of the Lord are feasts affirming Jesus’ identity; accomplished though in different ways. At the Epiphany the Magi shower Jesus with material gifts; while, at the Baptism, God his Father bestows the gift of loving affirmation. There’s a lesson for all of us here amid the gospel’s silence and its ambiguity: parents need to provide the best they can for their children, but the greater gift given by parents to children (and, especially, by fathers to sons) is the simple but intimate affirmation: You are my beloved…

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