What Abba Poemen Said About Abba Pior – Br. Mark Brown

1 John 3:1-6; Psalm 98; John 1:29-34

Perhaps you’ve seen some of those Italian Renaissance paintings of the Virgin Mary with John the Baptist and Jesus as chubby three-year old boys. John is usually wearing a junior version of the camel hair outfit of his wilderness years.  Sometimes there’s a little lamb in the scene or John may be holding a staff with a banner that reads “Ecce Agnus Dei”: “Behold the Lamb of God.”

This is a “mash up” of the Luke story about John the Baptist and the Gospel of John’s story.  It’s in Luke that we get the suggestion, at least, that John the Baptist and Jesus might have known each other, since their mothers were related. And that they may have played together as little boys.  All that is missing in John.  It’s in the Gospel of John that John the Baptist calls Jesus the “Lamb of God”—and that is missing in Luke and the other Gospels.

Did they know each other before John the Baptist witnessed the Spirit descending on Jesus? Who knows? For the sake of argument, let’s assume they did know each other since they were both in a similar line of work in the same part of the Holy Land, which is actually a very small country. And they may in fact have been related, as Luke says. So, when John says “I myself did not know him”, he could be saying something like “I’ve known him since childhood—but I didn’t really know him. I didn’t know him then as I do now.”

Seeing the Spirit descend upon Jesus, John understands him in a new way.  It doesn’t matter very much whether Jesus and John the Baptist knew each other for thirty years or only five minutes: John sees Jesus in a new way when the Spirit descends upon him. “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”  We might say John has an epiphany—in seeing Jesus in a new way, John has an epiphany.

The Magi have an epiphany of Jesus—they see an infant that is more than an infant. The disciples have epiphanies of Jesus—they come to see a man that is more than a man.  We might call the entire New Testament a book of epiphanies and the Christian religion a religion of epiphanies.  We experience our own epiphanies of Christ; we experience epiphanies of each other.  We even experience epiphanies about ourselves.  We come to see and know more about who Jesus is, who we are, who our neighbors are.

So John the Baptist’s epiphany wasn’t only about Jesus.  In coming to know Jesus in a fuller way, he surely began to understand himself in a new way.  In witnessing the descent of the Spirit upon Jesus—if we can presume to get inside John’s head–John himself is changed, his self-understanding expands to take all this in.

For those of us who might have room for one more New Year’s resolution, it might be this: to be open to new epiphanies, to be open to seeing others in new ways, to seeing Jesus in new ways, to seeing ourselves in fresh and perhaps even surprising new ways.

This is not easy, of course.  There are powerful psychological and social forces at work that can make this an uphill battle. We get stuck: in terms of our own self-understanding, in terms of how we see others and, indeed, in how we understand Jesus. We drag our formative years and families of origin around with us our entire lives. We cast other people as characters in our personal psycho-dramas. We cast Jesus as a player in our personal psycho-dramas. We make judgments of other people that can be very difficult to undo. Getting to a place where we can be open to new epiphanies is easier said than done.

Perhaps we can begin with a little clue from John the Baptist.  “I did not know him.”  Whatever their previous relationship, John was able, in a sense, to “un-know” Jesus—in order to see him afresh, to understand him in a new way. Maybe this is the clue: to “un-know” ourselves, to “un-know” our neighbor, even to “un-know” Jesus. In the Medieval devotional classic, “The Cloud of Unknowing” the master says (I paraphrase) to forget everything you thought you knew about God, put all your images and understandings of God under a cloud of forgetting, a cloud of unknowing.

Or, to put it another way, this means realizing how little we do know about ourselves, how little we really know about our neighbor—even how little we know about Jesus and God. It means comprehending and accepting the limitations of our understanding. Recognizing these limits can take us a long way toward openness to new information, new epiphanies.

It can mean simply letting go of what we think we know. (What we think we know about someone is highly suspect in the first place.) One of the Desert Fathers stories puts it very succinctly: “Abba Poemen said about Abba Pior that every single day he made a fresh beginning.”  We can’t really erase our memories and it wouldn’t necessarily be good if we could—but what if every single day we made a fresh beginning?  Perhaps this is what John the Baptist was able to do.  He saw Jesus in a fresh new way—he made a fresh beginning with someone he may have known all his life. So fresh and new that he could say, “I didn’t really know him.”

We can’t, of course, forget what we know about others.  But, to use a computer metaphor, we can “minimize” it. Like that little box in the upper right corner of the screen: you click on it and what had previously filled the screen is tucked away behind a small icon at the bottom or side of the screen.  The information is not lost; it just doesn’t take up the whole screen anymore.  It’s still there, available as needed, but no longer dominating—the screen is now free for something new.  Wouldn’t it be nice if we could do that with our minds?

To let go of what we think we know to make room for new epiphanies requires a willingness to accept fluidity, flux, change, growth.  Making room for new epiphanies requires the willingness to risk the uncertainties of growth—our own growth and the growth of others. The willingness to not be locked in to a previous edition of our selves, not be locked in to previous editions of others or even previous editions of who we think Jesus is.

Because there’s always more!  Because the Spirit has descended upon us, because Christ dwells within us, we are now “mysteries that cannot be fathomed”, as our Rule of Life puts it (Chapter 27: Silence).  There shall always be more epiphanies of Christ and of ourselves.

“Abba Poemen said about Abba Pior that every single day he made a fresh beginning.”

“O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, One God, for ever and ever.” [BCP p. 214]

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  1. Christina on January 10, 2017 at 09:33

    How strange. You perhaps know how unpredictable computers can be.
    Today, for me, the morning sermon is from Br. David. I read it, but then – out of nowhere – Br. Mark’s popped up on the screen. Where did it’s wonderful message come from to start my day, to start the new year. It has me thinking of opinions that I hold about some people, and events. I know so little and must try to become more open and thoughtful. I too am a mystery to me. I’ve come to the conclusion that it is only God who truly knows me.
    Blessings to all the brothers and to those who respond to the daily Words. Christina

  2. Ruth West on January 6, 2017 at 12:57

    On this Church Year Day of Epiphany, 2017, I reread and received refreshed new meaning from your homily. I thank all who have commented with such insight, too. I always love reading what your readers have to say. Thanks, and may our Lord Jesus Christ be near you throughout this new year.

  3. Joseh on January 6, 2017 at 10:39

    Thank you for sharing this moving and refreshing reflection. Your words are a blessing to my ears.

    Columbus, OH

  4. Ann on January 19, 2016 at 07:40

    This is very meaningful to me today. Thank you. I love the metaphor of ‘minimizing’ the screen of what we know or think we know about another. Or even ourselves.

  5. Muriel Akam on January 14, 2016 at 11:26

    Every day is a new day is such a lovely thing and so encouraging in developing fresh insights and approaches to age old problems and and general life, Do not go back but try a new route- I love that.

  6. RCH on January 12, 2016 at 19:47

    Br. Mark, thank you. The capacity to tolerate ambiguity is fundamental to the ability to recognize new horizons and grow in new ways. God through Christ’s capacity to never change and be new each day breathes into each of us the opportunity for new branches with deep roots.

  7. Ruth West on January 11, 2016 at 02:33

    What an epiphany it must have been to John, the Baptizer, when he saw the Spirit descend on Jesus as a dove saying, “This is my Beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” I pray that the Spirit will descend on me during this new year opening my eyes and ears to new truths.
    Thanks for this good message.

  8. Margaret Dungan on January 9, 2016 at 23:57

    Thank you Br, Mark
    I really loved this, Word, and I loved the comments as well. A big thank you to everybody.
    I would only add that I think that we can also have epiphanies about those who have passed on to the next life and find that we now understand them in a whole new way.

  9. Paul on January 9, 2016 at 15:13

    I frequently greet people early in the morning with the exclamation “Happy new day!!!” Perhaps I should apply that to myself — seeing and knowing myself, my neighbor and Jesus in new ways. As you suggest, I will be open to epiphanies this year and, I pray, one day at a time for so long as I shall live.

  10. Polly Chatfield on January 9, 2016 at 11:04

    Thank you, Mark, as always, for the wonderful freshness of your insights. It is fear that holds us back from new awarenesses, fear that make us believe we are safer in some sort of stars quo. But once you can begin to let the wind of Jesus, the wind of the Spirit, blow through you, the fear dissolves into an amazement.

  11. Sandra Ahn on January 9, 2016 at 10:32

    Br. Brown, Oh what a beautiful morning. Your words offered looking back to The Cloud Unknowing and to Abba Poemen and Pior, and looking at the now, but most important looking ahead. A New Day , a New Year, a chance to change, to grow – it’s all waiting for us. Thank you . Peace to you and all the brothers at the Society of St John the Evangelist.

  12. Michael on January 9, 2016 at 10:08

    The idea of seeing old things in new ways has enormous potential for our world. Realizing war is an old perceptive and needs a new approach, treatments over jails, honesty in polictic over rehetoric and on it goes. We have the capacity to find new ways if we are willing to recognize our epiphanies and then act upon them

  13. Alec Clement on January 9, 2016 at 08:19

    Beginning my day with a reading of these thoughts has become a wonderful road to travel ..there is great beauty and the scenery never fails to change

  14. Maida on January 9, 2016 at 07:19

    Dear Brother Mark,

    I am very moved by this sermon and love your delivery! You make me smile, think, reflect and pray!

    Cheers to Epiphanies!!!

  15. Alice on January 9, 2016 at 06:50

    Life as filled with the necessity and possibility of small epiphanies is both a helpful and a true image. Thank you.

  16. Anders on January 7, 2014 at 16:27

    Our culture of reason and data is directly against “realizing how little we do know about ourselves, how little we really know about our neighbor—even how little we know about Jesus and God. Rather than “comprehending and accepting the limitations of our understanding”, we dig in and are prevented from this “long way toward openness to new information, new epiphanies.”

    I believe we need to create a culture to open this up in the church: through prayer, acts of healing, meditation and dream awareness, etc. As spiritual thought leaders, please teach me more!

  17. Joe Mazza on January 7, 2014 at 10:08

    Brilliant and insightful, Br. Mark. Your message made me go back to a poem I recalled to discover that I’ve been mis-reading the Christopher Smart poem from the 18th century, “Where is this stupendous stranger?” (in Wonder, Love and Praise) as “Who is this stupendous stranger?” It is our task — as you suggest — to ask “Who?” Thanks for your insightful message.

  18. Margaret Albert on January 6, 2014 at 23:33

    I too love the idea of “minimizing” whatever is distracting me. This concept also puts me in mind of the Light and how the “darkness did not overcome it.” We can choose to have our darkness full screen or minimized to focus on the Light.

  19. barbara frazer lowe on January 6, 2014 at 16:01

    Thankyou, Br. Mark, – outstanding – ‘Epiphanies” – an invigorating freshness, new depths, and; with thankfulness for your gift.

  20. Elizabeth on January 6, 2014 at 08:03

    The visual image of clicking on the “diminish” button to clear the field of vision is a useful tool to refresh both past and present preconceptions. Thank you.

  21. Jonathan Bruce on January 6, 2014 at 07:35

    Carol, your comment is very insightful as well.

  22. Jonathan Bruce on January 6, 2014 at 07:33

    Insightful message. Thank you.

  23. Carol Babb-Pool on December 18, 2013 at 16:20

    This year I’m drawn to the Magi as metaphor. The phrase found in Matthew 2:12, “And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.”
    1. “Not to go back to Herod”
    2. “returned to their country by another route”

    Don’t go back
    Return to your country
    By another route

    Interested in your insights. Blessings, Carol

    • Connie Kimble on January 6, 2017 at 10:19

      Wow, Carol…. without going into detail, your scripture citation seems to answer a deep question I have been praying about and struggling with. Thank you for this epiphany.


      • Paul on January 7, 2017 at 22:48

        Yes, excellent. Reminds me of the “epiphany” I had when I discovered the deeper meaning of Jesus’ telling his apostles to “go out into the deep.”

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