Psalm 139:1—5, 12—17
From the time I first encountered it in earnest, this season of the church year has always spoken to me of identity. In particular, the play between the way we see our identities and the way God sees our identities.
On January 6, the Church kept the Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord Jesus Christ, celebrating the manifestation of God to the world in Jesus. As she did, she called to mind (at least in the western rites) the story of the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus. A story about an identity: the fullness of God’s identity, present in the frailty of a defenseless, dependent child.
As she kept the Feast of the Baptism of Christ on the Sunday that followed, she recalled yet another story about identity: the human identity into which God desired to be baptized in the flesh of Jesus beneath the waters of the Jordan River. The humanity into which Righteousness itself was pleased to be plunged and drowned. The humanity with which, by that act, God became unmistakably and eternally bound.
These two feasts are recognized in the lectionary as solemnities. They can sometimes pass us by in the daze that follows the whirlwind of Chistmastide, but they frontload the season of Epiphany with these themes of identity. I find it a grace that the lectionary does this in this way. And this year in particular. For as the Church celebrated the display of God’s presence in the world before the Gentile Magi on January 6, her eyes beheld a different kind of epiphany as violence swept through the Capitol. It was an epiphany of the very brokenness and division into which God deigned to be submerged.
1 Samuel 3:1-10 (11-20)/Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17/1 Cor. 6:12-20/John 1:43-51
This scene from the Gospel of John seems camera-ready to me—if a bit odd with its very abrupt ending. John sets the scene: somewhere in Galilee “on the next day”—which happens to be the second day after Jesus’ baptism at the Jordan River. The main characters are on the set. Jesus is ready with cryptic quotes. (“Where did you get to know me?” “I saw you under the fig tree.” The actor playing Nathanael is ready with earnest effusions. (Who would play guileless Nathanael? Maybe that guy that plays Jamie on that cop show “Blue Bloods”—Will Estes?) Somewhere in the background there’s got to be a fig tree. The cameras roll. The players play.
Then this strange and abrupt ending: “Very truly I tell you, you will heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” End of scene—that’s it; we have no idea what happened later that day. All of a sudden it’s chapter three: “On the third day there was a wedding…”
1 Sam. 3: 1-20; Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17; 1 Cor. 6:12-20; John 1:43-51
This is surely one of Jesus’ more obscure sayings. “Very truly I tell you,” he says to Nathanael, “you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” The reference is to Jacob’s dream in Genesis when he sees angels on a ladder ascending to and descending from heaven. But what can it possibly mean? We need to do a little detective work.
So, why not start in Paris? I’m not a regular in Paris, but have managed to get there three or four times. On one visit way back when I happened to go into a book store—an old-fashioned book store (remember book stores?). Very high ceilings with shelves all the way to the top, ladders to get up there. The overflow in stacks on tables, even on the wood plank floor. The fragrance of old leather bindings in the air. It happened to be a Left Bank version of what we would call a “New Age” bookstore: all the world religions, and then some. Theosophy, Anthroposophy, astrology and numerology and the occult, etc. etc.–all the more exotic for being in French. There in the Christian section of the store a little book jumped out at me (have you ever had books jump out at you?) “Le Symbolisme du Temple Chrétien”. The symbolism of the Christian temple. By someone named Jean Hani. I bought and read it.