Monday, January 14, 2013

Jesus' "first 100 days"

icon: the adoration of the magi
In the religious tradition in which I grew up and now serve, worship during the weeks and Sundays after the Epiphany (January 6) is dedicated to the reading of certain stories in the life of Jesus that reveal in some special and often symbolic way the nature and purpose of his ministry. To be sure, each and every act of Jesus recorded in the gospels reveals something about Jesus' identity and mission, but the church for years has seen a few particular stories that occur at the beginning of his life as especially informative about who he is and what he is going to do now that he is, so to speak, on the scene. Specifically, Jesus is God made manifest. In Jesus, God is revealing (the main meaning of "epiphany," after all) something critically important about God's plan for humankind and all of creation. You may think of it this way: a lot of people focus on a newly-elected President's first 100 days as a sign for what's to come--what his or her priorities are--for the remainder of the term. That's kind of how the season after the Epiphany functions.

Several years ago I was in a choir that sang a hymn that mentioned some of these key "epiphany" stories. I really liked the words, and so I jotted them down for future Epiphany devotions. It was written by a lesser-known poet from the 5th century who went by the name Coelius Sedulius. Often known by its first lines in Latin, "Hostis Herodes Impie," the hymn has been set to music several times.

icon: the baptism of Jesus
Thanks to a the way the calendar falls in 2013, the first four verses of the five-verse hymn all correspond nicely to the gospel readings of the first three Epiphany Sundays this year. This suggests that assigned lectionary readings for this liturgical season have been remarkably consistent throughout the centuries.  In the season after we've prepared for and celebrated his birth (Advent and Christmas) and before we delve into the season that prepares us for his suffering, death and resurrection (Lent, Holy Week, and Easter), Christians have long thought it helpful to concentrate, if for only a brief few Sundays, on the adult Jesus as he begins his ministry and begins announcing the arrival of the kingdom of heaven. If one is still struggling with what the "season after Epiphany" is all about and why the church continues to celebrate it, this hymn might help spell it out.

"Why, impious Herod, shouldst thou fear
Because the Christ is come so near?
He Who doth heav'nly kingdoms grant
Thine earthly realm can never want.

Lo, sages from the East are gone
To where the star hath newly shone:
Led on by light to Light they press
And by their gifts their God confess.

The Lamb of God is manifest
Again in Jordan's water blest,

And He who sin had never known
By washing hath our sins undone.

Yet He that ruleth everything
Can change the nature of the spring
And gives at Cana this for sign--
That water reddens into wine.

Then glory, Lord, to Thee we pray
For Thine Epiphany today;
All glory through eternity
To Father, Son, and Spirit be.

There you have them: the journey of the wise men and Herod's resultant fear, the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, and the wedding at Cana. Three main stories that have been read between Christmas and Lent for what appears to be a very long time. Three stories that set the stage for what type of king and leader Jesus will be and how Jesus, in turn, reveals God's true nature. It just so happens that in 2013 we will hear all three of these stories three Sundays in a row: January 6, January 13, and January 20. We know what Coelius Sedulius thinks of Jesus' first 100 days. What do you think Jesus' priorities are? What's on his agenda? What do you expect to see from him as the rest of his "term" plays out? Lastly, how might these three stories---the adoration of the magi, the baptism by John in the Jordan, and the wedding at Cana where "water reddens into wine"---also contain elements of foreshadowing for the rest of Jesus' mission?

icon: the wedding at Cana of Galilee

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