Epiphany means “reveal.” It seems obvious but necessary to point out, then, on this Epiphany day of January 6, that a true epiphany involves the uncovering or exhibition or manifestation of something or someone other than the witness.
In our ego-centric culture, we hear constantly of our own inner value and majesty. In essence, many people have mistaken their uniquely, divinely created souls for the Divine itself.
And yet the law written upon our hearts knows the truth: for every narcissistic homo incurvatus in se, every self-laudatory “aha!” moment, every effort to lift and glorify oneself above our mortal dust turns right back into dust. The mortal new year shine reflects upon us not our own splendor. No, its dawn reveals the inexorable passing of time and our concomitant bondage to our inevitable decay.
This knowledge can cause us despair. Or we can learn from the great Epiphany again. “Arise, shine, for your Light has come,” wrote the prophet Isaiah,”and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you” (60:1). He and the other true prophets pointed only and always to the great Light that saves us, Christ Jesus. In the child born to Mary, adopted by Joseph, we receive the only eternal life we can hope for. Like the kings from the East, we Christians also marvel at the Son of David’s coming for us and all the world. We blink in His light, bowing to the One whose pierced hands came to save us.
Now richly to my waiting heart, O Thou, my God, deign to impart The grace of love undying.
In Thy blest body let me be, E’en as the branch is in the tree, Thy life my life supplying.
Sighing, crying; For the savor of Thy favor; Resting never till I rest in Thee forever.
~ “How Lovely Shines the Morning Star,” The Lutheran Hymnal, #343vs. 3.
On May 4, 1917, crowds near Queenstown, Ireland, saw the thin masts of ships approaching on a calm sea from the west. Such sights weren’t unfamiliar on that popular seafaring lane. But these ships were special. They included six American destroyers, coming to aid their British allies in the first World War.
By most historical accounts, the ships themselves represented a modest, even small, American contribution to what was a dire naval situation in Britain. Thanks to the efficacy of German submarines like U-20, which nearly two years earlier and in the same waters had famously sunk the vast ocean liner Lusitania, the British fleet was on the brink of losing the seas and, in turn, the war. But here came the Mary Rose, a British destroyer, escorting the Americans into the harbor teeming with civilian boats. The Rose signaled, “Welcome to the American colors.” Bernard Gribble painted a portrait of the historic sight which was commissioned by the American Secretary of the Navy, a man named Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
The portrait was entitled “The Return of the Mayflower.”
Reading about this history recently got me thinking about hope and help and the most vital things for which we wait. Sometimes our hopes are ephemeral–wordless longings for things which we can’t articulate, or deep desires for things we know to be, in this mortal world, impossible. And yet hope is a beacon, a light to which we turn, a promise that change is coming, no matter how flickeringly small that promise might be.
We have just celebrated another Thanksgiving, a time in which we express our gratitude for the blessings in our lives and which links us to generations of other Americans who have gone before us. Our children read books on the voyage of the Mayflower, that fabled ship of Pilgrims, bravely seeking out a new world in which to practice their faith without fear of persecution. Such early American history is colored today by competing narratives of unrelenting persecution and loss versus truly positive historic precedents of liberty. The most accurate and true histories, even that which inspires, always includes nuance and, inevitably, sinners and sin.
Our forebears–and they include countless individuals and groups–in America were certainly not perfect, and yet we can learn from them. American involvement in World War I is colored by the still ongoing controversy of British intelligence knowledge of the threats to the Lusitania and other ships bearing American passengers, as written about so lucidly in Erik Larson’s Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. A beautiful painting can’t change that. But paintings, and nuanced stories, can still show us examples of hope and help, inspiring events that remind us that even in dire situations, vehicles of real promise can exist.
Too much of our current culture believes individual desire itself to be an ultimate goal, whether that desire means self-harm in the form of changing genders to blasting apart families in the name of sexual or other self-fulfillment. This is not an endorsement of such self-obsessed destructive desires. These desires descend rabbit holes of hara-kiri fantasy, where wreckage is creation and self is all. Instead, real hope places trust in what is truly good for us. And what is good? What do we most need? We need to know who we are here in time and there in eternity, to know whom God has created us to be and how He saves us from the temporal death that awaits us all until His second coming. We need to know that we are real, broken people, and that He promises real help.
Tomorrow begins the season of Advent, in which we once again look away from ourselves to the hope, Christ, promised to us. The only God who speaks and fulfills His promises reminds us this in the beautiful opening passage of the book of John, which tells us who God is and what He promises us.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.
The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
Tomorrow, my vocation of mother will include a task that no loving mother ever wants to complete.
Tomorrow, we will bury Christian. Our son. My son.
I know our children are not ours in the sense of proprietary ownership. We are merely temporary guardians of these precious souls whom God has created for His good purposes. But we never expect to see them die before us. We expect that they will bury us, not that we will bury them.
Tomorrow, we will go to the cemetery, Jon and I, and our six living children; my parents; two dear pastors and their wives. We will commend our son’s body to Christ, confessing that on the last day, Christian will rise again, he and all the dead. And we will see him, and them, again, and live forever together with Christ in heaven.
I don’t want to do this. But I know this is what God has given us to do. As long as he lived, Jon and I strove to feed and nourish Christian; to take him to church so he could hear the Word and receive Christ; to care for him by acknowledging that God made him a unique individual placed in our family for a short time. We did this imperfectly, of course. Yet God gave us these tasks to love and serve our little Christian.
I got to hold Christian late Monday night, after he was born. He was so small, and his body was swollen from all the fluid that had been growing in him. But he was beautiful. Every cell on his head was intricate and flawlessly connected. The fine cuticles and nails on his tiny fingers were so detailed and immaculate. His wide-topped head was like his five-year-old brother’s. His deep brows were like his Dad’s, his long fingers like his mine. His button nose was just like his biggest sister’s.
I don’t know how God could have ever chosen us over His Son. When Jesus sweat drops of blood in the garden, asking for His Father to take His cup away from Him; when He staggered up Golgatha, beaten beyond belief; when He hung gasping on the cross–I cannot fathom the love of God who would see and know His Son’s excruciating suffering and allow Him to die because He loved and loves the world so much. As a mother, if I had to choose between saving my son Christian and saving the rest of the world, God help me, I would choose Christian.
And God knows that, and He has given us this glimpse into His unfathomable love in this: that when we lay Christian’s body down to sleep in the earth tomorrow, when my hopes and dreams as a mother to love and to see my son grow up and thrive in this world are buried, I will still yet have hope. I will grieve for the rest of my life, but I will have this: Christ has made all things new. He choose us. He will raise our son from the dead, and He will raise us if He does not come again to the earth first. And we will hug our Christian, and bow before the pierced hands of Christ, and He will embrace us all forever.
Lord, let at last Thine angels come, To Abram’s bosom bear me home, That I may die unfearing; And in its narrow chamber keep My body safe in peaceful sleep Until Thy reappearing. And then from death awaken me That these mine eyes with joy may see, O Son of God, Thy glorious face, My Savior and my Fount of grace, Lord Jesus Christ, My prayer attend, my prayer attend, And I will praise Thee without end.
~”Lord, Thee I Love With All My Heart” Lutheran Service Book #708, vs. 3.
Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris has burned this Holy Week. The world watched the flickering heat lick and then consume the roof of the eight-hundred-year-old church, then, horrified, witnessed the spire falling. In our secular, postmodern world, why did the sight of flames devouring an old building, particularly a church, move so many? What are we to learn from this?
The historic value of Notre Dame, of course, explains part of our grief. Anyone who cherishes the study of the past and the relics, holy or otherwise, that mark it knows the incalculable worth of a Gothic structure like Notre Dame. Though the cathedral will be rebuilt, no amount of money, however philanthropically gifted, and no amount of architectural purity can replace what has been lost. Preservationists across the globe will be further disheartened to learn that part of the rebuilding will include a design contest rather than a reconstruction of what previously stood. I shudder to think of the result.
But Christians grieve over the loss of Notre Dame for more than its historical design and consequence. More than one commentator has noted the symbolic significance of the burning cathedral, from “The End of Christendom” to “Hope in the Ruins” (to mention just two takes). Those of us who notice the increased secularization of our culture, and the emptying and closing of our churches, know that the fire represents what has been happening to many churches, only the burn and smoke and destruction has more often been slow and subtle than fast and noticeable.
The transcendence of time by eternity, and by Christ as the incarnation of eternity in time, is suggested by the stability and durability of the church. An effective church building is a manifestation of tradition, and tradition is more than just the dead accumulation of custom; it is a living organism that overcomes time and death by a process of continual regeneration and gradual creative development. The church building, if it achieves permanence simply by resisting change and being preserved over centuries, might be no more than a museum or monument. But if it is built to last and is sustained from within by a community of worshippers then its permanence becomes a true reflection of eternity.
Caldecott rightly emphasizes the importance of devout worshippers. Too many of our churches have become merely museums and monuments (or even condos or bars or nightclubs), empty of people confessing Christ. The living organism of a community of faithful believers gathering around His Word and Sacrament has long been tepid or absent at too many Christian churches, even great, old ones like Notre Dame. This is why even Lutherans like me are sad at the news this week. Burning churches bespeak of both lost holy places and lost souls.
Joshua Gibbs noted this ecumenical mourning of Notre Dame in the Circe Institute “The Cedar Room” blog this week. “The loss of Notre Dame, or huge portions of it, stings even the Protestant and Orthodox Christian because cathedrals are physical manifestations that worship is one of the human things,” he wrote. “Cathedrals are silent arguments and wordless syllogisms which make it easier to believe. … Yes, Christianity will go on. No, no one died. Nonetheless, a very old and very good thing which testified to the power of piety and the sanity of beauty has been irreparably marred.” We cannot take for granted either our faith or the witness of our faith through physical materials of wood and stone when we see smoldering ruins, ash and dust that remind of us of Earth’s mortality and our own.
Which brings me to Holy Week. We began this Lent with Ash Wednesday, our somber reflection with King Solomon that from dust we are formed, and to dust we shall return (Ecclesiastes 3:19-20). This week we remember how our incarnate Lord, God made flesh, gave and gives His body and blood to us, and how He suffered crucifixion before He died. As we think about the burning of Notre Dame, let us also meditate upon its “Gothic floorplan [which] echoed the form of Christ’s human body on the Cross, and the distance between heaven and earth… in vertical elongation” (Caldecott 104). We must go to our own churches to hear and receive the Truth embodied in Christ, that though time will inevitably take its toll on us, moving us inexorably to the dust, we know that earthly death is not our end because it was not His end. An Architect and His mortal yet immortal Son remain our permanent hope.
There’s a memorable line from an unmemorable book, Ramona Forever, that I think of this time every year. Ramona’s aunt, I think, has just gotten married, and life for the rest of the family has marched on after the reception is over. “Everybody felt let down, like the day after Christmas,” the narrator says. As a kid, I always knew exactly what that meant. Christmas was that one shining day that held all the anticipation and promise of gifts and surprises and magic and love. The day after? Kind of sad, with a quiet melancholy.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve thankfully learned to appreciate the days between Christmas and New Year’s, and in truth, the full twelve days of Christmas. Part of this is experiencing the miracle of childbirth personally and realizing the depth and breadth of moments with a newborn. Yes, the birthday of a child is awesome and priceless. But the days after are, too, for countless small reasons.
After the births of the first several of our children, a nurse at the hospital would give me a paper sheet—it was always blue—that numbered the first ten days to two weeks after Baby’s birth. It listed feeding times and numbers, and diaper changes and types, that we needed to meticulously record to make sure Baby was growing and progressing as a new baby should. I would carefully record, with pen and ink—how quaint that seems!—everything on that sheet that happened in those first days. And inevitably, by about Day 12, I would forget to record a feeding or diaper change. By then, we would be falling into routines. What had been new and daunting, and in need of meticulous attention, was now comfortingly familiar.
And so I think this third day of Christmas. Our children are learning customs of the season, many devout, others entertaining. One I enjoy is unpacking small Nativity scenes on Christmas Eve with them and letting them display them in their bedrooms. This year, I let our oldest daughter, who is seven, set up one I received from my godmother when I was about her age. My mother left a note inside the box when I married, explaining where I got the set and how she enjoyed watching me meticulously arrange it every year. She also wrote how she prayed that our marriage would be centered in Christ. Such a small note, and such a small act—unwrapping a porcelain, childlike Joseph and Mary, shepherd and sheep, Wise Men and animals. And a baby Jesus. God who could fit in the palm of my hand. And now the little figure fits in my daughter’s hand.
I suppose the comfort of habit and repetition comes in part from their smallness: the methodical, the routine, the pattern of the everyday that recedes from our active, thoughtful practice to that of work that has seeped down to our pores—the kinds of things we do automatically. Rocking. Feeding. Changing. Humming. All of a sudden, it seems, what was first new and unfamiliar is now beloved and close.
We need the spectacular, it is true—the angels in glory chorusing brilliantly in a midnight sky, the star among millions shining for one Child. But He knew we also needed the regular and familiar. Water and word. Body and blood. Quiet moments after earth-shattering ones. A hand, a creased and lined warm hand, with eternal love in its palm.
People say Rome wasn’t built in a day. It’s also true that it wasn’t destroyed in a day, either the city itself which took several centuries to fall, or to the Roman Catholic Church, which still stands but continues to wither, for reasons both long known and recent to us.
I’m thinking of this today, October 31, known to Lutherans as Reformation Day, the day when Martin Luther strode up to the Castle Church doors and nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to them, forever changing Western Christianity. Rome, or the Roman Catholic Church, began to fall that day, petty Protestant triumphalists like to crow. While it was unquestionably an important event in history, Luther’s nailing was actually normal. He’d slapped other papers on the wood before, and so had many others. And he wasn’t the first person–or even the first priest–to criticize the RCC. But that reality isn’t flashy enough for us. “Man Does What Many Others Had Done Before” just doesn’t really sell as a headline. (If you’d like to read a fascinating secular analysis of how Luther and his reforms ended up garnering so much attention, I’d highly recommend Brand Luther by Andrew Pettegree.)
Things of great import never happen overnight, much as we like to think they do. Let’s be real: we love the movie-reel squashing of time that erases all the toil and sweat and sheer inching along of tiny efforts that make up Great Imports because we don’t like incremental. We want everything dreamed one second and done the next, mostly because we’re shiftless and loafing and mostly interested in pleasing our stomachs, to paraphrase Luther.
I say all this not to belittle Luther’s contributions to the world. On the contrary. I actually just want to make the point that momentous days have beginnings prior to their happenings. Luther had spent decades studying theology and the Bible, as well as the writings and teachings of church fathers and many other respected pastors and teachers. In fact, through his own well-rounded, classical education, he revolutionized education as we know it. He didn’t just wake up one day with some grand understanding of the Truth. He sought it like silver and like a hidden treasure. (As an aside, that’s probably a good, solid way to sniff out a theological swindle. If someone wakes up with a revelation after Revelation is over, and said revelations contradict Scripture, well, besides rejecting Scripture, which isn’t good, their insights haven’t been around long enough to percolate under the test of time. A flash-in-the-pan is not a silver strike. And news flash: “because an angel only I could see said so” isn’t valid evidence.)
[They say that they were] Christians, [had] been baptized, and [had received] the holy Sacraments, even though they [could not] even recite the Lord’s Prayer or the Creed or the Ten Commandments. They live like dumb brutes and irrational hogs. Now that the Gospel has come, they have nicely learned to abuse all freedom like experts.
If that wasn’t clear enough, Luther went on: “[Those] who are unwilling to learn the catechism should deny Christ and are not Christians.” Ouch.
The freedom of the Gospel means Christians delight in the Law of the Lord, not ignore, revile, or neglect it. Even the well-intended don’t get a pass in his preface to the Large Catechism: “Oh, what mad, senseless fools are we! While we must ever live and dwell among such mighty enemies as the devils, we still despise our weapons and defense, and we are too lazy to look at or think of them!”
So what should we do? Or what does this mean? We should not shun the Word or the Catechism or the Divine Service. We should daily read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest these treasures we have. We should bask in the gift of life that we have been given in our baptisms, and continue to be nourished in our small, faltering faiths, not having any illusions about how very small and faltering they are. We know those mustard seeds can move mountains; we must not shirk the gifts that water and feed them. We will not be Martin Luthers, titans of our time and in history, but we hope and pray to maintain the blessed grace we have been given, and never take it for granted–the same lesson Luther sought to cultivate and honor himself, and that led him to restore the Church.