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Christopher Cocca

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The Radical Welcome of Epiphany

Posted: 01/06/11 12:13 PM ET

Following Advent and Christmastide, Epiphany is the liturgical season during which the Christian tradition has, in theory, stressed the religious inclusion that comes from God's manifestation in Christ and the revelation of that presence to humanity. The celebrative model in the West has traditionally been the visit of the Three Kings/Magi as a symbol of God's revelation to those outside, ethnically and religiously, the Abrahamic covenant of Judaism.  Eastern churches focus on Christ's baptism in the Jordan as the location of his theophany: God the Father announces "This is my Son, in whom I am well-pleased" as Christ comes up from the waters of the Jordan. This announcement is neither for the Jewish faithful or righteous Gentile pilgrims only, but for and to the world.

At Christmas, Christians use the natural liturgical (though, certainly, geo-centric) opportunities of bleak midwinter to celebrate the coming of God among us, with Advent having prepared us for the promised end of another yearly cycle. That the New Year should follow so closely after Christmas underscores the point: in the Common Era, the ancient human need for ritual renewal manifests itself in essential Christian ways, even as those needs are, like Christ, suprachristian and suprareligious. Standing squarely in the the tradition of the Hebrew scriptures, the early Jewish Christians saw in the life of Christ yet another outbreaking of the promises of God to those far off, to the other, the stranger, the foreigner, even the heathen. Nowhere is this more basically asserted than in Christ's geneology as offered by Matthew, where the extension of covenant to gentiles like Rahab and Ruth is explicit. The inclusion of these women by name also recalls Paul's claim that in Christ, "there is neither Greek nor Jew, slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one Christ."

Most Christians believe some variation of this ancient narrative: God seeks to reconcile humankind to Godself and to reclaim all of creation for creation's good and for God's glory. This is the Christian doctrine of redemption at its most basic. Traditionally, Christians have believed this redemption, this making of all things new, is mystically and literally achieved through the death and resurrection of Christ, or, to paint orthodoxy in broader strokes, that it is achieved through Christ's very coming into history, through the rather unorthodox emigration of God from cosmos to poverty to death. The crux of Christianity, in any liturgical season, is the idea that a place at God's table is being prepared not only for all who would seek it, but for all whom God seeks. Rahab's service to the Hebrews in Jericho, Ruth's faithful dedication to her mother-in-law, and their inclusion by the gospel writer in Christ's lineage suggests that Christ's birth, while wholly unique, is not unlike the progressive extension of covenant found throughout the Hebrew Bible. Neither is it something for Jewish or Christian people only. The birth of Christ is, the traditions assert, the coming of God into history, God's putting on of flesh, vulnerability, rejection. The beginning of God's own march toward death and undoing it.

It's not by accident that the church follows the celebration of God's coming to dwell among us with a season proclaiming the inclusion of all peoples in the good news of Christmas. Epiphany reminds us that this is, indeed, a good news that shall be to all people. Mary, Joseph, and Jesus greeted the visiting kings who came following stars. Holy Hosts conjured before shepherds. The Archangel Gabriel came to a peasant girl in the backwater parts of a backwater province of the most powerful empire on Earth, uninvited. The Gospel of John begins by describing the coming of the light that never goes out, "the true light that gives light to everyone." Matthew describes the alignment of genes that birthed God from the unlikely margins.

In the person of Jesus and in the spiritual lives of those who seek to follow after him, the Christian story is a story of movement. From heaven to earth, eternity to time, from Bethlehem to Egypt to Nazareth to Jerusalem. From the east, bearing gifts, and from a manger bearing good tidings of great joy for all people. From self-satisfied, complacent Christianity toward a suprachristian spirit of radical welcome, inclusion, and grace. From fear to love. From judgement to journey. From "am I my brother's keeper?" to "love thy neighbor as thyself." From a narrow politics of self-preservation and jingo to a public ethic of justice, from crushing those on the margin to crushing everything in us that keeps us from loving as God does. From the awe of Christmas to what it must mean, Epiphany's radical welcome.

 

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