Jesus is born. Now what are we waiting for?

Toward Epiphany

Sunday after Christmas, December 31, 2006. First Congregational United Church of Christ,
an Open and Affirming, “God is Still Speaking” Community in Santa Rosa, California.
8:30 AM Service of Scripture and Communion, Rev. Bob Cramer, Leader.

For weeks we have been awaiting The Birth — the central event, at least when paired with The Cross, in all of Christendom; some say, in all of history. And now, according to the traditional “Christian Year,” which is how we teach the meaning of Jesus from Sunday to Sunday — we are waiting all over again.

This time it’s for Epiphany, next Saturday, January 6. Angels have sung a secret to obscure, little-appreciated shepherds—the babe in the manger will be Messiah. But the scholars who serve distant pagan kings — who have told the same secret to the reigning oppressor of the Jewish people — have not yet seen the infant in whom, as a man, people will begin to recognize the very presence of God. When they arrive, they will proclaim him King. Or King-to-be.

This is strange, just as so much of Christianity is strange. Jesus undoubtedly was born completely unheralded, to an obscure couple in Nazareth, Galilee. Jesus, who would befriend anybody and everybody, but who nonetheless said the masses of people most rejected and despised were his very best candidates for citizenship in the Kingdom of God — Jesus came, in hallowed story, to be celebrated as being born in the City of David. (I prefer the truly lowly Nazorean.)

An editorial note beneath the 14th century Duccio painting on the back of this meditation, Dispute with the Doctors, follows Luke’s text for today, where Jesus at 12 is found teaching the teachers. Scholars recognize that story, found only in one gospel, as meaning he was, just as we sing it, “Oh, what a wonderful child!”

But look: Duccio gives the child divinity’s golden halo and a resplendent robe. Not only is he seated, as a teacher would be; he appears enthroned. The artist is looking ahead — and we might do well to remember that as we celebrate. The end of the story is as well known, now, as the beginning: after behaving for 30 years less like a kingly savior, or even a prophet, than like a homeless visionary, Jesus will finally appear larger than life as the resurrected Christ. That’s the real deal, for most, I suspect. For me it’s his God-filled achievement of true humanity. In any case, we have awaited the wonder of a birth of one who offers eternal life.

Whenever, however we yield to such primeval wonder, the waiting is worth it.

“I am awaiting, perpetually and forever, a renaissance of wonder” — Lawrence Ferlinghetti.