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2nd Sunday of Epiphany

06 January 2023

15 January: Isaiah 49.1-7; Psalm 40.1-12; 1 Corinthians 1.1-9; John 1.29-42 


WE ARE still celebrating the epiphany of the Christ-child; so this is a good time to ask a fundamental question: do we celebrate because he is different from us, or because he is like us? We can ask it another way: do we take the epiphany of Christ into ourselves, or does Christ gather us up into his epiphany?

If Christ is completely “other”, he can make no sense to us; if he is just like us, whatever help he offers is no different from what we already receive from one another. Saying that he is both answers the question on the level of human feeling, but it falls short in terms of logic. Still, scripture is here to help.

Christ is divine, not human; pre-existent, not created; and virginally conceived. We are none of those things. Better, then, to focus on what makes him comprehensible to us. He was born as a helpless infant; born into a family; born into poverty; born into a time when violence and instability were endemic.

The Isaiah reading encourages us to explore this, but not in terms of humanity as a lump — “a big dollop of sin” (massa peccati), as Augustine expressed it on one of his gloomier days. Instead, Isaiah shows what it means, but also how it feels, to be an individual human person: to be called and named; to be gifted, protected, directed, and acknowledged; to matter. Not all of us are called to be prophets. But prophets are recognisably like us, with their reluctance and self-doubt, their undeserved suffering.

The two themes that most attract my attention from these readings are calling and seeing. The “call” of a human person is that opening invitation from God to us-ward. The invitation to see is rather like our being told to wake up and pay attention to what is right in front of us. God calls us (Isaiah, John), and we, in our turn, call on God (1 Corinthians).

This encourages me to trust that every child changes the world by the fact of being born, even though most of us are born, live, and die unnoticed by any but those closest to us, whether family, friends, or colleagues. Our “mattering” to God cannot be on the basis of our status, achievements, or fame.

There is a fashionable message from secular wisdom that you can achieve anything you want to, if only you try hard enough. Whether this is a teacher drawing a moral from the career of Harry Kane, or a Strictly celeb reflecting on their samba in week six, does not matter. In reality, wanting something really badly, and striving for it, is never going to work for most of us. Most of us are Salieri, not Mozart (to pinch a moral from Amadeus).

Scripture is reassuringly realistic. Paul’s honesty later in 1 Corinthians (9.24) is absolute: Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize?

We need a “more excellent way” to understand our finitude in the context of divine eternity (1 Corinthians 13). This Sunday’s Gospel is stuffed with complex content, but what it asks of us repeatedly is a simple act of seeing (we might express this as “looking properly”). “See!” the Greek says twice: the Lamb of God is before us. The Spirit abides with him. The Holy Spirit is his instrument of regeneration. Jesus invites us, “Come and see!” He has called us, chosen us, and equipped us, before we even knew that we existed. By bringing his epiphany to us, through the incarnation, he shows us the way to bring ourselves to his epiphany.

The answer to our question, therefore, is time. Our lives unfold in time, and accrue meaning over time. God, who created time, made the first move, bringing the epiphany to us in human time, so that in time we can take ourselves towards that epiphany.

The Magi gave their presents, worshipped, and then departed. Finding that the King of the Jews was a baby in the Gospel equivalent of a garage had not deterred them. They really were “wise men”, because they were called and they came. They were enlightened and they saw.

Exactly the same possibilities lie before us. Sometimes, God makes it all wonderfully simple.

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