First Sunday after the Epiphany
January 8, 2023
Glory, glory, glory to God. All of creation sings adoration. Glory, glory, glory to God.[i]
Good morning, St. Aidan’s, and welcome to the Season of Epiphany, my favorite, most oddly shaped, deeply renewing season of the Church Year. Oddly shaped, because of the varying of its length and its doubled beginning. Unlike Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter, it does not have a specific length of time. Its beginning depends upon the date of Easter and it fills the variable gap between the set-time seasons of Christmas and Lent, not unlike how the time after Pentecost connects the Easter cycle back to Advent. Which is why some churches, including the Roman Catholic tradition and some Anglican ones, refer to this as well as to the space after Pentecost as “Ordinary Time” (a time marked by the ordinals or numbers following the Feast at their beginning). Yet in the Episcopal Church, we observe Epiphany as the oddly shaped season it is, changing colors from white to green shortly after its doubled start, coming to a close at Transfiguration Sunday, the last Sunday after the Epiphany, last before Ash Wednesday.[ii] We began to journey into this holy time as of Friday, the Feast of the Epiphany that features the Magi bringing gifts to the Christ Child. This morning we celebrate the second entry-point into this season, the Baptism of Jesus, known in the eastern Christian traditions as “the Theophany.” The theme of revelation, of God gloriously manifesting Godself to us and calling us in the midst of that brightness is the ultimate theme of this time. In this wondrous, distinctly shaped season, we are formed anew.
Reading today’s central story as “the Theophany” can reflect the obvious divine shout-out, if you will, within a context of creation’s own renewal. When Jesus is baptized by John, the location is not just any source of water, but living water—a flowing river. In Christ whom we have just celebrated as the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us, God has come to live among us and to be immersed, even more fundamentally, in the very flow of creation itself. One of the eastern Christian theologians who helped develop this idea of creation’s renewal in Christ, refracted in part through the scene of his baptism, was Maximus the Confessor (580-662 C.E.), a seventh century Byzantine monk whom I’ve referenced before. He, along with the earlier Cappadocian theologian Gregory Nazianzus (329-390 C.E.) viewed Jesus’ baptism as one of three “births” that Christ experienced.[iii] The other two were his being born as well as his resurrection. Naming his baptism as a birth connects not only to the long tradition of seeing baptism as our rebirth in Christ, but also to the idea that in Christ, in the incarnation and the life, death, resurrection of Christ, creation itself is recapitulated and renewed. Why take such a cosmic angle on the life of Christ, an individual human being? Because human beings, in the view of these early theologians, were uniquely embedded, disproportionately impactful within the wondrous layers of creation and therefore called to be, as Maximus put it, a “bond” meant to unite and connect creation’s layers, to uphold and lift it up to the God who made all things.[iv] Yet seeing how profoundly short we fall in that calling, Christ came into our midst to take up and renew our vocation, to lift all of us in and through his own person to the God the divine parent and Source, and to call us to return to our original bonding, healing vocation. In the waters of his own baptism, Jesus profoundly takes up that work.
As we receive and celebrate this momentous story year by year, we are meant to be shaped by it afresh. Matthew’s particular angle also suggests a way to hear this story’s call. Throughout his gospel, Matthew is particularly concerned about the quality of “righteousness.”[v] This term can sometimes sound off-putting, in its worst distortions, even sanctimonious. Yet what is meant by it is wonderfully described in our first reading from Isaiah:
Thus says God, the Lord,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
and spirit to those who walk in it:
I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness. (Isaiah 42:5-7)
To be called in righteousness is to center those on the margins, to heal, to restore, to liberate. And that vocation to a life characterized by righteousness is deeply creational as Isaiah shares it. The God who stretched out the heavens and spread the earth, the God whose very pneuma breathed life into all things, invites us to inhabit that life with these qualities of justice, rooted in creation itself. When Jesus’ earthly father Joseph is described as a righteous man in his earlier struggle with how to respond to the news of Mary’s pregnancy (Matt 1:19), as Weston explored in his sermon the week before Christmas, these are the qualities we are meant to hear. When Jesus says to John, uniquely in Matthew, that he should be baptized by John “in order to fulfill all righteousness” (3:15), these are the qualities he is intentionally, publicly embracing. Such righteousness is meant to be renewed in us, not as measures of our purity or some sort of superior moral rectitude, but as the centering, galvanizing ground of our lives, the compass that guides us as we struggle along and make our way, as we open ourselves to renewal. The renewal to which we are called in our own baptism, founded on Christ’s own, has truly cosmic implications.
And even as we understand the mind-boggling implications of our vocation as human beings, as a species, we can and should also understand our vocation individually, our call to righteousness as also distinct to our particular circumstances. And for each one of us that call is grounded in our authenticity, on the unique people God created us to be, even as we are connected to a much wider whole. Over several weeks last summer, I read aloud a young adult fiction novel by Kyle Lukoff, an openly trans man who had shared the book’s existence in an online group to which we both belong. Over the course of the story, the main character, a middle-schooler, comes out to himself as trans. The process is both halting and haunting, as the ephemeral presence of a deceased, beloved uncle sheds light on the main character’s journey of discovery. One scene particularly stayed with me, so much so that I marked it on my calendar for this day. In it the main character is standing in a stream outside his house.
At around four in the afternoon I’m calf-deep in cool water, thinking, ‘She waded in the creek looking for minnows,’ when I hear something. At first it’s only the sound of the water, rusing over rocks and splashing onto itself, bubbling and whirlpooling. I know the phrase ‘babbly brook’ from books, so at first it doesn’t seem odd to hear a babbling sound from the water. It sounds a little like voices at first. Not people voices, just wordless chatter. But then it stops sounding like voices, and more like one voice. I don’t notice right away; the creek is full of little fish and I’m trying to catch them in my hands, moving as fast as I can. But minnows are quicksilver, so I stop splashing around and stay very still, crouched with my hands cupped in the water, waiting for a fish to swim into them.
And that’s when I hear it. One voice. Not a babbling brook, but a person talking. A man’s voice. I can’t make out any words, but it sounds like someone shouting in a house they’re not sure is empty, asking if anyone is there, if anyone can hear them. Not those words, exactly, but that’s the urgency I hear behind the voice I can barely make out over the rushing water and the sudden pounding in my chest. It sounds like Uncle Roderick. I slowly stand up straight, water dropping down from my fingers, and try to turn in whatever direction the voice is coming from. I strain my ears and swivel my head this way and that, but it’s coming from everywhere, and nowhere.
His voice is insistent but calm, sharp but soothing. Like someone telling you to wake up, to get out, but not to panic. But none of the words are clear. I hear something like ‘You need to’ or ‘I need to tell you.’ Maybe I hear my name. It’s a voice more familiar than my own thoughts echoing in my head, but muffled, like it’s coming through a wall filled with cotton and cobwebs. The voice gets louder and louder, until it’s booming in my hears, but I’m not hearing it in my ears. I’m hearing it inside my skull. It reaches a crescendo…[vi]
Finally, in the book’s closing chapters, the main character realizes that the voice – both within and beyond him – was calling him, saying “be you.” Be yourself in your authenticity, the unique human being God created and calls you to be and to become.[vii] When and as you become you, you, we, are freed to step more fully into the deep, wide calling that all human beings share, the vocation Christ renewed in his baptism, to be bonds of and amid creation, seeking healing and connection with one another, with all creatures, and with God who made us all.
And so today, as we step into the season of Epiphany in all its oddity and glory, we are called to renew our baptismal identity, our original washing and renewal, the promises we make and make again, to ground us in the creation-centered righteousness to which God continually calls us. We are invited to open ourselves to be shaped afresh in our vocation, knowing that we human beings are uniquely impactful on our beautiful, fragile planet. In the midst of all our watery uncertainties, we are to know that Christ has joined us, stands with us, lifts us up, calling us to proclaim God’s glory together. Glory, glory, glory to God. All of creation sings adoration. Glory, glory, glory to God. Amen.
[i] Thomas Troger, Borrowed Light: Hymn Texts, Prayers, and Poems (Oxford University Press, 1994), 56-57, a hymn text we are using as a spoken canticle at the 8 AM service during the season of Epiphany. [ii] Neil Alexander reflects in Celebrating Liturgical Time that “the use of the term ‘Epiphany Season’ to denote the time between the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, and the Sunday before Ash Wednesday was perhaps not the best choice. Epiphany is a single day, January 6, and all other days in this ‘season’ are designated as after the Epiphany. Insofar as there is an ‘Epiphany season,’ therefore, it is between January 6 and the first Sunday after. To frame the period, ‘Time after Epiphany’ in Lutheran usage, or ‘Ordinary Time’ in Roman Catholic usage, are better solutions. For the time being, however, we are stuck with the inaccurate term ‘Epiphany Season.’” I understand his perspective but feel there is something about naming it as a season even as it transgresses the usual liturgical definition that is peculiarly formative. Celebrating Liturgical Time: Days, Weeks, and Seasons (New York: Church Publishing, 2014), 47. [iii] Gregory Nazianzus, Oration 40.2, available in translation online at https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/310240.htm; Maximus the Confessor, Ambiguum 42 in On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ trans. Paul Blowers and Robert Louis Wilken (Crestwood, NJ: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003), 79- 98, and/or On Difficulties in the Church Fathers: The Ambigua, Vol. II, ed. and trans. by Nicholas Constas (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014), 123-185. [iv] Maximus uses this language of humans as meant to serve as a “bond” of all creation in Ambiguum 41 in On Difficulties in the Church Fathers: The Ambigua, Vol. II, p. 105. [v] Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, The Jewish Annotated New Testament Second ed. (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 15. [vi] Kyle Lukoff, Too Bright To See (New York: Dial Books for Young Readers, 2021), 83-84. [vii] To be clear, the book itself does not bring God or baptism into its narrative— these are themes I am connecting to Lukoff’s story and vice versa.