I'm Mark, the rector of Saint Francis Episcopal Church, a vibrant parish in suburban Potomac, Maryland. This blog contains Musings about the spiritual life and the mission of the Church by an Episcopal parish priest.
“The Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you.” Isaiah 60:2
In my hometown, the Fireman’s Carnival is undoubtedly the biggest event of the year. It’s been held on the first week in August as long as anyone can remember. Thousands flock to the muddy grounds outside town for the ferris wheel and the country ham sandwiches, some low stakes games of chance and the goldfish booth that finances the junior-senior prom.
Everyone knows that the biggest attractions are conversations with old friends and the hand-cut french fries. But there’s always entertainment as well--a show on the stage at 7 and 10. It’s usually country music, and in the old days, when you had to become a star the hard way, many of the greats trod our hometown boards: Patsy Cline, Conway Twitty, Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys, even once, Grandpap said, the great Hank Williams himself.
But affordable talent is harder to find these days, so the series usually builds up to a Saturday night performer who might just ring a bell. We called them the “one hit wonders.” The last time I was at the Carnival on the Saturday night, it was a band whose 15 seconds of fame came with a tune called “She Never Cried When Old Yeller Died” back in 1993. I think they sang it three times that night, and when they did, the crowd went wild. For a second you could see past the grizzled beards and the beer bellies to what it must have been like 25 years ago when they were on top of the world, and a life of fame and fortune seemed to be spread before them.
There’s something sad in figures like this: the one-hit band, the pitcher who broke all the records in high school and then petered out in AA ball, the businessman who made one amazing deal at 27 and never managed to replicate it again. Maybe you felt a kind of ambiguity in your life’s early successes. This is wonderful, you thought, but is it a badge of a glorious future or just a fluke? Could it be that I only have one great idea, enough talent for this one crucial moment? Is this as good as it’s ever going to be?
I would not have been surprised if a thought like this passed through the minds of those looking on at the scene recounted in today’s Gospel, the arrival of the wise men who bowed low to worship the infant Jesus. “His glory will be seen upon you,” Isaiah had prophesied long before. God would reveal Himself to the wise and powerful of all nations, and they would come to His sacred people and land to adore Him. Kings would bring gold and incense, a testimony of belief and reverence. And here we have it, as colorful and dramatic a story you will ever find, and all of it spread before a baby, just weeks old.
Artists have long delighted in depicting this moment. If the government wasn’t shut down, you could spend a marvellous afternoon today wandering the Renaissance rooms at the National Gallery, just looking at paintings of this event. There are so many of them for two good reasons. The three kings were the saintly patrons of Florence, so commissioning altarpieces of them earned donors some patriotic stripes back in the fourteenth century. But for a Biblical scene, this one also gave such a large scope for the artist: splendid costumes, rearing camels, sometimes great crowds of locals join in the festivity, with pipes and dances.
In my favorite painting of the scene at the Gallery, a joint work of Fra Angelico and Fra Filippo Lippi, a peacock fans out His tail on the roof of the holy house where Mary and Joseph are holding the babe. And why not? Of all the scenes in the life of Jesus, this is the one where a peacock would be perfectly at home, amid the astronomical heralds, the stooping grandeur and the costly presents.
Jesus appears here as the universal king, acclaimed with joy by those who have travelled from the ends of the earth to seek the one for whom they have always hoped. He is serene and confident, receiving the praises of His subjects. Those who kneel before Him are grateful, humble and reverent, for He is not merely a king but God Himself in our flesh. The Psalms capture the moment exactly: “O magnify the Lord our God, and fall down before His footstool, for He is holy.” “O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness, bring presents, and come into His courts.”
This is Epiphany, the showing forth of God’s glory. For one golden moment, the Lord was seen clearly in human flesh. The Blessed Virgin and Joseph were reassured, the wise men stared up with full hearts, the crowds were amazed. God was here among us, and received from us that which is “meet, right and our bounden duty.” “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory, as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.”
But this golden moment was not to last. That night the child and his family would be shuffled off to Egypt, fleeing a murderous king. The wise men would slip away, presumably back to their old lives uncertain about what it all would mean. This is not the last Epiphany in Jesus’ earthly life. Indeed, most of the other great moments of revelation will serve as our Gospel lessons over the next two months: His Baptism and first miracle, the dramatic call of the first disciples, His glorious transfiguration.
But most of Jesus’ life was in obscurity, among people who ignored or misunderstood Him, or who felt threatened by Him and responded with hostility and aggression. At least some of those who met Jesus decades later and heard the old tale about the wise men must have wondered if it wasn’t a mistake, or if that initial promise had never really been fulfilled. Was Jesus a one-hit wonder? they might have thought.
They would be wrong, of course, for the wise men’s vision was, in fact, full of grace and truth. He is now as He was then, seated on the throne of majesty, in the new Jerusalem above. John described it to us in this way in His Revelation: “The city has no need of sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light shall the nations walk; and the kings of the earth shall bring their glory into it.” This day we praise Him, with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven,” and we know that we will see Him as He is, as they did who bore their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
We too have our moments of epiphany, when God’s glory is shown forth, and faith seems easy, moments when we taste of that joy and peace to come. Ours is not a religious tradition that insists on a decisive moment when we come to faith, but most of the real Christians I have met can point to at least a few of them. They usually come at the beginning--around a campfire at youth camp, or at grandma’s funeral or peering over the Grand Canyon. Most of my own epiphanies involve Gothic architecture, polyphony and lots of incense: to each his own, I guess. Those moments make real for us what was only notional before. Because of them, we can commit ourselves to God.
But after those golden moments, the days of obscurity and struggle always come. And we can be tempted to look back on our past experiences with doubt, to wonder if it all was really as true and compelling as we remember it to have been. Were we, too, just a one hit wonder? If God was present to me so powerfully then, we think, why won’t He show His face now?
There is no answer for such questions, aside from a trust in the steadfast goodness of God, whose mercy is strength enough for the struggles we now face. As John Henry Newman wrote in an Epiphany sermon, “For all seasons we must thank Him, for time of sorrow and time of joy, time of warfare and time of peace. Each has its own proper fruit, and its own peculiar blessedness...When Christ gives us what is pleasant, let us take it as refreshment by the way, that we may, when God calls, go in the strength of that meat forty days and forty nights unto Horeb, the mount of God.”
“The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.” St. Mark 10:39
Jesus often spoke in phrases heavy with meaning. He used images freighted with symbolic power, ambiguous turns of phrase that force the listener to slow down and consider. Meditation--a word that comes from the Latin for what a cow does with her cud-- is not merely a pious practice. We must often chew long on these phrases to draw out their full meaning.
That can be difficult for us in a world where people try to conduct national policy debates in 280 characters or less. By and large, we long for the single-page memo, the objective facts distilled out from the spin, the bullet points drained of their adjectives. Many of us seem to be drowning in a sea of words as it is. We don’t think we have time for beautiful rhetoric or the probing syllables of poetry.
But we can miss a great deal if we rushly too quickly to the point, especially when the words spoken to us are about those things at the core of our existence.
God’s Word, we discussed last week, is a two edged sword, exposing our consciences, fertilizing our imaginations, inflaming our passions. Jesus speaks to us in a manner worthy of our dignity, expecting us to listen with all our faculties, so we hear a message that might at long last break through and bring the change we truly need.
Today’s reading is one of the most striking examples in the Gospels of Jesus using complex, powerful and arresting phrases. He speaks of the cup that He must drink and the baptism with which He will be baptized. These things are integral to His kingdom, symbols that conjure up the world into which He is calling His disciples.
And when Jesus speaks of them to James and John, they are sure they know just what He means. His journey to Jerusalem is approaching its destination. The crowds are moved by His words and demonstrations of power. James and John love Him and they want to be right alongside Him in the victory that surely soon to come. “In your glory, Jesus, can we sit beside you? In the great battle soon to come, can we be shoulder to shoulder? In the parade through the streets when thousands shout your name, can we march on either side? At the triumph banquet, when we feast on Herod’s lambs and wine from Pilate’s cellar, can we share the table with you?”
“Are you able to drink my cup?” Jesus asks. To be sure, they think; that golden cup, encrusted with gems. At grand occasions kings took such a cup and shared it out with their most trusted followers. “What about my baptism?” He asks them. Our translation is less helpful here. The Greek word can just mean “my submerging.” It was an everyday word then, not a religious one. As a commentator noted, James and John may have thought Jesus was talking about a bath.Just then, King Herod was showing his wealth and high cultural accomplishments by constructing Roman-style baths throughout Palestine. The ancient bath was a social center, a place for relaxing and intimate conversation. “ Will you taste my cup and soak in my bath?”--that’s what James and John hear. The question suggests refreshment and renewal, the welcome delights at the end of the hot, dusty road. But it also hints at intimacy and common purpose. Will you share in all that belongs to me?
We are able, they say. We long for that cup and that baptism, a share in your glory.
But no, Jesus tells them, you don’t understand what I’m saying. Jesus means a different kind of cup, what Isaiah calls “the cup of fury, the bowl that makes men stagger.” To Jesus the word points to the suffering that surely lies ahead. The cup that James and John are so eager to drain is the same one Jesus will beg the Father to remove from Him in Gethsemane in a few weeks’ time. And His baptism, His submerging--for Jesus this means the flood of hostility and injustice that will soon swallow up His life. He can see that the waters are rising around Him. He has, in fact, just told His disciples of the cross that lies ahead. The cup and baptism of suffering, these are my destiny, He means. If you would have a part in what is most central to my life, you must suffer with me. Will you share in all that belongs to me?
He answers for them. You will drink my cup, Jesus tells them, and you will be baptized with my baptism. Suffering lay ahead for both of them: James would be the first of the apostles to die as a martyr, by Herod’s sword in Jerusalem. John would bear the burden of establishing the church in many places before ending His life in exile. Here on earth, they would never drink from gilded chalices or soak their weary bodies in refreshing marble baths.
But Jesus doesn’t deny that someday they will share in His royal banquet, and be refreshed in the river of life that flows like crystal from the throne of God. He rebukes their ambition. He hints at a weakness that will make cowards of them on His day of trial. Surely the suffering must come first. But this is no iron appeal to duty either. A glorious reward still lies ahead of them. “If we have died with him,” Saint Paul writes, “we shall also live with him; if we endure, we shall also reign with him.”
But Jesus also points to another cup and another baptism. If you are like me, they are the first things that come to mind when I hear the passage. One night soon, Jesus would hand them a cup, “This is my blood of the new covenant, shed for you and for many for the remission of sins.” After He had drained the bowl of wrath at Calvary, and passed through death’s waters to life again, then He would give them a baptism. “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
The sacraments are borne of Christ’s steadfastness unto death. Their power springs from the gift of His life for us. We drink of His own blood and are baptized into His death. Yet His passion is, as George Herbert wrote, “That liquor sweet and most divine, which my God feels as blood, and I as wine.” For us, the sacraments bring strength and consolation in the midst of our struggles. Through them we share in His resurrection and the transforming work of His Spirit. Jesus’ cup and baptism are a foretaste of the glories still to come. And as in the suffering and the glory, through the sacraments Jesus bids us share all that belongs to Him.
Jesus asks us, “Do you want to grow closer to me, to walk in my steps?” It’s a penetrating word. And first, we know, it is an invitation to deny ourselves, to give generously of what we have to advance His work. We respond to that call when we care for our sick children and our fading elders, when we feed the hungry and console the brokenhearted, when we persevere in prayer and sing on through pain. Jesus does not promise any more worldly acclaim or comprehension than what waited for Him at Calvary, at least not in this life. But He does say that this path brings us closer to His heart.
We ask you today to make a commitment to the work of this parish in the coming year. These gifts are a way of taking up that cup and sharing in that baptism, especially if they come of real sacrifice, especially if they are the first fruits of your labors and not what’s left over. They are also a way of drawing closer to the rest of us, casting in your lot with this band of imperfect people who depend together on the strength extended through His Sacraments and who look in hope together to the glory still to be revealed.
“Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”
By your grace, may we answer: “We are able.”
 Swete, Henry B. The Gospel According to Saint Luke. Third Edition. London: Macmillan, 237.