Christmas is now done. It ended Friday on Twelfth Night. I am sure than none of you, good Anglican traditionalists that we all are, put away any of your decorations before then, but have by now put them all away.
Yesterday, of course, was the Feast of the Epiphany, the day on which we remember especially the visitation of the Magi. We don’t know exactly when they visited the Holy Family, but most scholars seem certain that it was a lot more than 13 days after Jesus’ birth! More likely, it was about two years. We’ve left the Creche in place this morning and you’ll notice that the Wise Men have made their way from the table at the rear of the Nave up the Epistle side aisle, have visited Joseph, Mary, and Jesus, and are now heading back down the Gospel side aisle, returning to “their own country (as Matthew tells us) by another road.”1
It is their brief visit with the Infant Lord that the church commemorates with the Feast of the Epiphany. The word “epiphany” is Greek and means a “manifestation” or “showing.” To experience an “epiphany,” the dictionary tells us is to have “a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence or experience.”2 Presumably, the wise men experienced such an intuitive appreciation of God during their encounter with the Holy Child.
Have you ever experienced an epiphany? I know that I have, several of them. Perhaps the most memorable was the first time I worshiped in an Episcopal Church.
I was not reared in this tradition. As I’ve mentioned on many occasions, my father’s family were Methodists and my mother’s, Disciples of Christ. My earliest memories of worship were in an American Baptist congregation, but for the most part my childhood was like that of many Americans; we did not go to church at all. As a teenager, I was enrolled in a private boarding school for high school. The school was affiliated with the Episcopal Diocese of Western Kansas and chapel was mandatory.
I wasn’t happy about that. Going to church had had no place in my life except as something I was forced to do when visiting my Methodist grandparents, and I could see no reason why I should be forced to do so every day of the week.
But . . . I hadn’t reckoned with The Book of Common Prayer. Almost from the first chapel service of my first week at St. John’s Military School I was hooked. The language and cadences of the Prayer Book grabbed me. The stately progression of liturgy, the dignity of the service, the beauty of holiness, the solemnity of prayer . . . it all came together and I had that “sudden, intuitive perception” of the meaning of worship.
For the Prayer Book, we are indebted to the first Archbishop of Canterbury appointed by King Henry VIII after the separation of the English Church from the Church of Rome, a man named Thomas Cranmer. Cranmer was a gifted liturgist and an even more gifted linguist. His first Prayer Book (published in 1549 during the reign of Henry’s son, Edward II) not only set the pattern for all the variations that have followed, it set a pattern for our very language.
Benjamin Schwartz, a book reviewer for The Atlantic, said of the Prayer Book that it is:
A work that for nearly half a thousand years marked the hours (Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer) as well as the days (Moveable and Immoveable Feasts) and the moments of greatest sorrow (The Order for the Burial of the Dead), suffering (Visitation of the Sick), happiness (The Order of Baptism), crisis, and triumph (Prayers and Thanksgivings Upon Special Occasions), it shaped the inner life and branded the tongue of the English-speaking peoples. Its phrases and rhythms did not merely enter the language. They largely defined the language.3
One of Cranmer’s acts of genius was his restructuring of the ritual of Holy Communion. The medieval Catholic rite had been added to and added to and added to so much over the centuries as to have lost its true focus on the death and resurrection of Jesus; furthermore, there was little or no uniformity so that the mass was done in different ways in different locations. Cranmer sought to simplify the celebration and return it to what he believed had been the practice of the earliest Christians; we still follow his basic order of service in the 21st Century.
And now we are in the season of numbered Sundays after the Epiphany, sometimes called “Ordinary Time” and sometimes called “Epiphanytide.” On this, the first of those Sundays, we focus on Jesus’ baptism by John in the River Jordan, another “epiphany,” another manifestation of God. This one so important to the early Christians that, unlike the story of the wise men giving their gifts, this event is reported in all three of the Synoptic Gospels and referred to in the Fourth Gospel. In addition, it is reported in three of the non-canonical gospels, the Gospel to the Hebrews, the Gospel to the Ebionites, and the Gospel to the Nazareans.4
We all know the story: Jesus comes to John who balks at the idea of baptizing him; Jesus insists; John does so in the river; as Jesus comes up out of the water the Holy Spirit appears in the form of a dove descending from the sky and a voice is heard declaring, “This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” It is one of those stories, and there are many in the Holy Scriptures, which paint a picture of God the Father as transcendent, as “up in heaven,” as out there somewhere beyond our ability to perceive or our capacity to understand.
But to take such a picture from this story would be a misunderstanding, for the entire point of Jesus undergoing John’s baptism is to underscore not God’s transcendence but God’s immanence, God’s presence here among God’s people. That, indeed, is the very essence and meaning of our own baptism; that each of us and God are present one to the other; that all of us, together with God, are a community of mutual presence with a shared ministry of presence to the world. Just as the inner life of our language is shaped, branded, and defined by The Book of Common Prayer, so our own inner life is shaped, branded, and defined by our baptism.
A friend of mine, the Rev. Elizabeth Kaeton, a healthcare chaplain, recently took some of the writings of the Roman Catholic Franciscan writer Richard Rohr and adapted them into a short essay which, though it does not mention the Baptism of Jesus, beautifully encapsulates what Jesus’ baptism and our own mean. These are Rohr’s words:
When I was on retreat at Thomas Merton’s hermitage at Gethsemani Abbey in 1985, I had a chance encounter that has stayed with me all these years. I was walking down a little trail when I recognized a recluse, what you might call a hermit’s hermit, coming toward me. Not wanting to intrude on his deep silence, I bowed my head and moved to the side of the path, intending to walk past him. But as we neared each other, he said, “Richard!” That surprised me. He was supposed to be silent. How did he know who I was? “Richard, you get chances to preach and I don’t. Tell the people one thing.” Pointing to the sky, he said, “God is not ‘out there’!” Then he said, “God bless you,” and abruptly continued down the path.
The belief that God is “out there” is the basic dualism that is tearing us all apart. Our view of God as separate and distant has harmed our relationships with sexuality, food, possessions, money, animals, nature, politics, and our own incarnate selves. This loss explains why we live such distraught and divided lives. Jesus came to put it all together for us and in us. He was saying, in effect, “To be human is good! The material and the physical can be trusted and enjoyed. This physical world is the hiding place of God and the revelation place of God!”
Far too much of religion has been about defining where God is and where God isn’t, picking and choosing who and what has God’s image and who and what doesn’t. In reality, it’s not up to us. We have no choice in the matter. All are beloved. Everyone—Catholic and Protestant, Christian and Muslim, black and white, gay and straight, able-bodied and disabled, male and female, Republican and Democrat—all are children of God. We are all members of the Body of Christ, made in God’s image, indwelled by the Holy Spirit, whether or not we are aware of this gift.
Can you see the image of Christ in the least of your brothers and sisters? This is Jesus’ only description of the final judgment (Matthew 25). But some say, “They smell. They’re a nuisance. They’re on welfare. They are a drain on our tax money.” Can we see Christ in all people, even the so-called “nobodies” who can’t or won’t play our game of success? When we can see the image of God where we don’t want to see the image of God, then we see with eyes not our own.
Jesus says we have to love and recognize the divine image even in our enemies. Either we see the divine image in all created things, or we don’t see it at all. Once we see God’s image in one place, the circle keeps widening. It doesn’t stop with human beings and enemies and the least of our brothers and sisters. It moves to frogs and pansies and weeds. Everything becomes enchanting with true sight. We cannot not live in the presence of God. We are totally surrounded and infused by God. All we can do is allow, trust, and finally rest in it, which is indeed why we are “saved” by faith—faith that this could be true.5
To “see the divine image in all created things” is as good a short summary of the promises we make in the Baptismal Covenant as I can contemplate. To “respect the dignity of every human being” and to “seek and serve Christ in all persons” is to see the divine image in them; to “strive for justice and peace among all people” is to see the divine image in our communities; to “continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship” and to “persevere in resisting evil” is to see the divine image in ourselves. We do not always do these things, so we also promise “whenever [we] fall into sin, [to] repent and return to the Lord,” seeing the divine image in the church where our confession is made and absolution received.6
Christmas may be done and the decorations may be put away. Epiphany may be over and the Magi on that other road to their home country. But yesterday’s prayer was that we might be led to into God’s Presence and our formal prayer on Christmas morning, a prayer written by Archbishop Cranmer, was “that we, who have been born again and made [God’s] children by adoption and grace, [might] daily be renewed by [the] Holy Spirit.”7
In furtherance of those prayers, let us today renew the vows and promises made at our baptisms. [The service continues with the Renewal of Baptismal Vows, The Book of Common Prayer (1979), 292-294.]
Note: The illustration is The Baptism of Jesus by Rosalind Hore, commissioned for and hanging at St. Edmund’s Parish, Tyseley, Diocese of Chelmford, UK.
This is homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord (First Sunday after the Epiphany), January 7, 2018, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.
(The lessons for the service are Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19:1-7; and St. Mark 1:4-11. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)
 Matthew 2:12 (NRSV) (Return to text)
 Adapted by E. Kaeton from Rohr, Richard, Creation as the Body of God, in Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth, Vaughan-Lee, Llewellyn, editor (The Golden Sufi Center: 2013), 235-241; and Rohr, Richard, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer (The Crossroad Publishing Company: 2003), 58-59, 117-119. (Return to text)
 The Baptismal Covenant, The Book of Common Prayer (1979), 304-305 (Return to text)
 Collect for Christmas Day, The Book of Common Prayer (1979), 213 (Return to text)
Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.