Archives For Epiphany

     It’s a strange-sounding word: homage.

It’s a word that feels as though it belongs dressed up in period costumes, a word that could be found in an heirloom bible.

Isaiah’s vision of God’s light intruding upon the darkness comes at a moment in Israel’s story when all the promises of God seemed like broken memories. Not unlike the time when King Herod rules Israel and Caesar Augustus issues his decree for a census.

The prophet Isaiah foresaw a time when God’s light would shine bright and clear not just to those within the covenant but to those far outside it. A time when a caravan of nations would travel to the Promised Land to present this God with gifts and to pay him ‘homage.’

That’s how the Hebrew in Isaiah 60 puts it: homage.

St. Matthew, in his Nativity story, tells of this prophecy being fulfilled some 500 years later in the journey of the magi. According to the hymn, these star-followers were “kings,” leaders of the gentile world coming to honor the King of Kings. According to that same hymn, there are three of these “kings.” According to Christian tradition they have names: Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar.

And according to the poet TS Eliot, after having encountered the baby in Bethlehem, these star-followers returned home, “no longer at ease” in the world they had previously known.

Tradition has done much with the magi, but Matthew is mum about all of that.

Matthew doesn’t tell us much about the magi but he is clear and emphatic about why they’ve come: “Where is the child who has been born King of the Jews?” they ask the scholars and priests in Jerusalem, “For we have seen his star in the East, and we have come to pay him homage.” 

     And when they arrive at the manger, before they give him gold, before they give him frankincense, before they give him myrrh- they drop down onto their knees and they give him homage.

Every Christmas season I like to peruse the newsstand magazines- weeklies like Time and Newsweek– to read their obligatory cover stories about Christmas.

Usually the articles promise new discoveries and have provocative titles like: ‘Was It Really a Silent Night?’ ‘Who Was Jesus’ Real Father?’ or ‘The Christmas Story the Church Doesn’t Want You to Know.’

A couple of weeks ago I was browsing the newsstand at Barnes and Nobles, and I came across a story that featured Richard Dawkins giving his thoughts on Christmas.

Dawkins, as you may already know, is an Oxford biologist and something of a rabid atheist. He’s also the author of the bestseller, The God Delusion.

So who wouldn’t want his thoughts on Christmas?

I flipped through the article and a few of Dawkins’ Christmas comments caught my eye.

“I participate for family reasons,” says Dawkins. “With a reluctance that owes more to aesthetics than atheistics…so divorced has Christmas become from religion that I find no necessity to bother with euphemisms such as holiday season…understanding full well that the phrase retains zero religious significance, I unhesitatingly wish everyone a Merry Christmas.”  

Wow, he’d be a kick-ass party guest, wouldn’t he?

Richard Dawkins is by any academic or intellectual measure a wise man. He may understand much about a great many things that would leave my head spinning. Yet, I don’t think he understands- I don’t think he knows much about that word.

Homage.

Matthew calls them “wise” men so it’s easy for us to forget that the magi don’t know any scripture. When they follow the star to Jerusalem, the magi have to ask the city’s priests and scholars what the star means.

Matthew calls them wise men, but they don’t know what Messiah means. They don’t understand the ways in which this Christ child is already and will be later a threat to the ways things are and to the powers that be. When they approach the manger in Bethlehem the true identity of the baby inside is still very much a mystery to them.

That doesn’t stop them, though, from paying him homage.

They don’t let what they don’t know, what they still have questions about, what they still don’t understand- they don’t let all that keep them from giving him homage.

Their journey, their visit, Christmas- it was about more than gift-giving. It was about more than paying their dues or finding the answers to their questions.

It was about homage. It was kneeling and bowing and submitting. Worship.

It was an act of humble commitment. A commitment that came with the expectation of servant-hood.

     Before they give their gifts, before they understand who he is or what he means for the world…they kneel before him, Immanuel- God with us, and they give him their lives.

They give him homage. 

     That’s what makes them wise. 

     Knowing God, being close to God- it’s not so much about understanding or knowing the scriptures or being a religious insider. It’s about giving homage.

When it comes to approaching the manger, it’s not about first having all the answers. It’s not about getting your junk in order before you a take a step closer. When it comes to Jesus, worship comes first.

     What I mean is…

There are things about God you can only understand once you’ve given him your life.

I know that sounds counter-intuitive. I know someone like Richard Dawkins would say that it’s intellectually dishonest. I also know it’s true.

It’s almost an impossible thing to do, to hand over your whole self to Christ. It’s almost impossible, but it’s easier than waiting for all your doubts to be erased. It’s easier than remaining who you are and living for yourself only.

It’s almost impossible but it’s, entirely so, wise.

Christmas Ends in the Dark

Jason Micheli —  January 5, 2015 — 1 Comment

lightstock_55952_small_user_2741517     This Sunday we celebrated Epiphany, the arrival of the magi to pay homage to Jesus. I extended the lectionary text, Matthew 2.1-12, to include verses 13-18, which narrate Herod’s rage and the slaughter of the innocents in and around Bethlehem.

You can listen to the sermon here below, in the sidebar to the right or you can download it in iTunes here.

A couple of Advents ago, I spent the week before Christmas with a mission team from Aldersgate, in a poor community in Guateamala near the mountains called Cantal.

I was working at my last home for the week, building my last wood-stove for my final family before making the journey home to be with my own.

Weʼd just begun working. The husband and wife of the house were busy mixing mortar. And even though here in Northern Virginia at their age theyʼd be taking the SATʼs and visiting colleges, in their part of the world they were married and busy surviving and making sure their three children did too.

While they mixed the mortar, I stepped into the doorway of their mud-block home, looking for their three little children, thinking Iʼd play with them or get them to smile or giggle or run away in pretend fear.

You know, Facebook photo kinds of stuff.

It was a one-room home. Tacked on the far wall was a cracked, laminated poster of multiplication tables. In the righthand corner was a long branch from a pine tree, propped up in a pink plastic beach bucket and decorated with pieces of colored foil and plastic.

Thick smoke from a fire wafted into the room through the tin roof. Scavenged and saved bits of trash were stacked neatly on the dusty floor.

The bed was a mattress laid on top of cinder blocks just to the left of the door. The three children- a three year old named Jason, a girl a year or two older named Veronica and their baby sister- were sitting on the bed.

Jason didnʼt have any shoes and his feet were black with dirt and looked cold. He had a rash on his cheeks and his eyes were red and his nose was running black snot from the smoke. They were sitting on the bed and Veronica was feeding them breakfast with a toy dollʼs spoon. She was feeding them Tortrix, lime-flavored corn chips like Fritos.

Because that was the only thing they had to eat. Because junk food is cheaper and thatʼs all they could afford.

Above the bed hung a calendar from several years earlier. It was flipped to December. The top half had a picture of Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus. At the bottom of the picture was a scripture verse in Spanish: ʻ…a light shines in the darkness…ʼ

I stepped into the doorway and saw them there, the two little girls and the boy with my name, looking dirty and sick and shoeless, eating the only food they had while their mother and father worked with the kind of speed that comes from being sentenced to a lifetime of hard labor.

I looked at them and I saw the baby Jesus hanging there on the wall above them. I bit my lip to keep my eyes from tearing up, and I muttered to myself: ʻChrist is born this?ʼ

Despite what we sang on Christmas Eve, it was not a silent night.

Not really.

Not at all.

At least not according to Matthew.

According to scripture, sometime after the shepherds returned to their flocks and after the magi found a different route home and after Mary and Joseph wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a trough, all the other mothers and fathers of sons in and around Bethlehem lay their babies in their cribs and tuck their toddlers into bed.

And while they sing them a lullaby or tell them a bible story or kiss them goodnight on the forehead, they hear:

The sound of boots stamping down the dusty roads

The sound of doors being knocked on and kicked down

The scraping sound of metal on metal as swords are unsheathed

The chaotic sounds of orders being shouted

And fathers being shoved aside

And mothers gasping

And babies being taken.

It was not a silent night, that night when Mary, whoʼd already traveled 70 miles on foot the week she delivered him, rouses her baby awake and wraps him against the cold and tells her husband to pack whatever he can.

It was not a silent night-

That night they sneak away across the border with no money to their name

That night the skies, in which the angels had sung ʻGlory to God in the highest heaven,ʼ fill with the cries of mothers and fathers as their sons are silenced forever.

It wasnʼt a silent night.

Which makes it all the more strange that when it comes to the mere mention of the word, ʻChristmasʼ triggers everything that is nostalgic and comforting and sentimental.

Yet in scripture Christmas isnʼt sentimental, not at all.

In scripture- in Matthew’s Gospel, especially- Christmas is all steely-eyed recognition that this world is very often a shockingly horrible world. Where despots plot and evil flourishes and children are victims. Where the poor are powerless and the powerful do whatever they please to the nations they regard as backward and justify after the fact.

Christmas in scripture isnʼt like Christmas at Tysonʼs Corner or Times Square. Itʼs not like an old-fashioned Christmas with a fire warming the hearth and a blanket of snow frosting the window outside.

     Christmas, real Christmas, is light.

     An epiphany.

     Which means it has to be a light shining in the darkness.

And for that to be true requires the recognition that the world is not as God would have it be, that the world is often a dark place.

So itʼs strange how we turn Christmas into a nostalgic dream, into a sentimental escape. Because in the bible Christmas couldnʼt be more gritty and realistic.

Matthewʼs and Lukeʼs Christmas stories could just as easily be reported by protestors on Twitter.

The stuff of hashtags is all there:

Thereʼs a massacre of innocent children and a world too busy to stop and notice.

Thereʼs political intrigue and the maneuverings of an empire in the Middle East.

Thereʼs the Holy Family finding themselves political refugees in an inhospitable world, finding themselves illegal aliens in a foreign land.

Thereʼs no way it was a silent night.

 

And somehow that never really hit home for me until that Advent morning in Guatemala, staring at Jasonʼs dirty bare feet and bloodshot eyes and black runny nose and wondering why Jesus is born at all, that it finally struck me:

     When I read the Christmas story, itʼs not fair for me to read myself into the place of Mary or Joseph or the shepherds or even the wise men.

I donʼt know what itʼs like to live under the heel of an empire. I donʼt know what itʼs like to have my life jerked around by the rich and the powerful.

What I realized that Advent morning, what I realized at Jasonʼs house- is that if I have a place in this story, my place is in Rome with Caesar Augustus.

Or maybe in the gated communities of Jerusalem, rubbing elbows with King Herod, Caesarʼs lackey.

I mean, Iʼd rather count myself among Mary and Josephʼs family. Or at least among their friends (if they had any), waiting outside the manger with a balloon for the baby and a cigar for the father.

Iʼd even settle for being one of the shepherds, whose dirty work disqualified them from religious life, but to whom the heavens nonetheless break open with angels and good news.

Iʼd even take being one of the magi, unbelieving strangers from Iraq, who bring to the promised child gifts they probably couldnʼt afford.

But what I realized that Advent morning is thatʼs not my place in the story.

     My place in the story is as a member of the empire.

Iʼm well-off. I’m rich. I’m powerful.

Iʼm not as sophisticated as Caesar Augustus, but Iʼm the beneficiary of an expensive Ivy League education. I donʼt live in a castle but I do live in a home that a majority of the worldʼs people would call a palace. Iʼm not a king or an emperor but I have more control over my life than probably even King Herod did back in the day.

That Advent morning at Jason’s house it hit me for the first time that Iʼm not so sure I like my place in the Christmas story.

 

So itʼs strange.

When you think about it, about who we are and where we are in the story. Itʼs strange that so many of us flock to church on Christmas. Itʼs strange that the Christmas story doesnʼt strike us as it did Herod: with fear and agitation.

     I mean you have to give Herod credit.

He wasnʼt stupid- maybe, even, he was smarter than us.

He knew bad news when he heard it.

He knew the ʻgloryʼ the angels sang was confirmation of the threatening song Mary had sung 8 months earlier.

Herod knew that joy coming into Maryʼs world meant an attack on his world. Herod knew that when God takes flesh in Jesus, God also takes sides:

With those on margins.

With the people working the night shift and with those working out in the fields.

With the oppressed and the lowly and the refugee.

With all those whose- we have to be reminded- lives matter.

For Herod, for the white-collared and the well-off and the people at the top of the ladder, for the movers and shakers of the empire- Christmas was bad news not good news. And they were smart enough to know it.

Far be it from me to be cynical (thatʼs a joke), but I wonder if thatʼs why we drape Christmas with so much cheap sentiment. I wonder if thatʼs why at this time of the year we prefer nostalgia for a world that never was instead of a truthful recognition of the world that is or an honest longing for the world God promised will be.

I wonder if deep down we know Christmas means God may not be on our side. I wonder if in our heart of hearts we know that if we told the story straight up as Matthew tells it, then like Herod we might have a reason to fear.

To fear that his birth, if we take it seriously, will turn everything in our lives upside down. That Advent afternoon, after our weekʼs work was complete, the women of the village cooked a meal for us and thanked us.

These are women who, in their lifetimes, have been victimized by dictators and armed thugs. These are refugees whose people over generations have been displaced and pushed into mountains as their land was stolen by the rich.

These are poor women whose husbands and sons either have been killed by civil war or are living as economic exiles here in the states.

And there I was. From a different world completely.

Jasonʼs 17 year old mother was there.

She presented me with a little tapestry sheʼd sewn and she said into my ear: ʻI thank Jesus Christ for you.ʻ

And then she wished me a Merry Christmas.

And when she said that, I muttered to myself again: ʻChrist was born for this.ʼ But this time it wasnʼt a question.

Because even though itʼs not the sentimental story we like to hear this time of year, Jesus was born for this. Jesus was born so that someone proud like me would gladly humble himself so that a poor, humble woman like her could be filled with pride. Jesus was born so that someone rich like me would gladly empty his pockets to fill her childrenʼs bellies.

Jesus was born so that someone on the top like me would gladly take some bad news on the chin so that she could be lifted up. Christ was born in the dark; so that, the powerless would know that God was with them in the flesh and the powerful would know that we canʼt save ourselves.

 

She wished me a Merry Christmas, and then she embraced me.

Given who I am and where I am in the story, to anyone else her hugging me mightʼve looked like Mother Mary embracing King Herod.

     There is no kingdom in this world like that other than the Kingdom that belongs to the Prince of Peace.

Thatʼs why heʼs born.

In the dark.

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Here’s an Epiphany sermon from the vault…

Matthew 2.1-12

“Surely the Bible can teach and inspire. But has it lost the ability to startle us? To make us gasp? In our society, where 90 percent of households possess a Bible and more than a third of American adults say they’ve read from it in the last week, it’s hard to see the text with fresh eyes. Even if you’re in the small minority that admits to never having read it, you probably know something about it. Maybe too little to embrace it. Or maybe too much.”

I read.

I felt like I was in between worlds. For roughly twenty-two minutes, the time it took to go from the first notes of the ‘Overture’ to the end of track six ‘But Who May Abide the Day of His Coming,’ I was caught between worlds. To induce me into the mood of the season, I was listening to Handel’s Messiah on my IPOD. This was a couple of weeks ago and I was in Starbucks at Mount Vernon Shopping Center, trying to write a sermon different from this one.

In my ears, the hopes and prayers of the prophet Isaiah were being sung by the London Philharmonic. And in front of me, on the page of my opened Bible, was the news from St. Matthew’s Gospel that in the birth of Jesus Christ those prayers had been answered, those hopes fulfilled.

Despite surrounding my senses with the joy of the season, I felt caught between worlds.

For sitting next to me among the crowded round tables was a man and a young a man- a father and son, I presumed. And what I heard between them could not have been a further cry from “…good news of great joy.”

The coffee shop was loud and crowded, filled with the noise of shooting steam and tables of people debriefing their holiday shopping. Already it was dark outside, the lights from the store fronts bleeding out any notice of the stars.

I was getting my notes and books in order when they sat down. The father, who hadn’t ordered anything at all, was already animated. I tried hard not to make eye contact. I didn’t want my eyes to betray my accidental but now intentional eavesdropping.

Looking down at the tiled floor, I noticed he was wearing expensive-looking loafers, the kind with tassles on them, and also exotically patterned socks. He smelled of cologne and had a distinct if undefined accent. They were sitting, father and son, at a small round table, the kind that’s just large enough for a cup of coffee and a conversation. Apparently the table was not small enough, though, as the father scooted in his chair to sit even closer- at a right angle- to the boy who bore his younger likeness.

You don’t need to have read any pastoral counseling books to identify the father’s posture, his gesticulating, his facial shrugs as aggressive. Dismissive.

Nor do you need to have read any of those books to correctly identify the widening splotches of red on the son’s neck and cheeks and face as shame.

Maybe because I’ve been in similar situations myself, but I could easily read the scene before me. The cues were all there and they were unmistakable. It wasn’t a father scolding a son over poor grades or a missed curfew. It wasn’t a routine argument or a heated but inconsequential debate.

     A marriage was breaking up and, judging from the father’s fury, the relationship was well-beyond his or anyone’s ability to repair.

‘Irreconcilable Differences’ would have been a euphemism, I quickly guessed. And, as it goes in such battles, the casualties were young and innocent.

That was what was happening next to me at the adjacent coffee table. The loyalty and perceptions of the man’s son had become an object to fight over- like a house or a car or a couch. The awkwardness of their body language and the reticence of the son made it clear to me: that they had agreed to meet there, at the coffee shop, only after much negotiation. That they were, according to their agreement, on neutral ground.

And I felt caught between worlds. As soon as I recognized what was playing out in front of me I tried to refocus, to ignore them, to read St. Matthew’s news of a new world dawning, to listen only to Isaiah’s words sung in my ears: “Comfort ye my people, says your God.” 

But the father was as angry as something caged and he said things- about the boy’s mother. Things that cannot be said in this place, things that Handel’s Messiah could not drown out or overwhelm. And with each indictment of the boy’s mother, the father would point contemptuously at his son, and each time he finished he would hold out his hands like a lawyer who’s just finished his closing argument.

The shame on the boy’s face made him look younger but he was in high school, I think. He wore a black hooded sweatshirt, baggy cargo pants and Vans on his feet. He looked like a kid you might see skateboarding in the church parking lot. Sitting there, he was curled up in as much of a fetal position as the table would allow. More self-aware than his father, he was quiet, obviously embarrassed by the audience his father’s anger had provoked there in the coffee shop.

The boy spoke, subdued and down at the table top.

“But mom said…” was all I could hear him say several times, each time his voice trailing off and fading. And each time his father would shrug his eyes and wave him off, as if his own perspective were the only star worth following.

     Now that I am a father myself, I know, unreservedly, that there are some things that ‘circumstances’ can never excuse, that no ‘situation’ justifies a child being made the prey of another’s contempt.

 And now that I’m a father I know that I don’t need to know another side to the story to know that the man sitting at the table next to me was proud, angry, without grace, and unwilling to admit error or offer mercy.

That, no matter the cost, he was determined to be his own guiding light.

The whole thing only lasted twenty minutes or so, just long enough to get from Handel’s ‘Overture’ to track number six on my IPOD. And then it was over.

I’m sure there were some there, amidst the shooting steam and holiday chatter, who didn’t notice any of it just as I’m sure there were some who didn’t notice how the father waved his son off with a “I’m finished with you” gesture, and left him sitting there crying beneath his black hood.

Like his son was a lost object, like a house or a car or a couch.

Left behind in the seat of the father’s chair, I noticed later, was a folded and wrinkled copy of the Washington Post Book World. The irony of the bold heading caught my eye so I picked it up and beneath the central graphic I read the introductory lines that the proud and contemptuous man had been sitting on:

“Surely the Bible can teach and inspire. But has it lost the ability to startle us? To make us gasp? Even if you’re in the small minority that admits to never having read it, you probably know something about it. 

Maybe too little to embrace it. Or maybe too much.”

     Epiphany, the journey of the magi to discover the One revealed by heaven’s star, would seem to have little to do with the scene I’ve just drawn for you.

What I’ve just told you would seem to have little to do with three exotic kings from Persia, Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar, bringing their caravan of camels to Israel in search of a foretold king of the Jews.

Matthew, though, doesn’t tell us their names or where they’re from. He doesn’t even tell us how many of them there or even that they were kings. And St. Luke doesn’t tell us about them at all.

Matthew only tells us that wise men from far away searched out a promise of God and, when they found him, they paid him honor and worshipped him.

And when they left, these men who were used to guiding their lives according to the skies and the stars, couldn’t go home the same way, for the light of Christ had reoriented their whole lives.

Still, though, the story I just told you would seem to bear no connection to Matthew’s story of the magi bringing their gifts to the infant Messiah.

Unless, of course, Matthew’s story is true.

If Matthew’s story of Epiphany is true and the King the wise men discover in Bethlehem really is:

  • The mercy of God in the flesh
  • The almightiness of God revealed in the vulnerability and humility of a baby
  • The love that moves the stars in the sky is to be found in the Body of One who will be broken for the sake of the ungodly

     If heaven really is held in Mary’s manger and…

In the love and life of this baby, God chooses to forever see and judge each one of us, then Matthew’s story- Epiphany- it couldn’t have more to do with how we treat one another.

If all that is true…then, you and I, we honor this King not by bringing gold and frankincense and myrrh to him, but by bringing love and mercy and forgiveness and humility to our lives that he was born in order to redeem.

Every year at Epiphany it is the Church’s liturgical custom to talk about:

  • How the journey of the exotic magi represents the inclusion of the Gentiles into the People of God
  • How the searching of the wise men demonstrates that the light of Israel is meant to be light for the whole world
  • How the worship of these foreigners is a harbinger of that future Day when every knee shall bend and every head bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord of all Creation.

And that’s all true and with good reason, but the way I’ve seen it since that late afternoon in Starbucks…when it comes to honoring and adoring the Christ child, you’ve got to somewhere: so why not with husbands and wives and fathers and mothers and sons and daughters and friends and neighbors injecting into their lives the loving mercy of the One made flesh.

So today perhaps the Washington Post is right. Maybe today the Bible won’t startle you or make you gasp, but I do pray that it will at least begin to transform you.

Amen.

 

This is from friend, Janet Laisch. Here she takes a look at the Transfiguration’s depiction in Christian art. ARTSTOR_103_41822001544848Most of us would like to see an image like the one above–a beautiful person through whom God’s light emanates and makes His presence in our lives known here on Earth. This mosaic depicts the Transfiguration, said to have occurred on Mount Tabor in Israel near the Sea of Galilee (map shown below),  as described in the book of Mark, and depicted in art beginning in the sixth century
Mark wrote about the transfiguration,

After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus.
Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.)
Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”
Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
galileeSaint Catherine’s Monastery (image shown below) at Mount Sinai, Egypt, is the very location of the first theophany when God appeared to Moses as a burning bush as described in Exodus 3 and to Elijah, though only in a soft whisper as accounted in the book of Kings.
It is inside Saint Catherine’s monastery that the earliest, from 565-6, surviving image of Christ’s transfiguration can be found.
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Saint_Catherine's_TransfigurationStCathApse600wM
In the apse, just above the high altar a team of mosaic artisans laid tesserae, cut semi-precious stones, glass and gold and set them directly into wet plaster to adhere to the wall.  Each character from the Transfiguration can be identified from left to right:  Elijah stands with his fingers blessing Christ, a young clean-shaven John kneels, turning his head toward Christ, a gray haired and bearded Peter is laying down, turning his head toward Christ, a young, bearded James kneels and turning his head toward Christ, and Moses stands on the right blessing Christ.  Christ invited the three apostles closest to him to ascend Mount Tabor, knowing they would experience together God first-hand.
In the center, Christ is enveloped in a mandorla–an Italian word for almond which results from two circles overlapping –and used in Christian art to symbolize the sacred moments when the human and divine meet and which transcend time and space. Within it, the blue bands become darker as they move toward Jesus. As divinity increases, there is no way to depict its brightness, except by darkness.The darkest color represents the “uncreated light” of God; God is dark because He existed before He created light for all the world.
From Christ and from the mandorla, rays of light emanate, touching the prophets and apostles. Christ’s ring finger and thumb form a circle– the alpha and omega– the beginning and the end. A dark blue band surrounds this scene decorated with medallions of the twelve Apostles. The three Apostles included in the Transfiguration have been replaced by medallions of Paul, Thaddaeus and Matthias. The base of the apse is bordered by another series of fifteen medallions with busts of the Prophets, including Jesus’s human predecessor, King David in the center.
ARTSTOR_103_41822001544848038This mosaic should be understood according to its placement in the church–above the high altar where the sacrament of holy communion occurs. Congregants experience Christ as truly present during Communion through bread and wine.
Through communion and prayer at the high altar, this scene served a purpose to inspire a Holy vision or at least to enable the viewer to contemplate the event and feel invited to partake in it.
Furthermore, the Transfiguration image should be understood in context of the images surrounding it just as one story in the bible has greater meaning when understood in the context of the continuity of the old and new testament, this image has greater meaning than a single image.
335-066It is Christ’s sacrificial role that is particularly important (see image above). Four symbols along the vertical axis represent God incarnate:
(1) Jesus Christ in the mandorla
(2) directly above is a cross in a medallion–symbolizing Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.
(3) overlapping this cross is an image of a lamb –recalling John’s description of Christ as a sacrificial lamb in Revelations 5:6
(4) and directly below Peter is a medallion of King David, to whom Jesus is a descendant by blood through Mary.
The juxtaposition of God’s incarnation and transfiguration stories is popular in manuscript illumination as well, particularly after the iconoclasm controversy resolved. In an illuminated manuscript from circa 1025, (image shown below), the vellum image is divided into two registers. In the top register, the artist depicted the nativity when God became incarnate and in the bottom register, the Transfiguration. In both registers Jesus is larger than the other figures, establishing His greater importance through size.
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Too, this mosaic (image above) is on the east end of the church where the sun rises and where Christ will come again. There is a direct link between this theophany and Christ’s Second Coming. God becoming man is necessary before the second coming when Christ will raise from the dead and make Creation whole again through our unity with God. Humankind can only ascend and become deified as gods– with a lowercase g– and mirror God’s image because God had descended to the earth and lived among us.
Looking again at the mosaic at the Monastery, the apostles witness that which the old testament prophets had until the Transfiguration only looked forward–God standing before them in human form. Thus, the continuity between the old and new testament is represented (see image below).  Place your finger on Elijah who stands to Christ’s left and stop at the image of John the Baptist in a medallion. Here John the Baptist is the new Elijah–they are two prophets who went against the grain of society.
Now look at Moses and trace your finger to the right stopping at the image of Mary, Mother of Jesus in a medallion. The first theophany is highlighted twice more in the mosaics of Moses loosening his sandals (image below) and Moses receiving the law tablets (image below). If we understand the continuity of the old and new testament, we may see the relationship between God’s first theophany and the incarnation of God at Christ’s birth.
Mary’s womb like the burning bush contained God’s light and so God’s appearance to Moses in a burning bush is analogous to the birth of Jesus Christ.
And too the appearance of God on Mount Sinai is analogous to the transfiguration of Jesus on Mount Tabor.
335-066Another surviving Transfiguration apse mosaic can be found at the Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare in Classe in Ravenna (image above), Italy dating from 533-549, though it is depicted symbolically rather than figuratively. The man standing in the center is not Christ but rather the Bishop of Ravenna who strategically aligns himself with the story (image below). He is symbolically deified. To his left and right are a total of twelve sheep representing his “flock” or church members.  Above them is the transfiguration scene, with Christ symbolically represented as a cross in a circular “mandorla.”  Like the previous mandorla, it along with the gold background symbolically represent a timeless, eternal image. The artist does not attempt to convey a realistic space. To the left of the cross is a single lamb, most likely Peter, the only apostle who spoke to Jesus during the transfiguration and to the right, James and John are depicted as lambs.  Above the cross on the left is Moses and the right Elijah. From the top, a hand descends symbolically as God’s theophany when He spoke and enveloped them in a cloud.
The Transfiguration and the end of time are combined in one scene. The lush green background filled with lambs references the end of time when God’s Creation is made whole again.  Above the scene there are two city gates, on the left is Jerusalem and on the right is Bethlehem with six lambs ascending the hill, referencing the continuity of the Old and New Testament through the juxtaposition of these old and new testament cities. Above from left to right are the four evangelists in symbolic form, the eagle John, the winged man, Matthew, Christ Pantokrator-a compound Greek word meaning all accomplishing, the Lion Mark, and the Ox Luke.  This image aligns the Transfiguration with the end of time when Creation is restored.

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Unlike earlier representations, Renaissance and Baroque examples typically depict God’s appearance as a cloud at the Transfiguration (see three examples below). “Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”
Also the colors are reversed from earlier mandorlas since these examples show brighter color resulting closer to Jesus. These later images remind us too of Christ’s apotheosis when He is raised from the dead and seated at the right hand of the Father.
Transfiguration_RaphaelRaphael painted the Transfiguration in about 1520. The account of the Transfiguration is followed in this work of art as it is in the bible by the episode of Jesus healing a boy with an evil spirit.

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Gherardi,_Cristofano_-_Transfiguration_-_1555The Mandorla in the Transfiguration images also aligns this story with the promise of Christ’s Second Coming when all the world will be healed. Representations of the Second Coming show Christ surrounded by the mandorla, familiar Transfiguration iconography.  At the transfiguration, Peter does not want to wait for the Second Coming as he prefers to stay on Mount Tabor where he feels an intense unification with Christ. Mark wrote,”Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”  God became man so that we can begin the process of becoming whole again on Earth.
Fortunate people recognize when they have experienced such a theophany at work in their lives so they too can become the person God intended for them to be. If any of us experience a theophany, God’s intense presence in this lifetime,  like Peter, why would we ever want to go back down the mountain?

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From friend, Janet Laisch, for 3 Kings Day…
While excavating in nearby Vespignano, I visited the Uffizi Gallery as frequently as possible, and one of my favorite works of art there is Leonardo da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi– a large, square, (8 feet x 8 feet, 1 inch), unfinished drawing, begun in 1481. Seeing his unfinished art is like entering his studio and watching him at work; it’s a unique way of understanding his mind and his method.
Even though Leonardo daVinci’s Magi, does not adhere to every detail of the Biblical account, it captures the story’s meaning in a profoundly beautiful way.

The Epiphany, celebrated twelve days after Christmas, is one of the most often depicted Biblical stories in western art as told in Matthew 2:7-12:

“Visitors from the East..They went into the house, and when they saw the child with his mother Mary, knelt down, and worshiped him. They brought out their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and presented them to him.”

Some artists adhere only loosely to this story, choosing instead to showcase their ability to choreograph crowds of people, and paint an array of colorful textures in an elaborate landscape. Donors who commissioned the work, like political propaganda, paid money to include family portraits among the retinue of kings bringing gifts to Christ.

Compared to most western art, Adoration of the Magi scenes characteristically depict some of the only examples of people from Eastern and African origins rather than only western European origin.

Here are a few examples.
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by Benozzo Gozzoli
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by Albrecht Durer
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by Hieronymus Bosch
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by Peter Paul Rubens
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Leonardo, first a scientist and an inventor, began this work (shown above) only after completing preliminary studies. His notebooks include studies for this work:  a one-point perspective plan, shown below, which he partly abandoned, illustrates how he used one point perspective to plan the background battle scene. To remedy the distorted upper right corner that resulted, he simply omitted it in the final plan.
His Adoration of the Magi drawing, pictured above, captures, in the hazy background, this battle scene among pagan ruins, probably representing the battle and ultimate defeat of paganism marked by Christ’s birth.

As the only Epiphany art depicting a battle scene, it is both a poignant and original choice.

Also notice the roof outlines in this study, which he also abandoned, suggesting that perhaps Leonardo considered depicting this Magi scene in or near a house as described in Matthew.

drawing-1024True to how Leonardo worked, after finishing several studies for this drawing, he laid and revised pencil lines directly on the wood panel.Leonardo carefully choreographed each person in the foreground, creating a controlled rather than haphazard crowd. To anchor the protagonists, they form a triangle in the center of the composition.
Mary’s head forms the point of the triangle and then following Christ’s extended arm to the bowing Magi’s feet, the right point of the triangle is visible; the ground itself forms the base of triangle and two bowing magi on the left form the left side of the triangle, finishing the line at Mary’s head, forms a complete triangle. He orders the crowd behind Christ and Mary in three U-shaped rows, and each individual turns his or her head in different directions– some people gesture wildly with opened mouths, presumably to speak about beholding Christ for the first time.
Only after finishing the composition did Leonardo begin layering dark washes over these pencil lines. Even at this stage, Leonardo’s characteristic sfumato or smoky, hazy atmospheric perspective makes the image appear to emerge from the canvas. In the unfinished drawing, Mary and Christ emerge in sharper focus than the hazy background battle scene. Too, the contrast between light and dark or chiaroscuro helps Mary and Christ stand out against the dark rocks and people surrounding them, since Leonardo has applied fewer dark washes to Mary, Christ and the three Magi at their feet, who are lighter in color, and in sharper focus.  Leonardo is most famous for blending brushstrokes so the under drawing is undetectable in his finished works.
If Leonardo had finished, he would have added more washes and color. A glimpse at some of his finished works such as the Mona Lisa below, reminds us that Leonardo’s sfumato technique, much like modern portrait photography, allows the subject to be in sharp focus while the background is out of focus or blurred.
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Leonardo’s Madonna of the Rocks
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Leonarodo’s Last Supper
Also by looking at Leonardo’s finished paintings, we can clearly imagine the colors Leonardo would have applied to finish his Adoration of Magi. By looking at his paint palette, we know he included white, black, red, blue and yellow, which he mixed to create unique variations on aquamarine, burgundy, brown, olive green, and goldenrod. I imagine for Mary, who is painted in a soft S curve, that Leonardo would have applied blue for her dress and red for her shawl. Christ as he is drawn appears sturdy and confident and would wear red around his waist, as his right hand blesses the kings before him.

Similarly, we can imagine what God’s finished Creation would look like, starting with the invitation he extends to us all through Epiphany.

 

Matthew’s important words from the Epiphany story, “visitors from the East” probably apply to an even broader diversity.

Surely when Christ reaches out his hand to accept gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, brought from the East and from Africa, it is God’s acceptance of His diverse people as stated explicitly in Acts 11: God has ushered in everyone– to follow his message.

Magi Math

Jason Micheli —  January 3, 2013 — Leave a comment

the_magi_henry_siddons_mowbray_1915-zkq72e2This Sunday is Epiphany, the arrival of the magi to Bethlehem.

Around January 6, the symbol +C+M+B+ with two numbers before and two numbers after (for example, 20+C+B+M+14) is sometimes seen written in chalk above the doorway of Christian homes. The letters are the initials of the traditional names of the Three Magi: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. These letters also abbreviate the Latin phrase Christus mansionem benedicat, “May Christ bless the house.” The beginning and ending numbers are the year, 2014 in the example above. The crosses represent Christ.