The Face of God In the Face of a Man: An Epiphany Meditation

Epiphany is an ancient feast day the church has celebrated since at least 361 A.D. [1] as the culmination of the twelve days of Christmas and a celebration of the Incarnation as a whole. It particularly commemorates both the Adoration of the Magi (especially in the West) and Jesus’ baptism (especially in the East). Its observance as part of the church calendar seems to have originated in the eastern churches as “epiphany” is the English adaptation of the Greek epiphaneia (ἐπιφάνεια), meaning “appearance” or “coming into light”; it could be used to describe the breaking in of dawn or the sudden appearance of an enemy on the battlefield, but it was especially appropriate for describing the manifestation of divine power [2]. The early church recognized the fittingness of this word for these two archetypal manifestations of Jesus’ glory and divinity [3], first to the Gentiles and later to Israel.

Though the connotation of manifesting divinity is dominant, the first two senses (“dawn” and “the appearance of an enemy”) contribute to the day’s significance as well. The New Testament explicitly likens the Incarnation to an in-breaking of light in several passages:

“And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
‘The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali,
the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people dwelling in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death,
on them a light has dawned.’”
(Matthew 4:13-16)

“‘…because of the tender mercy of our God,
whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.’”
(Luke 1:78-79)

“’Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation
that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.’”
(Luke 2:29-32)

“In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it… The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.
(John 1:4-5, 9)

Let’s briefly examine both of these themes and see how they contribute to the glory of this day.

1. The dawning of light as Jesus exegeted God to the world.

“No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1:18).

“‘Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves'” (John 14:9-11).

“For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4:6)

“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:1-3a).

Hebrews 1 establishes the ultimacy of God’s communication to the world through the man Jesus. It’s not just that Jesus is final in a sequence of prophets- it’s that Jesus fittingly sums up who God is in Himself and for the world and can therefore authoritatively speak on His behalf. More than that, his existence itself definitively communicates God. John 1:18 reinforces this point by asserting that Jesus has “made known” (exegesato) to the world the reality of God. The term “exegesis” is derived from this word, so it isn’t exaggeration to say that Jesus interpreted God to the world. Exegesato implies the trustworthiness of an interpretation, the fullest extent of its having been expounded, meaning: Jesus properly unpacked what “God” actually is. Jesus’ exegesis is solid and utterly reliable. What Jesus is like, God is like.

Receiving Jesus’ witness demands of us that we check our presumptions at the door and submit all of our God-talk to one double-sided rubric: the specific history of the man Jesus and the god he clung to and served, the one attested in Israel’s scriptures. Any other tack will evaporate into groundless speculation because it dismisses God’s personhood as manifest in the history of covenant with Israel and its climax in the life of Jesus. These rationalistic fabrications have nothing to do with the reality of God because they spurn fellowship and participation in the history He has enacted. No abstract concept or rival notion can lay claim to disclosing who and what God is- only Jesus can, and he does so by localizing God’s Wholly Otherness within a human frame in time and space, by embodying His character and attributes in visible, tangible, personal ways. The event of the Incarnation exploded any idea of “The Great Anonymous” (cf. Pierre van Passen); it overthrows and renders obsolete all of our presuppositions and prejudices of what the word “god” means. Jesus decisively established the identity of God as a concrete and very particular “I” and not a “what” by situating himself amongst the million billion “thous” whose humanity he shared.

2. The appearance of heaven’s champion come to defeat the present evil order.

“And Jesus called them to him and said to them, ‘You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’”
(Mark 10:42-45)

“‘Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out.'”
(John 12:31)

“Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war… He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.”
(Revelation 19:11, 16)

The revelation of this God impels some to embrace Him in love and fills others with loathing. A god who both judges and absorbs judgment? Who calls his people to to that same pattern for the sake of the world? What sort of god is this? Not one we want anything to do with. The sudden appearance of the world’s true lord challenges the presumed lordship of every would-be usurper; he has come to reclaim a ruined world for the glory of his Father and the good of his people. To our disgrace, most of Adam’s race do not want this: man craves the living death of self-determination and the exclusion of the living God.

The Son of God became man to overturn this status quo; he turns the world’s values upside down by coming incognito, being born to peasant nobodies, drawing foreign dignitaries to bow before him, then turning to flee the murderous intent of his own people. His willingness to be abased, to embrace the poor and needy, to serve them and suffer with them bewilders the world’s vision of what power and dignity are. The living revelation of God made himself vulnerable to the outrageous injustice of an evil, suicidal world in order to destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8); this harmless little innocent jeopardizes everything we hold dear, and we will ruthlessly crush anyone and anything that even tangentially connects itself to the intrusion of the Christ into our pathetic little “kingdoms”. It is owing to his infinite mercy, though, that he will not permit these kingdoms to stand forever- he will overthrow them all and re-establish the righteous, living rule of God in His world. To those with eyes to see this is glorious, liberating good news: he came to execute justice upon those who think they are something and to champion those who know they are nothing. Rejoice! In him the face of God we have felt the loss of for so long turned towards us once again in grace.

____________________________________________________________________________

[1] Martindale, C.C. (1909). Epiphany. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved January 6, 2014 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05504c.htm.

[2] H. G. Liddell and R. Scott, Greek-English Lexicon With a Revised Supplement (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996 (orig. ed. 1843), p. 669

[3] The manifestation of glory is probably why the miracle at Cana is sometimes included as one of the events commemorated (“This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him” [John 2:11]).

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