Sunday, February 7, 2010

Homily: 5 Epiphany [February 7, 2010] Christ Church Cranbrook

At the end of last week Kathy and I made a quick trip to Washington, D.C. to attend a milestone birthday party for a close high school friend of mine who lives in Georgetown. We didn’t have much time there, but we were able to spend Friday afternoon in my favorite place in Washington, the National Gallery of Art. A number of favorite artworks are there, and my intention was to spend the afternoon revisiting them. But as often happens to me in museums, something changed my plans. As I walked down the capacious open hallways of the Gallery’s first floor, my attention was immediately arrested by a large, circular painting I’d never noticed before: Fra Angelico’s and Fra Filippo Lippi’s 15th century version of The Adoration of the Magi. It’s a huge circular painting, called in Italian a tondo, and it rests inside an ornate gold-painted frame. For some reason, the picture drew me away from my familiar intended path and caused me to spend a half an hour looking at it.
This is the painting that we’ve reproduced as an insert in your bulletin today. It depicts the event we observe on January 6, the feast of the Epiphany, familiarly known as the Adoration of the Magi. This is the story, in Matthew’s Gospel, that tells us how three wise men came from the east bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the cradle of the infant Jesus. Symbolically, this story suggests that the divine glory manifest in Jesus will be made known to the whole world. It is from the Epiphany, or manifestation of God’s glory in Jesus, that this season of Epiphany gets its name. God’s glory is unstoppably on display. The first stage in God’s self-manifestation is to the Magi. As the season progresses we see God’s glory spreading through the ministry of Jesus to the church, to the whole human community, and finally to nature itself.
So here I was at the National Gallery unexpectedly caught up by a painting I’d never seen before. I didn’t know this painting existed. I didn’t expect to spend so much time looking at it. The picture literally drew me toward itself. Seeing it was, frankly, a religious experience that I’d like to share with you. So please take up this small reproduction and look at it with me for a moment. I’ve never preached with visual aids before, so please bear with me!
Now there are several people in this congregation who know a good deal more about visual art than I do, so I’m not going to presume to attempt saying anything intellectually fancy about this painting. But there are a few things that jump out at me. The first is that peacock on the stable’s roof. The second is the line of those five nearly naked men on the wall just to the left of the peacock. The third is the frightened young man in the lower right hand part of the circle. Don’t ask me about that weird, dog-like creature at the bottom. I’m sure he’s symbolic of something, but of what I haven’t a clue. I know I’ve never seen anything like him in the American Kennel Club listings.
Peacocks, though, are another matter. Because it is beautiful and multi-colored, the peacock, like the butterfly, has long been a symbol of the Resurrection. That’s one reason why the Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor raised them at her farm in Georgia. So this painting, set near the beginning of the Jesus story, calls our attention to the end of it. The One who is born in the stable and laid in a manger at Christmas and adored at Epiphany is the same One who will be crucified on Good Friday and raised at Easter. The peacock is there to call our attention to the divine significance of this humble birth: the infant Jesus is glorious because of what his life portends. He will be a living manifestation of God’s loving purpose, and his death and resurrection will be a foretaste of our eternal destiny.
Even more interesting to me in this picture, though, is the line of the five pale men wearing loincloths standing atop the wall toward the left side of the painting. That they are nearly naked suggests that they are probably beggars. That their skin is so whitishly pale suggests that they are lepers. Whatever they are, they are atop a wall and seemingly cut off from the rest of the people, therefore excluded from society. Yet as lonely and miserable as they are, they cannot help but be caught up in the joy of the moment. They too look toward the infant Jesus with expectation and with praise.
And then there is the frightened young man in the lower right part of the painting, the one immediately behind Joseph. He holds up his right hand shielding his downcast eyes, as if something in the vision of the baby Jesus is too much for him. While everyone else looks either up to heaven or toward the child, this person looks away, as if this vision presents him with something he cannot fully make himself take in.
Now the reason I asked that this painting be duplicated is not only that I wanted to share it with you, but more importantly because I felt that as I read this morning’s Gospel Fra Angelico’s tondo helped me understand something of what Luke is trying to tell us in his account of the miraculous catch of fish. [Luke 5.1-11] They are two different stories from two different Gospels, but they make the same points. In today’s Gospel, Jesus gets into a boat near the shore. Though the fishermen had been out all night fishing, they had caught nothing. Jesus tells them to go farther out and let down their nets. Peter scoffs in disbelief, but he obeys Jesus and is astonished by the number of fish they bring up. They catch so many fish that their nets break and the boat threatens to sink. When Peter realizes the size and extent of this miraculous catch of fish, he falls to his knees in front of Jesus. And what he says is both surprising and authentic. He doesn’t say, “Thank you, Jesus, for helping me catch so many fish.” Rather, he says, "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!" In reply, Jesus tells him not to be afraid, for soon he will be fishing for people.
The same three things that we saw in the painting are being told us in the story. We have an Epiphany painting and an Epiphany Gospel, and they both attest to the same deep truths. As with the peacock at the stable, the point of the story is not the catch of the fish but the deep and transcendent love and power of God. As with the five poor lepers in the painting, so with the size and abundance of the catch: God’s glory makes itself known in the expansive and limitless abundance of the whole creation. And as with the young man’s inability to look at the glory revealed in the cradle, so Peter cannot take the divine glory he has just seen. Something about the direct experience of God frightens as much as it draws us. "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!"
As we move together toward the culmination of this season of glory and light, I believe that God wants us to take in the three powerful truths depicted and spoken to us in this painting and in Luke’s Gospel account. The miracle story, like the peacock in the painting, points us toward what this whole divine drama is about. Easter, Resurrection, new life, hope and transformation—these are the big truths of the Christian life. In our own personal struggles, sometimes even in our church disagreements, we forget why we are here in the first place. We’re here because Christ is risen and we shall be, too. God has offered each and all of us new and abundant life with one another in Christ. Because we are risen with Christ, we are transformed, a “new creation”, as Paul calls it. So we are free to live hopeful, generous, compassionate, lives free of anxiety and fear. There is nothing we need fear—not even death. The presence of the peacock in the painting helps us remember what life with God in Christ is all finally about. You are loved, accepted, and saved. You can live your life without fear.
Those five leprous beggars remind us, as does the size of the catch of fish, that God’s call does not just extend to us. We have been given this gift of hopeful, fearless life so that we may invite others into it. Like the fishers in Luke’s story, God has called us to be people who cast the net expansively and inclusively, inviting not just oriental potentates but the full range of the human community into our life and fellowship. God invites everyone to the table. God wants the beggars and the lepers seated right next to the three wise men at the dinner table. We need, in our households and in our church, to practice that kind of radically welcoming hospitality. The promise is that when we do that, our nets will be full to the point of breaking.
And then there’s Peter’s response to Jesus, depicted in the young man who shields himself from the cradle’s glow. "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!" When
God’s light shines on us, it illuminates those parts of us we’d rather not acknowledge. Every time God appears directly in the Bible, the first response is usually an experience of personal unworthiness. Who am I to be the recipient of such a glorious and transcendent presence? Yet that is the deep and paradoxical truth of the glory of God as made manifest in this season. God loves those parts of you that even you yourself cannot stand to look at. The light of the Resurrection shines on the totality of who we are. There is nothing about you that God cannot love and heal and bless. Resurrection means you and I can be fearless not only in facing out but in facing in. God’s judgment is a clarifying and healing judgment. God calls us to face into and love ourselves and each other as we are, so we can move forward together toward a future of blessing and promise and hope.
Let us bask together in this divine glory, made manifest in Jesus and in each other. Let us spread the invitation to this banquet to all God’s creatures, especially those we don’t usually make room for around our dinner tables. And let’s acknowledge that though we may see parts of ourselves we’d sooner ignore, God already is working to heal and bless them. A picture is worth a thousand words. This painting preaches these truths better than I can. May it help us take in our Gospel story and keep us centered on the depth and breadth and transformative power of God’s love for you, for me, and for the world. Amen.