A Light to All People -- Epiphany 2002
By Charles Rush
January 6, 2002
Matthew 2: 1-12
iphany brings to a close the 12 days of Christmas and most of us need to stop eating desperately. The celebration of this text was always particularly important to the early Church, remembering as they did, that the Word of God came first to the Jews and only later to them the Greeks and Gentiles. This is where the vast majority of us get involved in the story. Priests from other religions that practice divination and reading the heavens to determine the future are led from far away to the foot of the manger, where they adore the birth of Jesus. Even augury, even pagans eventually are drawn into the orbit of the Good News. There is a radical inclusivity and universal implications to the scope of the gospel that Jesus comes to proclaim.
the Eastern Orthodox church, Epiphany is celebrated in the evening with the
feast of Lights, a tradition we modify here on Christmas eve, when we read John
1, the lofty passage on the coming of the Word into the world of darkness, and
the darkness did not overcome it.
Constantinople, modern day Istanbul, the main Basilica, the Hagia Sophia had
the premier celebration of the holiday. The apse of the Church is an enormous
onion dome, about the height and size of the Capitol in Washington. The inside
of the dome was covered in tile of inlaid gold. In addition, there were also
jewels set in the tile in various places. Finally, there was a large circle on
the floor of the church that also had inlaid gold tile, so that the light would
bounce from the dome to the floor and reflect back up again. It created an
effulgent light, widely written about, like no other light in its day. On
Epiphany, the whole church was filled to overflowing. I’m guessing that 5 or
6,000 people can pack in the church, all standing, each with a candle. When the
priest read the John 1 passage, at the moment, when the text says, “the light
came into the world”, one single candle was light. From that candle, all other
candles were lit until there was this wonderful glow, a great symbol of coming
of hope, tentative and frail at first but gathering and powerful when we all
participate in it.
the movie Apollo 13, the astronaut Jim Lovell is asked if he was ever
afraid flying. He tells a story of the most unnerving night of his flying
career. He had been on a combat mission and couldn’t find his aircraft carrier
upon return. It was a very dark night and the aircraft carrier couldn’t turn on
its lights because they were in combat conditions. Neither could he use his
radio navigational equipment because they were on total silence to avoid
a last ditch effort, he flipped on the light in the cockpit to see if he could
calculate his position and the light shorted out, causing all the lights to go
out, even on the panel. Panic.
then he saw it. In the darkness, there was a luminescent glow. It was the glow
of sea plankton that is generated by the wake of a ship as it passes through.
All he had to do was follow the glowing sea of plankton, like a highway to the
ship. He said, you don’t know what will transpire to lead you home. If
the map light had not shorted out, I never would have sent he glowing wake.”[i]
like that story just now because it seems to me that we need to fly by a new
and different light than we have in the past, a light we might not have seen
had an emergency not switched off our usual ways of thinking.
we are ever to establish something like détente or peace, we are going to have
to do a good deal more than just root out Al Qaeda militarily. We are going to
have to mature in the contest of ideas. I’ve said before that we would be
enormously helped if we had something like a Reformation in Islam and I still
believe that is the fundamental issue. But it also seems to me
that all three faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam could stand a reforming
spirit. What do I mean?
three faiths share something fundamentally in common. All three of them were
born in situations of persecution and oppression. The Jews were enslaved in
Egypt and liberated by God in the Exodus. Christians were persecuted by the
Romans and struggled as a minor sect of Judaism for the first couple hundred
years. The followers of Mohammed were persecuted by a variety of people,
religious and otherwise around Medina and Mecca when Mohammed first began
sharing his vision in the middle of the 7th century.
three faiths also share a similar response to this persecution, a spiritual
approach to the world that has given direction to their adherents ever since.
Persecution inspired both their inclusive and their exclusive
approaches to the world and the inclusive impulse must structure the exclusive
approach in every religion if we are to move beyond the present impasse.
has this wonderful refrain in the Torah that says, “Remember that you
were once slaves in Egypt.” And from that memory follows some of their
noblest and most humane traditions. They are called to be merciful to those
that work for them, to remember to give them a day of rest and not oppress them-
particularly if they are slaves, particularly if they are not Jews. In the
Torah, the Israelites are called to leave a portion of the grain they would
harvest in the field for the poor to come and eat because they were once hungry
themselves, they were once forced to glean in the same manner. The Israelites
are called to treat strangers in their midst with the same sense of justice and
fairness that they would treat each other. Remember, the principle goes… and
act with humanity rather than unjust power. It is a noble tradition. It is an
inclusive approach appeals to that part of us spiritually that wants to live
out of our compassion, that wants to stretch beyond the normal duties,
toward a wider vision of embodying what is good for goodness sake. It
encourages us to make the world more humane, more tolerant, more understanding.
It promotes even-handed justice, which makes for peace.
there is also an exclusivist response that is actually more often repeated in
the Torah. It is the call to purity. “You shall have no other gods
before me.” And from that, we get repeated calls to “come ye out from
among them and be separate.” For “a holy and chosen race” are you.
From this principle in the Torah, the Israelites are warned against
intermarriage with the pagans in the Promised Land. The Israelites are warned
against assimilating their customs. They are warned against synchronizing
their religion with the pagans that live around them. We are repeatedly
reminded that Yahweh is a jealous God that will tolerate no compromise
or evil in his presence.
And we even have a couple
stories to illustrate that point, the most infamous being Aaron who molds a
golden calf into an idol when Moses is away, a common religious practice of
some of Israel’s neighbors. Whereupon, the people that worship this Golden calf
are swallowed up by the earth. Not surprisingly, in this tradition, we have
many stories of the encounter with the people in the Promised Land that are conflictual,
leading to battle, sometimes tragic violence. That violence is never
entirely condoned but it is justified with reference to purity. The Israelites
thought they were cleansing the land of the unrighteous and the unholy
to keep a pure worship of God alive for their children’s children to practice.
The exclusive approach
appeals to our desire for order, structure, and control.
The exclusive approach defines the parameters of our duties. It appeals
to those who like boundaries, who want to systematize our
theology and spiritual worldview. The exclusive approach appeals to those who
are concerned about integrity, ritual, and liturgy.
Left to itself the
exclusivist approach is open to some inherently dangerous tendencies, which it
has manifested more than once in religious history. It opens the door to a religious
justification of vengeance. It sets us up for competition rather
than dialogue in the wider circle of religions. It encourages judgmentalism
rather than good judgment.
Without this approach, in
some form, we would have no religious text, no religious worship, no clergy, no
structure. But, that is why it must be corralled by the inclusivist approach,
which keeps it supple, humane, understanding, and dialogical.
in Christianity, you have these two different approaches. In the gospel
accounts, Jesus teaches us that God loves every person and that we are
to treat each person as our neighbor, attending to their needs if they
are hurt, thereby showing what love is all about, what God is all about.
When Jesus sends the disciples out on a mission, he tells them, “every house
you enter, say ‘peace be with you.’” Jesus reached out to all people,
a scandal at the time- lepers, women, even prostitutes, Romans, even tax
collectors in order to show us that God intends for us to all live, motley and
clean shaven, compromised and virtuous, in one family of God. He taught
us that even if your enemy asks you to carry something for him one mile, carry
it two, presumably because it is better to absorb unjust violence than to
perpetuate it. That is the pronounced inclusivist approach that you find in
Jesus’ teaching, which, I believe, is why Jesus remains such a compelling
figure spiritually 2000 years later, even to people who are not religious.
there is another tradition in Christianity, the exclusivist approach,
which is also to be found in the New Testament. Indeed it near caricatured form
in the Apocalyptic tradition found in Revelation. Here the tiny
righteous remnant is encouraged to hold out with integrity because God is
coming back and when God comes back, the mighty whore of Babylon, who now rules
this dark age, will be consumed with the wrath of the divine sword. Judgment
will be meted out and some will be cast into the lake of never ending fire.
You don’t hear a lot about this at Christ Church, I understand. But the
point of this tradition is to emphasize moral and spiritual purity at
all costs, the courage of endurance.
know that these books were written to a church that was actively being
persecuted, indeed killed for their beliefs. In that setting, it is
understandable that you would appeal to keeping the purity of the faith, rather
than compromise, that you would remind people of the future reward of
righteousness or integrity that God will honor.
Unfortunately, they do it by
appealing to God’s power, in this case a power that will eradicate our enemies
thoroughly and completely. It also calls upon the judgment of God, presuming
that God’s ultimate intention in the universe is to one day morally and
spiritually clarify our world and eradicate evil once and for all. I would
point out that this tradition is understandable, indeed necessary in some
sense, because there really have been radically evil people and governments
that have sought to destroy all that is good.
However, it is unfortunate
that it has managed to claim such a predominant place in Christian history
because when it is combined with power, it has so often led to needless
persecution and inhumanity in the name of Christ. Examples are literally
legion, from the Crusades to the preaching of Savanarola to the Counter-Reformation
to the witch trials in Europe and the Colonies.
understanding, by the way, was in the back of Jerry Falwell’s mind when he was
on Pat Robertson’s show, and said that the reason that God allowed the
terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center was because God had withdrawn his
supernatural protection of our country due to a host of evils including but not
limited to- gay activists, feminists, the ACLU, pro-choice advocates, and
other vile liberals. I got a note from an acquaintance that I have worked
with in the past on Church/State issues, who is a lawyer for the ACLU, attached
to Reverend Falwell’s idiotic remarks was a note that said, “I didn’t
have any idea we mattered that much to God.”
as far as I can tell, is more singularly committed to purity than it is to the
inclusive approach. The word Islam, after all, means ‘surrender,
and it conceives of the spiritual life as fundamentally about the surrender of
our will to the will of Allah. Purity is the cardinal virtue.
Nevertheless, in the Qur’an, Jews and Christians have a recognized place. They
are called people of the book. Again, remembering their oppression and
rejection when they were first spreading the faith of Islam as minorities, one
Muslim sage put it like this. ”Islam began as a stranger and it will revert to
being a stranger just as it began. So give glad tidings to the strangers (in
your midst).” The Qur’an makes a place for Christians and Jews, recognizing
that they are all the spiritual children of Abraham. Herein lie the
seeds of a mutual dialogue. Herein lie the seeds of an inclusive approach.
And there are other strands
in the Qur’an to encourage an inclusive approach. The Qur’an says “show forgiveness,
enjoy kindness, and stay away from the ignorant” and to “stand firmly
for justice, as witnesses to God even as against yourself or your
parents or you kin, and whether it be against rich or poor.”
I just wish the inclusive
approach were far more pronounced and buttressed by wider tradition than it is.
there is a much more pronounced call to purity such as the following. “And
whoever contends with and contradicts the Messenger (that is Mohammed) after
guidance has been clearly conveyed to him and chooses a path other than that of
the Faithful believers, we shall leave him in the path that he has chosen and
land him in Hell, what an evil refuge!” (Surah al Nisaa 4:115) These
passages do not encourage dialogue among educated parties, because after all,
if you have studied the Koran and concluded, ‘I think I’ll stick with my
Christian tradition thank you’, there is some real sense in which you are
morally culpable and require Allah’s rejection and the rejection of sincere
this passage, which is oft quoted by the followers of Wahabism. The messenger,
as Mohammed is called, said ‘A group from my Ummah (the entire body of
Muslims) will always be aided with victory as they continue to persevere on the
Truth; they will not be harmed by those who abandon them or oppose them.”
And this, “This Ummah (nation) will split into seventy three parties, all of
which will go to Hell- except for one party: the one which will follow the same
path as what I and my companions are following today”.
passage is often quoted these days by Muslims that want to make the point that
the way of true Islam is narrow. Furthermore, they say, the only real way to
get to religious purity is to adhere as closely as possible to the original
spiritual vision that Mohammed had. This, of course, is always the cry of
the Orthodox and the fundamentalist. We want to go back, back to a purer,
simpler time, back to when gays were in the closet and women were in the
kitchen, back, back … What we desperately need, it seems to me, is not so
much to go back as to move forward. We need a spiritual disposition for
this age, not the replication of some earlier, supposedly purer age.
the Wahib movement in Islam that has been the spiritual impetus behind this
latest round of terrorist attacks raises this notion of return to the spiritual
austerity of the original vision of Islam to a new height. It was the
justification behind the Taliban arresting the Christian missionaries that were
in their country doing hunger relief because in this vision after 1300 years of
exposure to Islamic teaching, there should be no real reason for anyone to
embrace Christianity anymore. Likewise, in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, where the
Wahib movement is central, there is no serious religious toleration of Judaism
surprisingly, our government has been reluctant to talk about the religious
dimension of the present impasse but it is there nevertheless. Militant Islam
fundamentally is a central part of the problem. It is a problem if when we hear
exclusivist rhetoric from the mouths of Mullah’s proclaiming the United States
as ‘Satanic’ or when they declare ‘Death to all Jews’. That is a huge social
and spiritual problem.
it is a huge problem when we hear Orthodox settlers on the West Bank claiming that
all of Palestine was meant only for the Jews and that they are divinely
mandated to continue building settlements with little or no spiritual
foundation for compromising with their neighbors.
it is a huge problem when we hear fundamentalist preachers in our own country
analyzing the world through the matrix of the United States being a Christian
nation, subject to God’s reward or punishment based on how pure we maintain a
Christian world-view and practice.
every case the exclusivist approach is being allowed to so dominate our
spiritual interpretation of events around us that the inclusive approach is corralled,
qualified, tamed and trumped. Our impulse for control is winning out over
our impulse for humanity. Our fear of the promulgation of evil outweighs our
desire for the triumph of the Good. The desire for integrity through duty
trumps our desire for understanding and tolerance. It is a contest that
becomes a conflict, not a competition that creates quality.
leads me to conclude, what if? What if, the inclusivist approach structured and
qualified the exclusivist approach? What if we judged the profundity of
religions by the character that they produced rather than being concerned about
who has the true scriptures? What if we judged the quality of religion by the
leavening influence it has on society- particularly for the poor and
dispossessed- rather than being concerned about who is the true prophet of the
Almighty? What if we engaged in some friendly competition as to who could produce
the most harmonious community rather than bicker about who has the real path to
salvation? What if we prided ourselves not on the blind zeal of our faithful
adherents but upon the broad humane vision for all of our believers?
At this moment,
it seems like an idle hope at best. I realize that. At the moment, it is
probably no more than that sea of plankton that led Jim Lovell back to his
aircraft carrier. It is just a couple of candles lit in a large, dark Basilica.
one thing is increasingly clear. The exclusivist approach is not going to work
in our global village of many faiths and religions. After too many suicide
bombings… After too many terrorist attacks… After too many wanton civil wars,
eventually… Eventually, we will have to try the inclusive approach. Let us pray
that it is sooner rather than later. Amen.
[i] From A
Slice of Bread "Leading you home” by Glen Mettler. Source: Weekend
Encounter, by Dick Innes.
© 2002 .
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