God Will Make Himself Known
Epiphany, 6,7,8 January 2017
This is the day when we celebrate the Epiphany of the Lord, his revelation as Son of God and his manifestation to the Gentiles in the persons of the magi. We celebrate this day with the knowledge that for the last few hundred years the Church has been frequently troubled by the belief of some Enlightenment philosophers that God can’t reveal himself, that the gap between God and the world is too great to be bridged. In part, this idea took shape when early modern biblical study raised doubts about the texts of the Scriptures. In part, it arose because some thinkers ruled out the possibility of any knowledge that did not come from sensory observation. Some like the philosopher David Hume ruled out the very possibility of miracles – so much for the Virgin birth and the star.
It wasn’t that they didn’t believe in God. They just didn’t think he could communicate or bridge the gap to the world we inhabit. He could be known from nature as a God of reason and order, but he was somehow handicapped when it came to talking to us.
The obvious response is ‘why’? If there is a God, why could he not communicate with his creatures? Even those who deny that there is a god should be able to imagine that if there were a god, he could communicate if he chose.
In the end, I think this strange idea that God cannot communicate with us comes not so much from philosophers’ mistaken view of God as from their problems with humanity and history and the messiness of it all.
If God is going to communicate with us, they seem to wonder, shouldn’t he be a lot more clear? Is the stuff about the baby, and the Virgin Mother, and the stable and the shepherds and the wise men and the miracles – to say nothing of the cross – necessary or clear or useful. If God has something to say to us, couldn’t he just say it and lay it out in nice easy propositions like the Declaration of Independence or the instruction manual for watchmaking?
The thinkers of early-modern times liked things neat and orderly. It was said of the philosopher Immanuel Kant that you could set your clock by him, as he passed your house in the morning on the way to the university. Their idea of God was that God too should be neat and orderly. They saw in nature a kind of beauty and perfection that they could not find in the messiness of human life. And they somehow overlooked the fact that nature too is pretty messy and often cruel.
But God is not a watchmaker – he is a lover and a giver of freedom. And so the world is messy – your lives have some loose ends, probably many. Human interactions create surprises, good and bad. Human freedom can be beautifully creative or hideously sinful.
This is the world and such are the people with whom God communicates. So he does not overwhelm us with good ideas and simple formulas; that’s for daytime TV. He enters the messiness of human history, born in a barn. And let’s not forget that those swaddling clothes function as diapers. And the magi, those Persian stargazers, are nothing if not odd.
He had punished his people with exile in Babylon. After 70 years he allowed them to come home, but home is disappointing. Yet he doesn’t give them an economic program or a political platform. He sends a prophet to tell them in their disappointment that God has glorious intentions for them. So we hear from Isaiah today:
Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come,
the glory of the Lord shines upon you.
See, darkness covers the earth,
and thick clouds cover the peoples;
but upon you the LORD shines,
and over you appears his glory.
God will make himself known. In due time all the nations will flow to the weakened, rubble-strewn holy city. And who will be the first among them to come? These strange Persians.
Such is the nature of the mystery that God has revealed, says St. Paul in the second lesson. You see, the real mystery, the one that so many modern philosophers and so many of our contemporaries cannot penetrate, is that God communicates as we do with words and signs and human events: verba and gesta, ‘words and acts,’ as the Catholic theological tradition likes to put it.
We do not communicate love and mercy to each other with contracts or textbooks. We do so with words and actions, with our persons, with the activities of our bodies. And so it is that God communicates with us.
There are the glorious words of the prophets. I should think that even an unbeliever listening to the hope and beauty in today’s Old Testament reading would find cause for hope and encouragement, even if not for faith. There are the events of Christ’s nativity, conveyed to us in the words of Scripture. There are the images that surround us at this season: the stable, Mary, Joseph, Jesus, livestock, shepherds, angels and magi.
All of these show us God in our midst, speaking from weakness and vulnerability and reminding us that strength comes from weakness and that God is strong enough to show himself and to prevail through weakness. Of this, of course, the cross will be the final sign and reality.
God makes himself known through his people, but the history of the Church is likewise complex and messy, filled with triumphant faith, heroic virtue, and a lot of failures. Indeed, the very fact that the Lord has chosen to make himself known through the community of sinners we call the Church is itself a testimony to his taste for messiness. The great early twentieth century English apologist for the Catholic faith, Hillaire Belloc, famously quipped, “ The Catholic Church is an institution I am bound to hold divine — but for unbelievers a proof of its divinity might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight.”
Revelation, God’s Epiphany, his manifestation of himself to the world, is not neat and tidy because he comes in human flesh to make himself known to humans in the midst of the wild and wooly story that is humanity. So he bids us, this day and always, to look away from the grand schemes we tend to concoct and to behold him, his truth, his beauty and his goodness in the humble circumstances of Bethlehem.
If you want to make sense of things, you have to notice that the truth may not always make the kind of sense you’re looking for. The real truth lies in the mystery of what God does.
The language of mystery that emerges so often during the Christmas and Epiphany seasons has to do not with things that are puzzling but with the fact that God deals with us in ways that we cannot predict or expect. ‘Mystery’ doesn’t mean that something makes no sense nor that it is a puzzle to be solved. Mystery refers the hidden depths of God’s good intentions for us. He is working things out for our good in ways that we would not expect and cannot control. We see the mystery of his love in the Nativity and Epiphany of Jesus, but we have scarcely begun to plumb the depth of that love. That’s mystery, and the more you know about God, the more you love him, the deeper the mystery gets.
So in all of this, there is a mighty reassurance for us. If you are a mystery to yourself much of the time – and you probably are – God is there with you. If you are dismayed and distressed by the mystery of iniquity and the often overwhelming corruption of the world, God has been in the midst of it. If you are confused or suffering and your faith is weak, God knows the mystery of your struggles better than you do. If your love lags, His does not. If you can’t explain it all, fear not. If you are dismayed by your own sin and weakness, he comes in weakness to remove your sin.
God makes himself known in the quiet of Bethlehem. The mystery of the Word made flesh is the reality that God loves us and is making his love known and visible in the very mess of human life and history.