Thursday, January 17, 2019

One Hit Wonder?

“The Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you.” Isaiah 60:2

In my hometown, the Fireman’s Carnival is undoubtedly the biggest event of the year.  It’s been held on the first week in August as long as anyone can remember.  Thousands flock to the muddy grounds outside town for the ferris wheel and the country ham sandwiches, some low stakes games of chance  and the goldfish booth that finances the junior-senior prom.

 Everyone knows that the biggest attractions are conversations with old friends and the hand-cut french fries.  But there’s always entertainment as well--a show on the stage at 7 and 10.  It’s usually country music, and in the old days, when you had to become a star the hard way, many of the greats trod our hometown boards: Patsy Cline, Conway Twitty, Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys, even once, Grandpap said, the great Hank Williams himself.  

But affordable talent is harder to find these days, so the series usually builds up to a Saturday night performer who might just ring a bell.  We called them the “one hit wonders.”  The last time I was at the Carnival on the Saturday night, it was a band whose 15 seconds of fame came with a tune called “She Never Cried When Old Yeller Died” back in 1993.  I think they sang it three times that night, and when they did, the crowd went wild.  For a second you could see past the grizzled beards and the beer bellies to what it must have been like 25 years ago when they were on top of the world, and a life of fame and fortune seemed to be spread before them.  

There’s something sad in figures like this: the one-hit band, the pitcher who broke all the records in high school and then petered out in AA ball, the businessman who made one amazing deal at 27 and never managed to replicate it again.  Maybe you felt a kind of ambiguity in your life’s early successes.  This is wonderful, you thought, but is it a badge of a glorious future or just a fluke?  Could it be that I only have one great idea, enough talent for this one crucial moment?  Is this as good as it’s ever going to be?

I would not have been surprised if a thought like this passed through the minds of those looking on at the scene recounted in today’s Gospel, the arrival of the wise men who bowed low to worship the infant Jesus.  “His glory will be seen upon you,” Isaiah had prophesied long before.  God would reveal Himself to the wise and powerful of all nations, and they would come to His sacred people and land to adore Him.  Kings would bring gold and incense, a testimony of belief and reverence.  And here we have it, as colorful and dramatic a story you will ever find, and all of it spread before a baby, just weeks old.

Artists have long delighted in depicting this moment.  If the government wasn’t shut down, you could spend a marvellous afternoon today wandering the Renaissance rooms at the National Gallery, just looking at paintings of this event.  There are so many of them for two good reasons.  The three kings were the saintly patrons of Florence, so commissioning altarpieces of them earned donors some patriotic stripes back in the fourteenth century.  But for a Biblical scene, this one also gave such a large scope for the artist: splendid costumes, rearing camels, sometimes great crowds of locals join in the festivity, with pipes and dances. 

In my favorite painting of the scene at the Gallery, a joint work of Fra Angelico and Fra Filippo Lippi, a peacock fans out His tail on the roof of the holy house where Mary and Joseph are holding the babe.  And why not?  Of all the scenes in the life of Jesus, this is the one where a peacock would be perfectly at home, amid the astronomical heralds, the stooping grandeur and the costly presents.

Jesus appears here as the universal king, acclaimed with joy by those who have travelled from the ends of the earth to seek the one for whom they have always hoped.  He is serene and confident, receiving the praises of His subjects.  Those who kneel before Him are grateful, humble and reverent, for He is not merely a king but God Himself in our flesh.  The Psalms capture the moment exactly:  “O magnify the Lord our God, and fall down before His footstool, for He is holy.[1]”  “O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness, bring presents, and come into His courts.[2]”  

This is Epiphany, the showing forth of God’s glory.  For one golden moment, the Lord was seen clearly in human flesh.  The Blessed Virgin and Joseph were reassured, the wise men stared up with full hearts, the crowds were amazed.  God was here among us, and received from us that which is “meet, right and our bounden duty.[3]”  “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory, as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.[4]”  

But this golden moment was not to last.  That night the child and his family would be shuffled off to Egypt, fleeing a murderous king.  The wise men would slip away, presumably back to their old lives uncertain about what it all would mean.  This is not the last Epiphany in Jesus’ earthly life.  Indeed, most of the other great moments of revelation will serve as our Gospel lessons over the next two months: His Baptism and first miracle, the dramatic call of the first disciples, His glorious transfiguration.

 But most of Jesus’ life was in obscurity, among people who ignored or misunderstood Him, or who felt threatened by Him and responded with hostility and aggression.  At least some of those who met Jesus decades later and heard the old tale about the wise men must have wondered if it wasn’t a mistake, or if that initial promise had never really been fulfilled.  Was Jesus a one-hit wonder?  they might have thought.

They would be wrong, of course, for the wise men’s vision was, in fact, full of grace and truth.  He is now as He was then, seated on the throne of majesty, in the new Jerusalem above.  John described it to us in this way in His Revelation: “The city has no need of sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light shall the nations walk; and the kings of the earth shall bring their glory into it.[5]”   This day we praise Him, with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven,[6]” and we know that we will see Him as He is, as they did who bore their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

We too have our moments of epiphany, when God’s glory is shown forth, and faith seems easy, moments when we taste of that joy and peace to come.  Ours is not a religious tradition that insists on a decisive moment when we come to faith, but most of the real Christians I have met can point to at least a few of them.  They usually come at the beginning--around a campfire at youth camp, or at grandma’s funeral or peering over the Grand Canyon.  Most of my own epiphanies involve Gothic architecture, polyphony and lots of incense: to each his own, I guess.  Those moments make real for us what was only notional before.  Because of them, we can commit ourselves to God. 

But after those golden moments, the days of obscurity and struggle always come.  And we can be tempted to look back on our past experiences with doubt, to wonder if it all was really as true and compelling as we remember it to have been.  Were we, too, just a one hit wonder?  If God was present to me so powerfully then, we think, why won’t He show His face now? 

There is no answer for such questions, aside from a trust in the steadfast goodness of God, whose mercy is strength enough for the struggles we now face.  As John Henry Newman wrote in an Epiphany sermon, “For all seasons we must thank Him, for time of sorrow and time of joy, time of warfare and time of peace.  Each has its own proper fruit, and its own peculiar blessedness...When Christ gives us what is pleasant, let us take it as refreshment by the way, that we may, when God calls, go in the strength of that meat forty days and forty nights unto Horeb, the mount of God.[7]

[1] Ps. 34:3.
[2] Ps. 96:9
[3] The Holy Eucharist, The Book of Common Prayer (1979), 333.
[4]  John 1:14.
[5] Rev. 21:23.
[6] BCP, 333.
[7] Newman, “The Epiphany Season.”  Parochial and Plain Sermons.  London:Rivingtons, 1875, VII.84.

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