A short, incisive, eminently helpful book for the preacher is Raymond Brown’s An Adult Christ for Christmas. In it he hones in on points in the familiar stories we might well have otherwise missed. For example, Brown focuses on the fact that the magi, traditional healers or holy men, manage by their traditional divining to get themselves in the vicinity of the Holy One, but can’t find the spot that requires knowledge of the law and the prophets of Israel. In other words, there is a kind of natural theology-in-miniature at work here: the kind of knowledge planted in the human heart, albeit distorted, is not nothing, but it cannot reach the saving place either. And of course we must also reckon on the violent madness of the king’s heart as well. Of both we who are Gentiles, are capable, prior to saving grace.
Epiphany is the time to think about the Gentiles, who we ourselves, for the most part, are. We receive from our culture the affirmation of cultural diversity, which is itself a thread in Scripture - in our case mediated by the romantic tradition in modern thought. The nations of the earth, after all, exist prior to Babel, though that disaster adds the blight of misapprehension one to another, which only begins to be healed at Pentecost. Finally, at the close of Revelation, we read that the nations and their kings process into the new Jerusalem in splendor. But prior to this, the nations rage (Psalm 2) and demand of the imprisoned people of God an alien’s song (Psalm 137). As Gentiles in Christ we need think about this status as a significant factor in our mission and spiritual life.
It is at this point let me wade-in for the New Year where angels fear to tread. The global nature of our Anglican faith is in many respects the product of accidental factors: colonialism and globalism of an earlier age, the courage of missionary orders, the interaction of Gospel and local cultures and the resilience of the Prayer Book. At the same time these accidents cannot help but appear providential to us. What a gift to us, that we find ourselves part of a fragile, tensive, yet enduring communion of our fellow Anglicans throughout the world, in the Arctic, Melanesia, the new Churches of southeast Asia, the vast numbers in Nigeria, post-apartheid South Africa, the bravery of fellow believers in Pakistan, and on and on. Of course all this has come to be embroiled in the cultural debates of our time. But deeper than all of that is the significance of the nations to the catholicity of the Church, the very intimation of the nations entering in splendor. And there is no way to skirt the importance in our understanding of Church to real accountability one to another, to the hard but essential calling to sit in council together.
As you know, soon the primates of our communion (including our own Presiding Bishop we pray) will be called together by the Archbishop of Canterbury, whose see is the symbol of our ancient roots and our unity. It is my prayer that this occasion will mark the restoration of a more robust ‘walking together,’ as the Windsor report and the resulting covenant process spoke of. We are not, Epiphany reminds us, islands to ourselves, and this pertains not only when there is an easy peace, but when there is hard disagreement. Gathering in such time, as family beholden in a costly way to one another, prefigures the coming gathering of us Gentiles around the throne of the wounded Lamb. Please pray for that gathering, and give thanks that we of the nations, once far off, are now brought near in Christ (Ephesians 2:12).