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  • Writer's pictureBrian Mountford

The hidden epiphany of the New Testament

Epiphanies tend to be of Christ shining in glory, as in the hymn ‘Christ whose glory fills the skies, Christ the true the on light.’ Hence the lectionary’s choice of Isaiah 60: ‘Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.’ Epiphany celebrates not only the wise men for whom God’s glory is manifested by a star, but the baptism of Jesus and the voice from heaven saying ‘This is my beloved son, hear him’, and the changing of water into wine at Cana of Galilee.

But there’s another picture of godliness that is hidden in the gospel narratives – the radical Jesus.

You are probably familiar with the contrast between Jesus of Nazareth, the historical, political/religious figure, and Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the eternal word of God.

The radical Jesus tells his followers to go the extra mile, and excuses his disciples for working on the sabbath when they rubbed out the grains from ears of corn, on the grounds that the Sabbath was made for man not man for the Sabbath. On the other hand, we have Jesus the Christ – the anointed, eternal Messiah who ends up sitting at the right hand of God up there in the sky.

Philip Pullman caught on to the difference in his book, The Good man Jesus and the scoundrel Christ, the Jesus of the Gospels, and the Christ of St Paul and the theologians of the very early church. I find myself easily relating to Jesus of Nazareth, but more conflicted about the theologically embroidered Christ of St Paul.

In 1985, in Santa Rosa, California a group of international scholars set up the ‘Jesus Seminar’. Its aim was to identify what might conceivably have been the actual words of Jesus. They listed 1330 sayings and stories attributed to Jesus in the four canonical gospels and the Gospel of Thomas – a gospel that didn’t get into the Bible. Only 29 sayings got into the top grade, and they were about very basic morality of the kind discussed in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew: turn the other cheek, when asked for your cloak, give your coat as well, blessed are the poor, go the extra mile, love your enemies. Nothing much about theology, but a lot about self-giving love and finding a society (the kingdom of God) in which members can do the big thing – being generous and forgiving, reaching out, taking the initiative in reconciliation and kindness.

There are hints of this in the birth stories. The humble nature of the shepherds, the lowliness of Jesus’ birthplace, the Magnificat (putting down the mighty form their seat and exalting the humble and meek), and with the Wise Men, in the sense that kings bow down before the impoverished child.

This epiphany is the reversal of worldly values and assumptions: why shouldn’t the good news be for the poor as well as the rich. What makes you ultimately happy? Is it things – perhaps a horse, some servants, and a roman style bath with hypocaust beneath would be nice? Or is it good relationships, an appreciation of the beauty of the Galilean Lake, the reward of working for justice and the alleviation of suffering, an inner contentment that makes you feel at one with your maker?

So, this kind of epiphany comes as a challenge, perhaps as a surprise, it sets you thinking. It works from within.

The traditional epiphanies of wonder and amazement and halos of light, are more in the Hollywood style, designed to win you over by dramatic displays of theatre.

I am not against revelation. I’m all in favour of moments when the penny drops and you suddenly understand something that’s been puzzling you for a long time. The penny dropped for me when I realised I hadn’t got to try to explain theological ideas or biblical imagery within the pre-enlightenment terms in which they were written. Theological ideas and religious imagery reflect a kind of intuitive experience of God relevant to their time and these intuitions are also experienced today in terms relevant to our understanding and thought paradigms. Thinking about God – being religious if you like – is a constantly renewing and ongoing process. One of the paradoxes of truth is that you are always searching for it, and in the process of finding it. Same with epiphanies. And I think the imagery of the Adoration of the Magi still prompts a response in those who see it. It’s not just as a romantic and redundant part of some people’s Christmas. It is poetry and imagination pointing towards a truth about life; a poetry expressed perhaps even more graphically by the hidden epiphany of the Gospels – Jesus of Nazareth.

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