Be not conformed to this world; but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.
The twelve days of Christmas end with the Feast of Epiphany, the last and great festival of Christmas. Epiphany is, as it were, the Christmas of the Gentiles, for in the journey of the Magi-Kings, the birth of Christ is made known to all the nations of the world. As a 17th century Anglican divine, Bishop John Cosin of Durham puts it: Christmas has been indeed a feast of joy to us all this while but our fullness of joy comes not until now, for the Angelic tidings of joy came first to the shepherds, to Israel, to those near at hand, but upon this feast it is omni populo (to all people), news which the star brought to all the world, and to us too, that now salvation was come unto the Gentiles. Joy increases to fullness of joy and light blazes forth into fullness of light.
Epiphany means more than just the ending blaze of Christmas, however. It also inaugurates a season of teaching, the season of Epiphany.
The word Epiphany means manifestation or shining forth, and refers to the manifestation of God’s glory in the Incarnate Son of God, Jesus. Epiphany raises our minds from the paradise of Bethlehem to the Heaven of Jerusalem. In a way, we move from meditating upon “His coming in the flesh that was God” to “His being God that was come in the flesh”; in short, “to turn ourselves from his humanity below to his divinity above” (Cosin). For that reason, too, the Epiphany season abounds with the stories of the miracles of Jesus, told, however, as teachings about the divinity of Christ, the very thing which grounds all worship.
The manifestation of the divinity of Christ is Epiphany’s theme. In the words and deeds of Christ, God is revealed and revealed in ways which open out to us the true nature of God. What is made manifest is not something arbitrary, tyrannous, and willful. No. Epiphany in every way is pregnant with purpose, the purpose of God. Epiphany celebrates in Saint Paul’s words, the making known of “the manifold wisdom of God, according to the eternal purpose which he purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Thus, the First Sunday after the Epiphany signals the manifestation of Christ as the Wisdom of God, the epiphany of the divine wisdom, the true source of all teaching and every learning.
Education is often about the discovery of things which were previously hidden from our view. Here, in the only Gospel story that treats the boyhood of Christ, Jesus is found in the temple at Jerusalem, “sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them and asking them questions.” The initial picture is Jesus as the student but “all that heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers.” Jesus the exemplary student is also Jesus the Teacher among the teachers.
These teachers have the humility to be astonished, to be amazed and full of wonder. As Jesus will say to an anxious Mary and Joseph who had sought him,” as Mary said, sorrowing, so, too, he says to us “wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?” Which only heightens the wonder.
It is a curious phrase and one which is variously rendered as being about my Father’s business or in my Father’s house, in any event, underscoring the connection between the boy Jesus and the Heavenly Father in the place of teaching, the temple at Jerusalem. It suggests something of God’s will and purpose for us.
Epiphany makes known to us the twofold purpose of the coming of Christ. He comes to reveal divinity and to redeem humanity. He is the eternal Word made flesh, true God and true Man, as Orthodox Christianity rightly and firmly insists. As Athanasius, the Father of Orthodoxy says, Without forsaking what he was, namely God, he became what He was not, namely man. Divine wisdom is fully present at every stage in the true course of his real humanity, the unchanging in the midst of the changing, from the unspeaking babe in Bethlehem to the agonizing words of the crucified Christ at Calvary. Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, humanly speaking, that we, too, may grow up into wisdom provided we are attentive to Christ.
Like Mary and Joseph, we, too, must find him in the Temple with the priests and doctors of the Law, the place for those who seek God. And what could be more appropriate than that he should be in their midst in the study of God’s Holy Scripture? He who reveals divinity among those who would have divinity revealed? What could be more fitting than that a school boy’s innocent simplicity and directness of insight should be the vehicle of the manifestation of God’s wisdom?
And yet, there is the astounding wonder of the thing precisely because it runs so completely counter to our expectations. Be not conformed to this world, Saint Paul says in a similar fashion, for Christ’s coming runs counter to all human expectation, to all worldly calculation. It confounds our schemes and designs, as it must, for it all about grace, God’s grace and our engagement with him. Epiphany shows us that God is the teacher through the wonderful paradox of the child Christ among the doctors.
Christ’s coming opens out to us a new vision and a new perspective. He opens out to us the kingdom of God, the place of human perfection, and he opens out to us the form of our participation by grace in that kingdom. In no small measure, it has to do with our being taught. Be ye transformed by the renewing of your minds, Saint Paul says.
This, too, is a wonderful phrase. It signals the hope of transformation through our being changed and our being changed fundamentally in terms of our outlook, in terms of our thinking. This renewal of our minds requires our attentiveness to God’s revelation of himself, to the means of his engaging us through the words of Christ in the witness of the scriptures and through the sacrament of his body and blood, the revealed and given means of his being with us. This renewal of our minds requires our turning away from “being conformed to the world.” Conformity, as something static and confining, contrasts with the dynamic of our being transformed by our attention to the high things of God unveiled in our midst. The vain pursuit of every passing fad and fancy afflicts contemporary culture and alienates us from the dynamic of God and thus from ourselves and one another. To be transformed means to attend to Christ in the places where his Word is proclaimed and his sacraments celebrated. Only so can we be what we behold in Christ.
You must therefore seek him there in the Temple, seek him in the church, where you will find the Word and the Wisdom of Christ, as an older wise man and theologian, Origen, once said. Nothing could be more profoundly counter-cultured even as it shapes and defines cultures. Ultimately, we are what we contemplate. We become what we behold. The church must be the place where we behold Christ in his revelation of himself to us; only so can we find him in one another. Trasumanar, (transhumanised) as that wise poet, Dante says, coining a word in Italian to capture the wonder of our being transformed into what we shall be according to will and purpose of God.
The collect for the First Sunday after the Epiphany sets the logic for the Epiphany season and for our lives. We seek the wisdom of God that we may both perceive and know what things we ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to fulfill the same. There is a kind of logical priority given to our reasoning, the sense of the logos of God undergirding all rightful action. That sensibility goes to the very meaning of education, to the idea of our being led out of the prisons of ourselves in conformity to the whims and dictates of our world and day and our being led into the wisdom of God which alone is transforming. Only by contemplating the wisdom of God made manifest in Christ, in his Word proclaimed and his sacraments celebrated, can we hope to grow up into wisdom. The meaning of the Epiphany, it signals the journey of our lives to God and with God.