Posted by: Titus Presler | January 19, 2010

Epiphany’s collects: Biblical light and centrifugal mission

Epiphanytide is a season that emphasizes mission liturgically.  The biblical basis is that through the visit of the Magi to Bethlehem, as recounted by Matthew, Christ’s light is shown forth in all the world as represented by these non-Jews who come from faraway places to worship (RSV) or bear homage to the child (NRSV for the Greek proskunesai) whom they saw as “born king of the Jews.”  The Greek work epiphania means “manifestation,” as in the manifestation of Christ to the world.

It is the missional aspect of Epiphany that prompted the Episcopal Church in 1997 to designate the Last Sunday after the Epiphany as World Mission Sunday.  This year it falls on February 14, though parishes can move the observance around to any other Sunday they choose.

The Magi’s coming fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy, “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising” (60.3).  This distills the overall sense of the Old Testament that God’s identity and presence will be known beyond Israel through God’s light being visible through Israel and that the nations of the world will thereby be drawn in to Israel, from where that light is shining.  Dutch missiologist Johannes Blauw in the 1950s termed this the centripetal movement of God’s mission.  Israel does not necessarily need to go out.  Instead, the world is drawn to Israel.

The Collect for Epiphany (Book of Common Prayer, p. 214) stresses how that light, cited through the leading of the Magi’s star, manifested Christ to the peoples of the earth, and asks that we be similarly led to God’s presence:

O God, by the leading of a star you manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth: Lead us, who know you now by faith, to your presence, where we may see your glory face to face; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

The collect is lovely in centering on the mystical vision of God accessible through faith.  It echoes the biblical tradition in bringing together glory with the theme of seeing the divine face, as in as in Moses’ vision of God on Mt. Sinai, John’s meditation on the incarnation in his gospel’s prologue, Jesus’ transfiguration, and Paul’s anticipation of seeing God “face to face.”

From the coming of the Magi, mission in the New Testament pivots to reverse the direction, to move out from the center to the periphery, no longer centripetally but now centrifugally, which is the contrast that Blauw pointed out.  In the gospels of both Matthew and Luke Jesus sends his disciples out on intentional itineraries during his own ministry.  His sending them echoes his own travels, in which he went out to towns and villages in Israel and then on several occasions to people beyond those of Israel – people in the Decapolis, Samaria, Tyre and Sidon.

The centrifugal motion climaxes in Jesus sending the disciples to “all nations” (Matthew 28.19), “all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24.47), “to be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1.8).  “All nations” (panta ta ethne) denotes people groups beyond the Jews, while “the end of the earth” (exchatou tes ges) denotes geographical extent.

The Collect for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany (BCP, p. 215) picks up mission’s geographical aspiration:

Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Consonant with Epiphany’s theme of light, the collect uses Jesus’ self-characterization as the light of the world and implies that it is by that light that we are illumined by word and sacrament.  Like Moses come down from the mountain and like Jesus transfigured, our experience of Christ’s light is designed to make us radiate, that is, we ourselves are to become sources of light.  To what end?  That Christ may be known worshiped and obeyed to the ends of the earth, meaning all over the world, to its most remote places.  That is the aim of mission.  When that happens, God’s mission is fulfilled.  (Click here for further reflection on the phrase “ends of the earth” and its relevance to the catastrophic Haiti earthquake and the challenge of mission there.)

In the perennial debate between whether mission involves doing something or whether it is simply a matter of being, this collect tends toward the side of being.  As we reflect the light of Christ and so become radiant in our very being, others will be drawn to that light the world over.  Put that way, we see how the being side of mission tends naturally toward a centripetal approach to mission: drawing others in rather than going out to them where they are.

In contrast, the Collect for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany (BCP, p. 215) both stresses doing and moves in a centrifugal direction in suggesting how we are to take initiative in radiating the light.  It presents one comprehensive modality for that mission, and it focuses on how that modality is directed to “all people,” similar to the biblical stress on “all nations”:

Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The modality of mission here is proclamation of the gospel as we respond readily to Jesus’ call, a phrase that recalls the story of Jesus’ call to Simon and Andrew to become “fishers of people” and their ready response: “immediately they left their nets and followed him” (Mark 1.16-20).  Proclamation obviously involves verbal announcement.  It is fair to note that the gospel is proclaimed by deed as well.  Jesus’ own mighty works were seen as announcing something about God’s nature and action, even as Jesus’ mighty works were crucial in conveying with greater precision what that something was.  While peoples are the major context for the collect’s vision of mission, geographical extent is certainly included in its citation of “the whole world.”

Strikingly, this collect includes ourselves, the proclaimers, as among the beneficiaries of the proclamation and, indeed, mentions us first: “that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works.”  Here is a liturgical recognition that as the church’s people fulfill Christ’s call to mission we ourselves perceive God’s glory in ways we hadn’t seen before.  What we do in Christ’s name catalyzes our own recognition of a bursting forth of God we hadn’t realized was underway.

There is abundant testimony to this throughout the church today: Parishioners participating in their congregation’s meals program or tutoring ministry talk about how they receive more than they give.  Those visiting the sick and homebound testify to how much they learn from ill and older fellow Christians.  Likewise international missionaries talk more or less constantly about how they have grown in their understanding of the triune God, scripture, the gospel, church life and outreach through the people they serve in other parts of the world.  And entire churches at home grow in faith as those experiences and insights are shared.

Collects for the rest of Epiphanytide (BCP, pp. 215-217) are focused more on the internal life of faith and are not especially missional.  The Collect for the Fourth Sunday is marginally missional in asking the God who governs all things both in heaven and on earth to “in our time grant us your peace,” but the tone is one of simple supplication, not participation in God’s mission of bringing such peace.  The Collect for the Eighth Sunday – not often does Epiphany extend that long! – returns to the theme of light.  The  collect for the Last Sunday reflects the theme of Jesus’ transfiguration, always the gospel of the day,  and stresses the beatific vision of light and its power to transfigure us “into his likeness from glory to glory.”

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