This past Tuesday was the Feast of the Epiphany, Three Kings’ Day, or as Shakespeare termed it, “Twelfth Night.” This marks the end of the Church’s celebration of Christmas, and plunges us into a murky time in between as we await Ash Wednesday.
This matches the chronology of Jesus’ life, as we know it in the Gospels. We see him at eight days having his bris at the Temple, where the family meets Anna and Simeon. He reappears two years later, still living in Bethlehem when the magi arrive. The family then departs for Egypt to escape King Herod’s clutches where they stay for six years. From Egypt they move to Nazareth, in case Herod’s son decides to finish his father’s work. Six years later, we meet Jesus again, now recently bar mitzvah’ed, as He celebrates Passover at the Temple for the first time as an “adult.” He remains behind when his parents depart for home, astonishing the priests and the teachers of the Law with his knowledge and questions. “ Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. 52 And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.” (Luke 2:51-52). And there Jesus once again disappears, not be heard from again for eighteen years.
All too often, we forget these strange silences. God has dramatically inserted Himself into the human story in a new way, and this after four hundred years of comparative silence. Angels sing, shepherds marvel, wise men come, and then God goes quiet. Why? He pops again, briefly, twelve years later, clearly attracting some attention, and then disappears again. Does anyone follow up on Him? With so many people looking for a Messiah, I would have thought someone would locate him. I sometimes wonder whether God intentionally does this, both to throw us off, but also to test our intentions.
We love to speak about God in terms of relationship, that He is a friend who is always there, who loves to communicate with us, and if some people in my church are to be believed, God has an awful lot to say to us. These silences do not fit this image. We don’t want to admit that at times, God chooses to say nothing to us. In our chatter filled world, I’m not sure we know how to handle the silence. How dare God not Instagram us throughout the day?
We have tried to fill the silence with all sorts of speculations. Some believe that during this time, he travelled around the Roman world with Joseph or Arimathea, his uncle, journeying so far as to set foot in Britain. The notion that God was content to live a quiet and thoroughly unremarkable life in Galilee seems so unlike the dynamic person we wish to present. A God who goes silent is hard to follow.
So I am left to wonder, as I seem prone to do. God delights in confounding us, reminding us time and again of His divinity; that He stands outside of nature while we remain very much within it.
Aquinas, of all people, seized on this mystery at the heart of God. The apostle of reason and faith took up this theme for a communion hymn which seems a good way to close this letter.
Godhead here in hiding, whom I adore,
masked by these bare shadows, shape and nothing more,
see, Lord, at thy service low lies here a heart
lost, all lost in wonder at the God thou art.
Seeing, touching, tasting are in thee deceived;
how says trusty hearing? That shall be believed;
what God’s Son hath told me, take for truth I do;
truth himself speaks truly, or there’s nothing true.
On the cross thy Godhead made no sign to men;
here thy very manhood steals from human ken;
both are my confession, both are my belief;
and I pray the prayer of the dying thief.
I am not like Thomas, wounds I cannot see,
but can plainly call thee Lord and God as he;
this faith each day deeper be my holding of,
daily make me harder hope and dearer love.
O thou our reminder of Christ crucified,
living Bread, the life of us for whom he died,
lend this life to me then; feed and feast my mind,
there be thou the sweetness man was meant to find.
Jesu, whom I look at shrouded here below,
I beseech thee send me what I long for so,
some day to gaze on thee face to face in light
and be blest for ever with thy glory’s sight.