Sunday, January 2, 2011

Panis Angelicus

Sheepscott Community Church January 2, 2010 Epiphany

Isaiah 60: 1-6

Matthew 2: 1-12

Panis Angelicus

I entitled today’s message “Panis Angelicus,” the name of a Latin hymn and a phrase that means “bread of the angels.” And what is the bread of the angels? Christ. But not only bread of the angels, but bread of the shepherds, of the Magi, and finally our bread, our staff of life, which fully enables us to live our lives. If we feed on this bread, the very life of God will nourish us. A note of interest is that the name of the town, “Bethlehem,” where Christ was born, means “house of bread,” or, the village in the grainfields. The meaning is of course deepened by Christ, who is, again, the bread of life.

Let’s dwell for just a bit on the idea of Jesus as the panis angelicus, the bread of the angels, the bread of life, who was also the bread of the Magi, whose coming we mark on this Sunday, this feast of Epiphany, which happily is our Communion Sunday. The word epiphany signifies a manifestation or appearance of a divine or superhuman being. The meaning was early appropriated by the church to mean the festival commemorating the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles––i.e., non-Jews, which was and is observed January 6, the twelfth day after Christmas.

The traditional understanding of Epiphany connected with the visit of the three kings, or astrologers, Magi or Wise Men––they are called by all of these names––the traditional understanding is that the infant Jesus was being revealed to those legendary men from the East were not Jews but Gentiles, possibly members of the Zoroastrian priestly caste, in any case, members of one of the religious cults of the East whose followers studied the movements of the stars.

I would remind you at this juncture that a secondary lesson from this feast of Epiphany is that God can make Godself known and available in the language and through the beliefs, acts and customs of any group. It was when they were busy about the task of their own science of astrology that the Magi discovered this new star, which they were led to follow. God leaves no person without a sign of himself, for only God knows the desires of the individual heart, its longing and ambitions and most secret thoughts, and can enable epiphany in that utterly personal space. God can enable a revelation of himself in language and setting that the host can understand as divine visitation or manifestation. In the case of the Magi, as the story goes, the unusual star led the three astrologers to the place where Jesus lay.

Notable is that Jesus was not born in the town where the Magi lived. No, this is a story of their seeking after. There is purpose in the journey itself. God safeguards our freedom, but he also gives the sign, and we decide whether we stay where we are or journey forward. to the unknown, following the sign we have been given.

When the Magi found the child with his mother, they acknowledged his kingship on bended knee proffering gifts fit for a king: gold, frankincense and myrrh.

What did he offer in return to the visiting kings? Nothing less than the bread of the angels, panis angelicus, come under the guise of flesh, born of woman in the humblest of situations––a stable or a cave where animals were kept. If you recall from the gospel a few weeks ago, Jesus asked those assembled around him what they had gone out to see when they went to hear John the Baptist preach and experience his baptism. “Did you go out to see a man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear expensive clothes and indulge in luxury are in palaces. But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.” Jesus could have been speaking about himself as well. If John was in the desert preparing for the One to come, dressed in camel skins and living on locusts and honey, his cousin Jesus ‘s beginnings were comparably inauspicious in the worldly sense. Born in a cave. How low can you go? Humble beginnings for sure, and no fancy clothes as they wore in palaces, but a swaddling wrap.

Again, I ask you, what did he have to offer to the special guests who came, the Three Wise Men, the shepherds, others, us? He offers himself, all that he is, the bread of the angels, panis angelicus.

I wonder how much of a leap of faith that is for you to take? That Jesus can really offer himself to them then, and to us now in such a way. Do you think it’s possible to believe that in this sacrament we will share today, one of the two named sacraments of this church, baptism and communion, do you think he offers himself to us under the form or guise of bread and grape juice, the way he offered himself to the Magi? To all of us under the guise of the flesh and blood of a real person––Jesus––born of a human mother into history? Do you think that’s possible in the realm of faith? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if that were true? I believe it is.

Something I have never lost from my old life as a Roman Catholic is a sense of the importance of this bread of the angels, this panis angelicus, which we will share this morning and which I think Jesus offers all of us when we approach him. He offers the bread of himself in any number of ways, including sacramentally. No less does he offer himself in fellowship and the community meal cooked and shared at the Second Congregational Church, which we will be doing a week from Wednesday. If anyone would like to try that particular form of communion, of sharing in the life and body of God, let Jan Kilburn or Clara Fagan know.

We began this service by opening Addie’s beautifully wrapped gift to the church, which she brought us on the Third Sunday of Advent. It seemed an appropriate thing to do on this day of the gifts of the Magi brought to the Christ child. We didn’t know what was going to be in the little square, but what we did know was that it was a gift of love freely given and therefore of infinite value, whatever it turned out to be. Opening it was something of a minor epiphany, if you think of her love as a manifestation of divine love.

We began with love, and we will end with love, as we are about to share a love feast, the communion, that can also be Epiphany. The two are inseparable. We know God in the breaking of the bread; we know God in each other, when we share a meal, which in itself is a sacred act. Epiphany and the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Epiphany as I said earlier, a manifestation or appearance of a divine or superhuman being, the meaning was appropriated by the church for this feast we are observing today, commemorating the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.

Everything is possible for us today. All we need is faith, a free gift of God for the asking. Ask and you will receive. I was remembering out loud to Cyndi when we were praying last Sunday in the sanctuary after the service one of the gems of advice that Rev. Mary Harrington gave to me in the summer of her sickness and my learning, and that advice went like this. Paraphrase: Don’t be stingy with your prayers. Ask for everything you want. Don’t cut corners. Let the prayers overflow, believing that you will have what you ask for. And this is a Unitarian giving me this advice. She was absolutely right, and now I pass on that advice to you, especially in relation to asking for faith––the twelfth step––pass it on––for the twelfth day of Christmas. Amen.

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