Epiphanies: The Affect of Revelation



Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 9-10 (NRSV)


All the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the LORD had given to Israel. Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding…He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law. And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all the people answered, "Amen, Amen," lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground.

And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, "This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep." For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, "Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our LORD; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength."

 

Luke 4:14-30 (NRSV)

Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

   because he has anointed me

     to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

   and recovery of sight to the blind,

     to let the oppressed go free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’

He said to them, ‘Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!” And you will say, “Do here also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” ’ And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’ When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.



            Have you ever forgotten who you are?

Sounds like a strange question, but of course you have.

            When you first left the place you had come to know as “home,” and so many of the stories of your identity, bound up in that place, faded a bit the longer you were away.

Each time a loved one dies and takes with them stories about who you are as a person that only they knew – stories of your character and your values and your individuality only known to spouses or siblings or parents now departed.

            And have you ever had the experience of remembering who you are?

            That happens from time, too.

When you reunite with family who know you in a way that almost no one else in the world does and remind you of something about yourself that you had nearly forgotten.

When you return “home” – whatever place that word conjures in your mind – and the visceral sense of rootedness to that location awakens inner knowledge of your sense of identity that you had almost stopped feeling anymore.

If an epiphany is a moment of sudden revelation or insight, a disclosure of the divine breaking into everyday life, even of something about ourselves that we had nearly forgotten, What does it feel like to remember who you are? What is the “affect” that attends the experience of epiphany or revelation or sudden insight or divine disclosure or remembering something about ourselves that we’ve nearly forgotten?

During the Babylonian exile, the Hebrew people were at risk of losing their sense of identity – at risk of forgetting who they were. No longer in control of their own land, under foreign occupation, no place of centralized worship as the Temple lay in ruins and the people scattered to the winds – many of them taken into exile and many more of them left behind in their ransacked homeland. All of the things we all point to when describing our sense of identity – the place we’re from, the house we live in, the family line we belong to, the job we do, the religion we practice – all jeopardized by exile.

Eventually, the exiles were allowed to return and begin rebuilding the ruined city of Jerusalem. But at that point, there were many who didn’t know the old story, who no longer knew the place from whence they came because they had lived too long in exile, who no longer knew the family line they belonged to because there had been so many intermarried with the Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, many people returned to the land who no longer knew the religious tradition of their ancestors and some who could barely read the Hebrew of their sacred texts any longer. Nehemiah, deeply concerned by this loss of identity, was sent by the Persian king to help his people with the efforts to rebuild the city. But Nehemiah knew that memory of their identity must be rekindled if they were to make a go of it in the land of their ancestors.

            So at the Water Gate, not a place like the Temple where only some could enter, but the Water Gate where everyone could gather, Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people gathered everyone they could find and herded them together “into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the LORD had given to Israel. Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding…He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday.”

            And somehow, after Ezra, the priest, read to them from the Torah for six hours or so, the people were not gradually dozing off or leaving in droves or storming the pulpit to end this sermonic marathon, but “the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law.”  And when Ezra opened the scroll, “all the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all the people answered, ‘Amen, Amen,’ lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground.”

            And later, Jesus, back in Nazareth – home place of his father, Joseph – stands up to read in the synagogue, a time-honored tradition since the time of Ezra and Nehemiah when the people were held together not by a central place of worship or a homeland to a government, but by a sacred story, read aloud among the people. “He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

   because he has anointed me

     to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

   and recovery of sight to the blind,

     to let the oppressed go free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him…. All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.”

What does it feel like to remember who you are? What is the “affect” that attends the experience of epiphany or revelation or sudden insight or divine disclosure or remembering something about ourselves that we’ve nearly forgotten?

            For the Hebrew people, assembled in the square before the Water Gate, hearing the ancient words of Torah read aloud for hours on end by the priest, Ezra, it felt strangely sorrowful: “For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law.”

            Why? It’s not exactly clear. Perhaps because they had forgotten the sacred words once revealed to them through the prophets of old and were deeply sorrowful that they hadn’t followed the ways that God revealed to their ancestors. Perhaps because the words of the Torah awakened something inside them that they had almost lost, suddenly revealed to them again in the words the old priest read before them and the weight of the revelation – the remembering – was too much to bear.

            So beside themselves they were that it took the entire cast of this story to snap them out of it: “And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, ‘This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep.’” In fact, “eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our LORD; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength."

What does it feel like to remember who you are? What is the “affect” that attends the experience of epiphany or revelation or sudden insight or divine disclosure or remembering something about ourselves that we’ve nearly forgotten?

            For the good folks of Nazareth who came to the synagogue the day that the son of Joseph stood to read from the Prophet Isaiah, it started out with feelings of warm familiarity. They were amazed at hearing him read the old prophet’s words. It was just as they remembered it. The promise of divine grace and goodness revealed to them, for them.

            “But the truth is,” Jesus said, “there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when…there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon” – a Gentile. “There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”

And then, suddenly, they remembered. Even in the call of Abraham, God said, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3). And how did it feel to experience the revelation of something comfortably forgotten?

“When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill…so that they might hurl him off the cliff.” Alan Culpepper says,

This scene suggests that the basis for their hostility toward Jesus was a difference in the way they read the Scriptures. The people of Jesus’ hometown read the Scriptures as promises of God’s exclusive covenant with them, a covenant that involved promises of deliverance from their oppressors. Jesus came announcing deliverance, but it was not a national deliverance but God’s promise of liberation for all the poor and oppressed regardless of nationality, gender, or race.[1]

It wasn’t new, of course. It would be silly to think that Jesus first taught this view of God as liberator of all the poor and all the oppressed regardless of nationality. It was right there all along in the stories of Elijah and Elisha and in the call of Abraham and even in the words of the Prophet Isaiah they heard that very day. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

What does it feel like to remember who you are? What is the “affect” that attends the experience of epiphany or revelation or sudden insight or divine disclosure or remembering something about ourselves that we’ve nearly forgotten?

            It’s why therapy can be a painful process, and why reuniting with family can be full of joy and fraught with anxiety, and why our religious traditions – even those we’ve disavowed – still stir up so many emotions in us that we’d sometimes rather forget.

Like mourning and weeping over what you’ve long forgotten.

            Like amazement at what you’ve rediscovered.

            Like celebration that calls for the good food and the sweet wine.

            Like burning rage over a revelation that disrupts your comfortable position.

            Like you want to throw the source of such revelation over a cliff.



[1] R. Alan. Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections.” in The New Interpreters Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, vol. IX, ed. Leander E. Keck, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 108.
  • The Rev. Cody J. Sanders
  • January 24, 2016