‘Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles,
and sing praises to your name’;
and again he says,
‘Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people’;
‘Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles,
and let all the peoples praise him’;
and again Isaiah says,
‘The root of Jesse shall come,
the one who rises to rule the Gentiles;
in him the Gentiles shall hope.’
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. -- Romans 15:7-13
Next to Advent, Epiphany is my favorite season of the church year. The expectation is over, the event has been celebrated, and now like the party after the really great party, the church relaxes slightly, kicks off its shoes, has a little more champagne as it talks over the events of the party and enjoys taking a break before it gets into the penitence of Lent and the unrestrained joy of Easter.
One year I wanted to really welcome Epiphany and celebrate it to the fullest. Being the wordy person that I am, and also wanting to try to cultivate an attitude of gratitude, I decided to write a letter to God every day of the season, looking at ordinary, everyday things and trying to see the sacred in them. It worked. I noticed so many more things I certainly would have missed. It also taught me about something I would later come to know as theological reflection and its look at an event, a text, a picture, a movie or an experience through the lenses of tradition, culture, position and action. I welcomed the discipline of writing, and I continued it for quite a while. Maybe I should take it up again. The attitude of gratitude has worn off a bit and needs to be re-honed.
But thinking about welcomes, I have to recall the Sunday I first tuned in to a stream of a service at All Saints', Pasadena. My stepson had encouraged me to watch to see if I could see him and his partner in the congregation but mostly, I think, to show me "his" church and the kind of place that drew them both in. I watched, and honestly, I felt more welcome through the computer monitor than I have in most churches I have visited in person. If that first visit online was any indication, I thought, it's no wonder that church is growing and flourishing. It reminded me that welcome doesn't mean just shaking hands at the door and offering coffee or a short blurb in the break between the liturgy of the word and that of the table. It's an ongoing theme, expressed again and again as if to make sure the message sinks in: you are welcome here, no matter who you are, where you come from, where you are in faith or in no faith, and what you've done in the past. If it weren't for the distance, I'd probably say "Sign me up now!" I felt like I was seeing how the future of Christianity could be assured.
Paul's words to the Romans encourage them to welcome one another, practicing the kind of greeting and attention that Jesus offered not only to the Jews but to the Gentiles -- the Syrophoenician woman, the Roman centurion, the Gerasene demoniac and others. Not the hospitality of house and home, not even the extending the gifts of food and good conversation, rather it was the sense of his attention focused on them and their problems, his interaction with them to heal them, and his willingness to do this again and again for people who were complete strangers and who he would undoubtedly never see again. He embraced them into and with his presence and eased their burdens. What more radical welcome could there be?
Whether on paper (or electrons), in person, on the road, in church, at work, on the phone, there are a hundred ways to show welcoming every day to both friend and stranger, believer and unbeliever. When I write I invite people into my mind and heart just as I feel invited into the minds and hearts of those whose words I read. I can feel welcomed by a friendly clerk at a grocery or department store or a priest standing before an altar in church. I can look forward to the welcome into heaven when the time comes, and I can welcome Jesus into my heart every day. And I can enjoy the time of each church season with its particular gifts and insights.
Welcome, Epiphany. I am looking forward to your visit and your lessons.
Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, January 5, 2012, under the title "Eve of Epiphany."