January 01, 2009

Wild Grace Abounding

by Joel James Shuman
Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12 (Epiphany - Jan. 6)

In Canto I of Dante’s Purgatorio (the second of three volumes of the Divine Comedy), Dante and his guide Virgil climb from the depths of hell to emerge tired and dirty on the shores of the island of the Mountain of Purgation. They are immediately confronted by the appointed guardian of the island, the Roman orator Cato of Utica (d. 46 BCE), who demands they give an account of themselves.

Dante is shocked by their interlocutor, not because of his question, but because he is there at all; not only did Cato die a pagan a generation before the birth of Jesus, he took his own life in protest of the emerging power of the then nascent Roman Empire. Surely he belongs in Hell, in the awful forest of suicide, where the souls of those who took their own lives are trapped for all eternity in thorny shrubs, able to speak only when their limbs are painfully snapped off by passersby. And yet here Cato is, in Purgatory, serving the God he never knew.

The encounter with Cato is but the first of several instances in which Dante’s easy assumptions about how God works are called into question. As he proceeds through Purgatory and into Paradise, Dante is repeatedly confronted by the vastness – and the wildness – of grace. God extravagantly offers salvation to whomever God pleases, such that by the end of the Comedy, Dante can say of God only that He is the “love that moves the sun and other stars.”

As well-heeled instruments of Roman Imperial power, King Herod and the religious elites who advised him cared deeply about order, which they maintained, in large part, by the systematic control of the religious lives of the people in and around Jerusalem. They were bound to see the Magi from the east not simply as oddities, but as threats; what was God doing revealing the birth of the Messiah to these strange foreign astrologers? What theological category could account for that? What might happen next?

Epiphany is the church’s annual celebration of the revelation of the God of Israel to the Gentiles. Just so, it is an occasion to be reminded of the wildness of God’s grace. That grace is so abundant, so boundless, so beyond our control that it can at any time at all shatter our assumptions about where God might show up. Let us be attentive this week to God’s presence in our lives, remembering that the One who made Himself present through an infant in a manger, and who used the stars to call strangers from a distant land to celebrate that infant’s birth, takes great delight in surprising us with His wild grace.

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