What Do You See? – John Brittingham
Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12
On occasion, I get the privilege of teaching philosophy of art or aesthetics to whatever group of college students I’ve duped into taking on the subject. Now, this is one of my absolute favorite subjects to teach, and not only because I’m a pop culture nerd, and I get to wax philosophical about the influence of remix culture on shows like “Rick and Morty” or about how there are some eerie parallels between the Islamic State and the Covenant from “Halo.” I love teaching about aesthetics because it’s all about perception, about what we see. And let me tell you, getting clear about what we see is no easy task.
My favorite question to ask students in philosophy of art is this: “What do you see?” I don’t ask them, “What does this painting mean?” or, “What formal innovations does this work of art demonstrate with regard to its larger medium-specific context?” (actually, I might ask them that last one). I ask them, “What do you see?” because it is deceptively tough to answer.
Our brains don’t like to work too hard when it comes to perception and so we tend to fill in the gaps in perception with things that we don’t actually see. We fill in the spaces with memories and imaginings, with half-baked references to signs and wonders so that we can easily process what it is that appears to us. But if we ask ourselves the question, “What do I see?” then we are asking ourselves the question of this season of the Christian year. We are no longer in Advent, we are in Epiphany.
Epiphany is a season that is all about seeing. It’s about seeing what is revealed, what shines forth, what appears. I can’t help but hear all this talk about seeing, perception, and the like without hearing it in the voice of one of my grad school professors who was like a Southern version of Mr. Magoo, or Blimpie of “Popeye” fame. He would probably say something like, “We cannot ask the question, ‘What do I see?’ without also asking the questions, ‘How do I see?’ and, ‘What do I look for?’ Y’see, it is a trio of questions that question the question in its questioning…” Or something like that. As our readings this Sunday suggest, what we see, how we see, and what we look for are all important questions to ask ourselves in this season of Epiphany.
Turning to our Old Testament reading from Isaiah, we need a bit of background. As Old Testament scholar Walter Bruggemann points out, the Israelites are in exile. Years of captivity, occupation, and diaspora have worn them down. Returning to the ruins of their former home, Jerusalem, these exiles are now in despair. How would you feel if you returned home and there was no infrastructure—no roads, no working water, or light, or people to take out the trash, or grocery store to get your food? Or if you came home and you didn’t have shelter waiting for you but had to tear down your family home before you could even set up your tarp, let alone start building a new one? You don’t see the temple of God or the royal palace or the markets that once bustled with life. What you see is rubble. This is your inheritance…a pile of dirt and broken rocks.
What can be said at this point? Gee God, thanks for these…rocks. This pile of dirt is really swell. For these post-exile Israelites, Jerusalem in ruins is a wholly different kind of wilderness than the one faced by their ancestors. What can you say at this point?
What the writer of Isaiah says at this point is rather inspirational but perhaps not what the Israelites were looking for. Arise, shine, for the glory of the Lord has risen upon you is not necessarily what you want to hear when you are surrounded by piles of dirt. It resounds like a well-meaning but thoroughly ignorable Bible verse-laden email from your mom, when that’s the last thing you want to hear. But if we pay attention, if we try to really see, then maybe we can see more in this prophetic poem.
While the tone of this poem is inspirational, it does not shrink from the reality of struggle. As it says in the second verse, For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Notice how the darkness that makes sight so difficult covers the earth, but thick darkness covers the people of the earth. It is in this thick darkness that we hear about the Lord arising upon us. Glory is not from the top down, in the poet’s words, it arises from within the darkness. It calls to us, to those pilgrims and refugees who have been wandering away from home. This is glory not as majesty, mystery, and authority but as a whisper that becomes a roar. Lift up your eyes and look around, it calls. In the midst of the thickest darkness of human ignorance, of our inability to really see, something is arising and we must ask ourselves, “Can we see it?”
Can we see it? Do we have the eyes to see glory emerging from rubble? Anyone who has engaged in a building renovation has had their eyes tested in precisely this way. For some, ruin is all there is. They can’t see restoration and rearrangement and completion in the cracked plaster walls, the moldy basements, the poor drainage, or the termite-ridden roof beams. For others? They can see beauty from ruin, but their eyes have been trained to know what to look for. But such training takes time.
Turning to our gospel reading, we can identify ourselves in the position of the unnumbered wise men of the East who travel to meet the baby Jesus. Actually, all it says is that they observed a star and its rising and, on the basis of this observation, inferred that there was a child born who is to be called king of the Jews. Naturally the place to go, to figure out who this star baby is, is the royal palace of the current king. We can’t fault these wise men for lacking the political savvy to realize that the current king was not the father of the star baby; I mean, what do they know? They only followed a star many miles because it told them that a baby king was born.
What we are given with this tale of the Magi is rife with the kind of political intrigue that makes for excellent binge-worthy television. Herod is a character not unlike a ruler from “Game of Thrones” or “House of Cards.” He is, even in the brief words we get, a political operative concerned only with maintaining his own power. Confronted by the scholarly aloofness of the wise men, Herod asks his own experts to confirm the prophecy that disrupts his hold on power. Herod then attempts to turn these visiting wise men into his own agents by asking them to inquire after this child and report back to him. We know that this will only end in infanticide and the murder of so many young Hebrew babies. Still, such information is not offered in the reading we have today. We are only given the contrast of the aloofness of the Magi and the cunning of Herod.
That said, it is not impossible to read into this political drama our reading from the Psalter. When we see a ruler, be it Herod or Jesus, the star baby, what do we see? Do we see a good king or a tyrant? Do we see a ruler at all? The psalm offers us a helpful interpretive matrix through which to evaluate what we see. The psalm trains us to see clearly.
The psalm asks us to consider what kind of king we want and what qualities we expect to see in a good ruler. Overwhelmingly, the psalm points out the kind of king that God approves. It is the kind of king about whom the nations will be called blessed because they are blessed by him. It a king for others.
According to the psalmist, the good king will have the following qualities: judge rightly (with God’s justice); pursue prosperity for all; work for the flourishing of creation; care for the poor, the weak, and the needy; strive for freedom from oppression.
As one commentator notes, “These are familiar biblical themes, often urged by the prophets. Interestingly, here they are seen as the tasks of the king, the one whom the prophets often accuse of failing in these very duties. Here, the roles of monarch and prophet are not at odds, rather they become one as the church confesses they do in Jesus…”
Looking through this lens, do we see a good ruler when we look at Herod? Probably not. What we do see is a familiar ruler: one who seeks to shrewdly turn potential revolutionaries into his own agents; one who moves to eliminate any potential threat to the present by burdening the future (aka, the murder of the innocents); one who sees himself as the protagonist of meaningful stories even if they are not his own.
When we look to Jesus, what do we see? Do we see a king? Do we see a savior? Do we even see a weird little star baby? Probably not. Taking out Matthew’s more leading descriptions, what we see with Jesus is a relatively helpless micro-human that seeps from every orifice, lying in a pile of dead grass, surrounded by creatures more apt to sniff each other’s behinds than to bow down and worship a king. We see a scene not unlike that of the one the writer of Isaiah describes.
But in that rubble, amongst those animals, do we see what the wise men or the prophet saw? Do we see the glory of the Lord that will arise from those ashes? Are our eyes capable of seeing it? Or do we, like the students I teach aesthetics, immediately answer the question, “What do you see?” with easy judgments and categorizations that don’t demand further scrutiny? Have we allowed our eyes to be trained in seeing a ruler, rather than a good ruler?—a pile of dirt instead of a future home?
Once the wise men see the baby Jesus, they not only see the kind of king worthy of pilgrimage and worship, they also see the contrast Jesus cuts with a figure like Herod. Advent is over and Epiphany is here. Amidst freakish weather, crumbling infrastructures, dysfunctional public discourse, apathy toward the refugee, the LGBT person, the black, brown, or Muslim person… amidst piles of dirt and filthy animals, Epiphany asks us: “What do you see?”