Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Jesus Hiding in Plain Sight

When I was a child I looked forward to each month’s mailing of Highlights magazine for children. Each issue contained a craft project and jokes only children could laugh at. I still remember two, which at the time struck me as uproariously funny:

What did the monkey say when he laid his tail on the railroad track? It won’t be long now.

What is wide at the bottom, pointed at the top, and has ears? A mountain. What, you say that a mountain doesn’t have ears. Haven’t you ever heard of mountaineers?

Highlights also had monthly comic strips about Goofus and Gallant (two boys who faced a similar situation, but one responded appropriately and the other did not), and The Timbertoes (a family and their pets who were made out of the wood).

Far and away, my favorite feature was a page called “What’s Wrong with this Picture?” It contained a drawing of a typical scene—say children on a playground—but embedded within it were all kinds of hidden objects—an iron, an umbrella, a ruler… that kind of thing. I remember searching and searching until I found each and every one of the concealed items. They were right there on the page hiding in plain sight.

That memory came back to me last Sunday when I encouraged people to search throughout the worship space for the Christian symbol “ihs.” “ihs” has come to represent the name of Jesus because these are the first three letters in the Greek word for his name. In addition, “ihs” has become a devotional acronym meaning “Jesus humanity’s Savior.” By my count this symbol can be found six different places in St. Paul’s worship space in addition to the Newsome Window located just outside the Sacristy. Well, children of all ages took me up on my symbol-search challenge and they found it in not six, but in nine and even ten different places. Each has been there all along hiding in plain sight.

From word searches to hidden pictures and everything in between, human beings love this kind of challenge because our brains are wired to filter out information deemed to be irrelevant to the moment at hand. Magicians and those skilled in slight of hand make a living manipulating what we see and what they don’t want us to see. Last week I landed on one of those cable channel shows designed to reveal you how magicians pull off their tricks. We were told to keep our eyes on the performer’s hands as he did a trick while standing on a crowed city sidewalk. Knowing there was something I wasn’t supposed to see, I kept a sharp eye on everything else he was doing, but still missed how he did the trick. Even worse, when they rewound the tape and showed it again in slow motion, the program pointed out that among the people walking along the sidewalk behind the magician I was watching so intently were a penguin, a person in a bunny suit, and Santa Claus. I had seen none of them.

My brain had done its job. It did not consciously register what it determined to be meaningless data. This is something immensely helpful in a world so crammed full of sensory experience that to take it all in would be overwhelming. Perhaps this is why we like hidden picture comics and all things like it because we like the challenge of using our sight to see what is right there in front of us, but we had not seen before.

All of this brings a very helpful context to the season of Epiphany, which is the liturgical time we celebrate the revealing of Christ to the world. It is not just a season for people who have never heard of Jesus, but also for us who know a great deal about him. You see, it is possible that there are elements of our Lord’s words and witness that have been there all along, but we never noticed. It is possible that there is more to Jesus right in front of us hiding in plain sight. The readings from scripture will all sound familiar, but there is always more to them than meets the eye. The liturgy will not vary much from any other time of the year, yet we who come to it each week with something new going on inside of us always discover God present in the liturgy in some new way.

The fourth Century Christian theologian and poet Ephrem of Syria picked up on the paradoxical notion that Jesus is both revealed to us and hidden from us and he put it to words in a Hymn of the Nativity:

Your majesty is hidden from us;
Your grace is revealed before us.
I will be silent, my Lord, about your majesty,
but I will speak about Your grace.
Your grace made You a Babe;
Your grace made You a human being.
Your majesty contracted and stretched out.
Blessed is the power
that became small and became great!

This morning we hear again the story of Jesus’ baptism. In Mark’s Gospel, which was the first of the four to be written, only Jesus sees the dove and hears the voice of God speak. In subsequent gospels, all those present are said to see and hear. Either way, theologians talk about this as a moment when Jesus receives what is called “God-consciousness” – that is, the time when he comes to understand who he really is. Up until this event, Jesus’ own sense of person and mission in life must have been vague. Surely his mother told him the stories of his miraculous conception and the dramatic, heavenly events surrounding his birth. Doubtless he lived his life with deep devotion and a sense that he was called to do something special. But what? It was not until his baptism that his true purpose and nature began to come into clear focus for Jesus. Even for him, who he was was something hiding in plain sight.

The season of Epiphany celebrates the revealing of God’s incarnate Light to the world. The old, old challenge is still the same. We tend to see only what we want to see and only what we expect to see. But God wants us to see so much more than this. So let the Epiphany search begin. Can we see in Jesus more than we have seen before? Can we stop focusing in on what we have always known and come to expect in order to be open to the things that have been there all along hiding in plain sight.