"Be not wise in your own conceits." (Rom 12:16- Epistle
If we consider the text of our Epistle lesson in the context of the
whole twelfth chapter of Romans, including the Epistle Lessons for the
past two Sundays, from the same chapter, we see that St. Paulís point is
not just a warning against self-satisfaction; it is also-- and most importantly--
an argument about the essential mutuality and reciprocity of wisdom. He
is saying, "Do not suppose that wisdom is your private possession, your
individual achievement; do not think that you are wise just by yourself
We have wisdom only as a common possession. We have many different gifts,
just as "in one body we have many members, and all members do not have
the same function". Genuine wisdom is a harmonic unity of differences.
One of the best illustrations I know of that point is Raphaelís marvellous
fresco of the 'School of Athens' in the papal apartments in the Vatican,
a painting of which you may have noticed reproductions in several places
in the university.
In the first decade of the sixteenth century Pope Julius the Second,
a powerful reforming pope, il papa terribile, having laid the foundation
stone for the new St. Peterís Basilica, summoned a well-known Florentine
sculptor, Michaelangelo, to become a painter in the Sistine Chapel, and
commissioned an unknown painter, Raphael, from Urbino, to redecorate the
papal apartments. Julius wished to baptize the somewhat paganizing humanism
of the Renaissance, and to show the essential unity and harmony of all
ancient and Christian wisdom. In representing that magnificent conception,
his young artists served him well.
In the 'School of Athens', Raphael depicts a remarkable assortment
of people, lively groups of masters and students, some of them busy taking
notes, all of them arranged on the steps of a great portico. In one corner
is Euclid, measuring a diagram, attended by Zoroaster and Ptolemy, astronomers,
playing with celestial globes. In another corner sits the mystic mathematician,
Pythagoras, looking over his shoulder at a chart of equivalents. And there,
too, is Heraclitus, (looking very much like Michaelangelo), the very picture
of the tortured poet, struggling for words. And so on.
At the apex of the assembly stand Plato and Aristotle, engaged in conversation,
each clutching a book, surrounded by attentive students. Plato has a hand
upraised, pointing to the heavens, while Aristotle has a hand outstretched,
as though indicating the activity before him. People sometimes tell us
that this means Plato the idealist contrasted with Aristotle the empiricist.
But thatís a very modern notion, and has nothing to do with Raphael and
the Renaissance. The clue is rather to be seen in the books they carry.
If you look very carefully, you can see the titles: Plato has the Timaeus,
and Aristotle has the Ethics. Thus they represent speculative and practical
philosophy, not in opposition, but mutually complementary.
In all its harmonic diversity of subject and colour and form and motion,
the picture stands for wisdomís unity in difference, for that mutuality
and reciprocity in human life which the ancients knew as friendship, and
which Christians know under its more universal and divine dimension as
the grace of charity, without which, as St. Paul explains (1 Cor. 13),
all our efforts are "nothing worth"; not wisdom at all; just "sounding
brass and tinkling cymbal"-- empty noise and nonsense. So, "be not wise
in your own conceits."
But now, what does all that have to do with the season of Epiphany?
Epiphany, as the word itself indicates, is all about manifestation, the
showing forth of the divine glory in Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of
God. "The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory,
the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth."
Epiphany is about that showing, that manifestation, and that beholding
of glory; and it is also about the effects of that beholding: so that "we
all, with open face beholding as in a glass" (or mirror) "the glory of
the Lord, are changed from glory into the same image from glory to glory,
even by the Spirit of the Lord."
All the scripture lessons appointed for the season provide a logical
explication, a continuing meditation on that theme: beholding the glory,
and being changed thereby. The general pattern is this: the Gospel shows
some facet of the manifestation of divine glory in Christ: divine wisdom,
divine power, divine love; while each corresponding Epistle lesson shows
a corresponding manifestation in our life as Christians.
Thus, on the First Sunday after Epiphany, our Gospel lesson was the
story of Jesus, the child, manifesting the wisdom of God in the midst of
the Temple in Jerusalem-- seen here in the window above the altar. The
corresponding Epistle lesson (from Romans 12) urged upon us the manifestation
of that wisdom in our own life in the Church: "Be not conformed to this
world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind." That is to
say, the divine wisdom, manifest in Christ, is to be manifest also in us,
as the new basis of our life, not only as individuals, but as members of
one another in the body of Christ, "according as God hath dealt to every
man the measure of faith."
On the Second Sunday, we had the story of Jesusí first miracle at the
wedding feast in Cana, in Galilee: "the beginning of signs", as St. John
says. The miracles of Jesus are always signs, symbolic acts, and in this
case, even the occasion is a sign: the wedding feast is a sign of the mystical
union between Christ and the Church. Jesus changes water into wine, a sign
of the transforming power of Godís grace. In the corresponding Epistle
Lesson, again from Romans 12, St. Paul speaks of a renewed life for individual
and community, a new life in brotherly love, water changed to wine.
In this weekís Gospel Lesson we have further signs: stories of healing
miracles of Jesus-- the cleansing of a leper, and the healing of the centurionsí
palsied servant; signs of the power of the grace of God to cleanse us of
the leprosy of pride, to heal us of the palsy of wrath and alienation--
all those infirmities of which our collect speaks. Once again, the Epistle
Lesson yet again from Romans 12, spells out the implications: "Be not wise
in your own conceits"; "avenge not yourselves, but rather give place to
wrath"; "Be not overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good."
These lessons constitute a cumulative argument, variations on a theme:
the theme of manifestation and transformation. The wisdom of God, the mystery
hidden from the foundation of the world is now manifest in Christ, and
the wisdom is ours to behold, to believe, and to understand, and to make
our own, by "the renewing of our mind". By faith beholding the glory, we
are "changed into the same image" changed by adoration. Here and now the
glory of God in Christ is manifest in word and sacrament, in wisdom and
gracious power. It is by beholding, by the steady focussing of intellect
and will, by the habit of adoration, that we are changed. That is the meaning
of Epiphany, and that must be the basis of spiritual life in us.
So, "Be not wise in your own conceits", but behold the glory and adore.