Friday, January 8, 2010

The Heart Has Eyes

Scripture portions for the 2nd Sunday after Christmas include one referenced below, Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a)

Did you know that your heart has eyes?

Those words come from the apostle who wrote to the Church at Ephesus—some would say that was St. Paul, others insist that this author wrote a generation or two later than Paul. What he wrote, however, we know: “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.”

That is one glorious mouthful. The hope, the riches, the power of Christian faith are all apprehended by hearts with eyes, eyes that welcome and admit enlightenment, the revelation of who God is in the person and passion of Jesus Christ.

A reliable source tells me there is no precedent in the Bible for this notion that a heart has eyes. In all the biblical literature from all those centuries before the first in the common era, no one had made that claim. An earlier first-century voice, St. Matthew, comes close to it in his Gospel in the Sermon on the Mount, in chapter six. There, right on the heels of a famous and familiar verse—“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,”—comes a famously puzzling and likely unfamiliar verse: “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!”

Enlightenment appears to be our subject in these verses. Enlightenment is a valuable interfaith concept. It’s a bridge between Christianity and Buddhism, for instance, a value at the pinnacle of each. As we see today, eastern religions don’t have a monopoly on the value of enlightenment. While western religions might seem more interested in moral and doctrinal obedience, and eastern religions likelier to advocate enlightenment, here’s evidence today of common ground. Perhaps evidence, also, that our so-called western religions of Christianity and Judaism actually had eastern origins.

And in the east there shines that star that guides the wise men to Bethlehem. Let’s not forget the star and the magi—today is as close to the Epiphany as we’re likely to get, this year, so make room for them at the manger. And notice that they push the envelope of enlightenment further east yet: they are thought to be Zoroastrians from Persia, and I’m guessing that in the 2000 years since their arrival at Bethlehem, the word “interfaith” hasn’t gotten as vigorous a workout as that moment when astrologers invested their hope in the fulfillment of Hebrew prophecy and got front row seats at the birth of Jesus. This must be a case of what our patron St. John had in mind when he wrote those expansive words, “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”

Here’s an interesting thing: by early in the 2nd century in the common era, Christian baptism was being called “enlightenment”. At that time, baptism was primarily something adults experienced as a culmination to their becoming Christians. As Christianity moved out into the world from its earlier shelter within Judaism, as Christianity engaged Greeks and Romans as well as Jews, as Christianity welcomed women and men, masters and slaves, the common pathway into the hope, the riches, the power of Christian faith was enlightenment, a process of formation that took at least a year or two, drawing candidates into prayer to learn the opening of the heart, teaching candidates the ways in which Jesus fulfilled the prophecies of the Hebrew Bible, telling the story of his life and death and resurrection, teaching his vision through his remembered words, challenging the values of a world that found its treasure more in the pocket than in the heart, and uniquely demonstrating the power of his love by the nature of how that Christian community opened itself to those candidates.

Where the early Church really hitched its wagon to the star of Bethlehem was in showing converts what ethical differences it made to say, “The Star of my life is Jesus.”

“See how these Christians love” was not said about 1st- and 2nd- century coffee hours. The good reputation rose from former thieves becoming honest workers, the multiplying of soup kitchens for widows and orphans, the emergence of women as virtual apostles to eastern and Roman cultures that gave little authority to women, the utter honesty and commitment of ordinary believers who showed extraordinary courage when faced with the choice of denying their faith and saving their lives, or owning their faith and often losing their lives, and in making that choice redefining the nature of authority and modeling the power of personal integrity.

Later in his letter to the Ephesians, the apostle warns them (and us) that Christians cannot assume that once enlightened, always enlightened. The heart can get darkened, alienated from the life of God by ignoring the evidence of grace at work around us, resisting risks required by the Spirit, preferring familiar routines that indulge the old self and declining the invitation to clothe ourselves in the new self. Alienation creeps in as we don’t notice when the heart stops opening and starts hardening.

Listen to his language in chapter four: “You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds… So then, putting away all falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil… Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear… Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us…”

In other words, keep open the eyes of your heart. Keep looking to learn how to love. Don’t assume you’ve seen it all: you’ve seen only part of the grace that is in play. Keep looking for evidence, traces, fingerprints of that grace, that love of God that has about it the light of resurrection. Keep looking to see what people around you are actually trying to do, not just what you think they’re doing. Keep looking for what God may be trying to do, and in that light act, or refrain from acting.

The Epiphany season is all about revelation and enlightenment. While we might think that the mind is the human receptor of all that, today the apostle tells us that the heart has eyes, and he urges us to keep them open.