I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service (Romans 12:1).
As we celebrate Epiphanytide, marveling at the world encompassing mercy of the God who through Christ reveals Himself to the nations, we should find ourselves both fully known and loved by the God of the universe—loved and known in a way which makes lying about who we are insane. We should also find ourselves desperately at a loss for what we could possibly give in return for God descending to meet us in our sin and selfishness and death, descending into the depths of human failure to create life where men only feel death. What treasure or service can I give to the God who saw me in my sin and death and said, ‘I will die to make this enemy my brother’?
St. Paul has already spent chapters describing what the fallen human position is before the Holy God; he writes, ‘For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God”…we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight…’ (Romans 3:19-20). It is this condition of both Jew and Gentile which makes the tragic and beautiful victory of the Son of God so necessary, but it also reminds us of why Epiphany is so very important. If all of humanity is implicated in the broken state of our fallen world, then our very actions to try and fix this world will be hampered by weaknesses we cannot even foresee. If sin is a disease we carry, a disease which causes us to hurt ourselves and those we love, then we will carry this disease with us wherever we go and whatever we do. Our best intentions are just as susceptible to the plague of sin as are our worst, most petty designs. This reality makes the fiery preacher yelling at us to ‘just be better’ the same as the self-help fixer telling us to ‘save ourselves’; it makes the self-righteous bully the same as the political operative who promises our support will save the world. Epiphany brings the staggering realization that without God revealing to us who He is, without the Great Physician bringing Himself into our broken lives, we won’t be able to salvage this day much less our lives, our families, and our world.
This point really shouldn’t be controversial: every great victory in this fallen world is filled with collateral damage, compromise, and the grim specter of the future fights which lay before us. It is only in Christ where we find the untainted victory of seeing death reversed, pain destroyed, evil cancelled. Our response to this complete and irreversible victory is to fully give ourselves over to worship, to worship in such a way that we remind ourselves and show the fallen world that our connection to true victory is not found in our accomplishments or consumption; no, our only communion with true victory is through the worship of the victorious Messiah. The worship of the true and almighty God has always been this way. The victories of Israel over the child-sacrificing Canaanites were not because they were smarter or better or freer; no, their victories came from being the people among whom the Living God chose to dwell. Both in the tabernacle and the temple, heaven and earth met in such a way that the glory of Eden was partially restored and men could once again be in the presence of God, but all this worship and victory came tumbling down when priest and people began worshipping the strange gods of their neighbors, when they started passing their own children through the fire to feed their dead-eyed idols. Jew joined Gentile in death, and death is a jealous master.
But, God has defeated death. God embraces dead children just as He embraces repentant murderers remade into the children of God. How? The young child those first Gentile wisemen came to worship grew up to rebuild the broken unity between Man and God by writing a peace treaty in His own blood upon the Cross and sending God the Holy Spirit to transform the whitewashed tombs of our hearts into living temples fit for God to dwell. The first Gentiles to worship in the heart of God’s living temple were the wiseman representing the nations of the world bowing down in worship before God incarnate: these men were the first fruits of a new world in which Jew and Gentile are united in life through the holy worship now available to a new human race capable of once again walking with God as Adam and Eve walked with Him in the garden.
It is this body made holy by the God who refused to let our sin be the final determiner of our destiny, this is the body which we offer in sacrifice. All of it: our eyes, our ears, our tongues, and feet—we offer all of it to God as the humble thanksgiving for the sacrifice Christ has offered for us. Which raises some questions: what part of Himself did God the Son hold back? What secret chamber of His person wasn’t visible to the crowds as Jew and Gentile came together to nail His naked body to the Cross? Seeing this ultimate example of what it looks like to defeat evil, what it looks like to be truly human, what can we possibly hold back? What part of me can I possibly keep from the God who gives me everything? ‘All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee’ (1 Chron. 29:14). Hiddenness, darkness, selfishness, me-time, these are the places in which evil festers and grows because it is not some hidden chamber of our hearts from which victory comes; no, it comes from us being the living reflections of the sacrifice Christ made on the Cross: a people whose entire life is a reminder to the world that the Cross is what victory looks like. Loving obedience to the Father is the means by which the world is saved, and so a people saved by this world renouncing act now live as its humble imitators—travelers on the narrow path to glory Christ has already made straight for us. We follow Him even now to the Cross on the Lord’s table where we truly and spiritually partake of His Body and Blood in the Eucharistic Feast, we carry His life which will never know death in the new temple which binds Jew and Gentile in worshipful sacrifice.
Here is why Christian ethics is so much more than a list of things to do or not do, so God won’t be mad at us. We are living in the merciful age foretold by the prophets. As we read in Isaiah, ‘Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee. For, behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people: but the Lord shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee. And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising’ (Isaiah 60:1-3). We are living in the light of this prophecy, and so our lives are governed by something bigger than the moral calculations of politicians or celebrities, blind professors or internet keyboard warriors; none of these victims of our ever-changing age are allowed to have sway over a living sacrifice. How could they? I am not my own. What about my anger or disordered sexual feelings, aren’t these just manifestations of who I really am? No, because I am not my own. What about my past sins and the shame I carry from all those I have hurt with my terrible selfishness, isn’t that who I really am? No, because I am not my own. It is God’s love which makes a dead man alive: a son of wrath into a son of grace. We are more than we could ever be without Him, for without Him we will live as empty, unloving imitations of the glorious, fully-realized humanity which is every Christ follower’s destiny.
It is for this reason that the apostle’s next command rings through the ages, calling us back from the brink of idolatry. He writes, ‘Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect’ (Romans 12:2).
This verse should dispel any lingering ideas about listening to our inner child or living authentically as the highest good (advice as bad for Charles Manson as it is for us). No, the Christian must be daily renewed by freely and joyously and painfully presenting his life as a sacrifice to our Lord, so that our very minds reflect the image of the Living God rather than that of a slowly decaying beast—which is what we truly are without His mercy. This reality, blocked from our view by forces both natural and supernatural, may help us to understand what Jesus means when he says things like, ‘For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it’ (St. Mark 8:35). The closer our fallen mind is to the world’s idolatrous perspective, the more these types of phrases will make no sense to us whatsoever, but the closer we get to the renewed mind of the reasonable and enlightened Christian, the more we can understand how self-denial is a necessary part of self-discovery. Or, perhaps differently put, the denial of our wants and desires for the benefit of God’s truth and our neighbors is the blessed means by which Christ’s divine love lives and grows and thrives in this evil world. It is in this way that the life of sacrificial love, which to the outside world seems to be life-fulfillment suicide, is in fact the only logical response for a human being living on the planet upon which the universe’s Creator showed us how to live and die and rise.