The name Epiphany carries an abundance of connotations: revelation and realization and disclosure and manifestation, all with an element of surprise – a illumination of insight in which everything is transformed.
So it is celebrated in ‘sacred time.’ In ‘profane’ time, this past Wednesday marked another form of disclosure and manifestation and surprise altogether, here in the United States: Hours after Georgia confirmed the improbable victories of Senate candidates Reverend Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff —my home state’s first Black and Jewish senators, respectively — a demonstration of Trump supporters amassed on Capitol Hill in Washington DC, with the stated intent of contesting the results of November’s presidential election. A smaller subset of these protesters made an incursion into the chambers of Congress, with the apparent intent to capture or kill members of government who were confirming the electoral vote, a normally-ceremonial matter that had been turned into a final loyalty test to the outgoing President. Many of those who broke windows and rushed police barricades to enter the building went so far as to bring zip ties, weapons, and a noose with them, but seemed to lack the skills and/or gumption to follow through with their intentions, instead settling for strange and at-times gleeful photo ops.
What’s most troubling to many is that the capitol police seemed either unprepared or unwilling to stop the mob from carrying out whatever it was they wanted to do, and the President refused to call in the National Guard. This unprecedented overthrow attempt led both Republican and Democratic members of the House, and Vice President Pence, to fear for their lives and hide, as capitol police sought to regain the building. Over sixty police officers were injured, and five people died. Then, the riots more or less ran out of their own steam, leaving the nation and the world wondering what had just happened…and what would happen next.
“Even in the most mature state there’s always something that doesn’t work, people who take a path that’s against the community, against democracy, against the common good,” Pope Francis said. But, he added, “thank God that this broke out and that one can see well [what happened] because in this way there can be healing.”
In some strange ways, this climate of intrigue, revelation, and uncertainty mark our original Epiphany story as well: Mary and Joseph are visited by a series of successive surprises, beginning with the shock of their pregnancy in and of itself, which Mary receives, full of faith and defiance of empire.
But then – as the story goes – the empire strikes back: this primordial New Covenant couple find themselves in a reverse-Exodus: fleeing Bethlehem for the safety of Egypt, with the child Jesus in tow, a family of refugees from the Roman proxy King Herod, who cannot accept that someone might succeed him as rightful ruler. This insecure functionary uses intimidation and even infanticide to keep himself from being replaced!
But a collection of wisdom figures, ‘Magi from the East’ — outsiders, magicians, likely renegade Zoroastrians from Persia — discern the language of celestial bodies and know that the anointed king they seek dwells beyond the borders of acceptability. Herod wishes to co-opt these magicians into his own spell of power-maintenance, and (perhaps out of weakness, perhaps out of cunning) they pay lip-service to his reconnaissance request. But upon discovering the Christ child, adoring him, and offering their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, they heed a dream-warning: Return home by another way, steering clear of Herod’s increasingly-unhinged dictates.
- Promised liberation – the thrill of hope.
- The old order flexing its muscles one last time before its certain futility – exile.
- Dreams, signs in the heavens, intuitive gifts and obedience to magic – keeping the emancipatory dream alive.
What’s a waking-up human to do with this Epiphany?
It can be tempting, in a ‘gospel’ of moralism, to only ask what gifts we, too can lay at the feet of Christ. No doubt a thousand sermons will be preached this week (as they are many weeks) begging this very question. And indeed, it’s sometimes appropriate to reflect on what ‘time, talents, and treasure’ we’re offering to God and neighbor in the life-cycle of our interconnected planet.
But this can’t be all there is, especially after a year of pandemic, justice reckoning, and political instability have left so many of us so drained.
The great news is, the good news of the grown-up Christ Child upends this mindset of univocal servitude. Jesus himself asks us, in language subversively-but-accurately rendered by the late Eugene Peterson:
Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.
– Matthew 11:28-30, The Message.
The opti-mystics of our lineage are the keepers of this happy news, reflecting the upside-down message of God’s kin-dom — turning traditional religious subjects and objects inside-out.
Rather than abasing and aggrandizing ourselves in one fell swoop, seeing ourselves (by the dim light of our own stumbling virtues) as ‘wise’ and in a position to give Jesus something he doesn’t already have, what if we take our union with Christ seriously, and allow ourselves to receive?
Taking the biblical narrative not only as something that happened, but as something that is happening, what Epiphany is the newly-rebirthed Christ child, the ever-young God, seeking to gift us with in this new year?
- What ‘gold’ are we willing to enrich us?
- What ‘frankincense’ are we willing to breathe?
- What ‘myrrh’ are we willing to let in, under our skin?
If you found yourself in a weird 2020/holiday limbo this year (as I did), skipping right over the usual New Years’ ‘resolutions,’ consider this your invitation to a sacred pause.
What gifts might the reborn Christ have in store for you this year?
For me, one of the ‘gifts from the East’ I’m seeking to receive is this pearl of Buddhist wisdom:
If you’re falling, go ahead and dive.
When I’m faced like news like this week’s national dis-integration, or my dad’s COVID-19 diagnosis last Sunday, I’m tempted to crawl under a rock and resist what’s going on. But what if, as my friend Tara Bruce likes to ask, things aren’t happening to me but for me?
When Christ — disguised as my life — gifts me with something that at first blush I don’t welcome, it can be so counter-instinctual to dive into what I haven’t chosen.
What’s the alternative, though? The temptation is to grasp onto what I perceive I’m losing – to steady myself on what’s passing me by.
But what does this get me? Misery!
Pain is unavoidable, but suffering is uniquely borne of resisting what-is. It’s just so much flotsam and beach-sand when strong currents rush around me. Best to make myself as hydrodynamic as possible, and entrust myself to the very River of Life to carry me through.
What are the swimming lessons? How quickly can I — as Jesus encourages in one of his trickier teachings — agree with my adversary quickly?
Fear-driven muscle-memory might try to kick in, upon experiencing the disorientation of a brutally unwelcome currents of circumstances, and I’ll sink like a stone.
Can I instead relax this habitual clenching of my inner being, to try something different just for a moment? Might I find that I can float?
Embracing this season as a willing dive seems to be just the Epiphany for this moment.
Because let’s face it: Globally, nationally, and in so many of our more intimate localities and lives, this past year or so has been…there’s no polite way to say this…a $#!t-show. So many of us in pastoral, prophetic, care-giving and good-neighborly roles…those of us who seek to honor the Greatest Commandments…find ourselves in Jesus’ circle above:
In the face of this fatigue, will I react or respond?
What might come from allying with this unexpected pain in my life, befriending it instead of be-foeing it?
Could my declension become my expansion?
Could my mind’s wince become my heart’s gaze?
Maybe, maybe not!
When I feel caught in a spiral of ‘stinking thinking’ that my dread is an elevated Oracle, Seer and Sage, can I take a deep breath and — as my friend Randall Worley likes to ask — question my answers?
Pain is unavoidable, but suffering is uniquely borne of resistance. And joy can be found in flowing with the unexpected.
I don’t say any of this to short-circuit the sting of pain, or to abandon our sense of what’s good, true, just, and beautiful.
But what realizations might Wisdom— Sophia in all her glory — bring to us, as we continue to open-handedly hold the emancipatory promise, together?
What vast new intelligences and compassions might we manifest as we dive hands-first into this new year?
A version of this reflection was originally written and posted on January 6, 2019.