This bright, blessed mess
So, Christmas is over- Mary and Joseph have packed away the tree and the decorations and the swaddling clothes, and have been hunkered down with their new baby in a peaceful little home in Bethlehem for some time now.
And to be honest, since the night when the shepherds and angels and everyone showed up in a wild blur of glory and honor, it’s been kind of quiet. Really, there is almost nobody bringing meals or checking in on the young couple, a friendly hello here or a kind gesture there, perhaps, but they are not living near life-long neighbors, friends of their parents throwing a baby shower or aunties offering advice. They are kind of all alone – maybe seeing friends of friends, and relatives of relatives from time to time, but this was not the way they had imagined their family life would start- not even once they rearranged their imaginings to include God-incarnate crawling across the living room floor.
Joseph rented them a little house with room for a workshop, not too far from THE stable, actually, but near enough to town that he got a little business, enough to keep food on the table, and news was sent back home of the child’s birth, a few snapshots and updates now and then, “He just rolled over on his own!” “He snores like grandpa and can NOT get enough of those mashed peas!” "He took his first steps yesterday!” but no grandparents or cousins had yet met the toddler Jesus. It had been just the three of them, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, in a kind of suspended rhythm of adjustment and happiness, an in-between of sorts, settling into the miracle they shared, getting to know each other, becoming a family.
Until the day the pagans showed up and called their kid the king of the Jews.
Just when the story had begun to lose its hard edges, when the nostalgia had begun to descend and the lens soften, when this baby had begun to feel like he was theirs, a reminder that he is not arrives in the form of sages from a far-off land, astrologers, mystic-scholars who had been watching the skies for signs of God.
Surprising, perhaps, that those with no personal stake in the story, with no generational anticipation of a Messiah, no claim whatsoever to the promises of Yahweh to the people of Yahweh, are the ones Yahweh sends next. And their arrival bursts the bubble and exposes the light to all the world.
Epiphany, we call this day. Enlightenment. Aha! The breakthrough that changes your perspective, and lays opens your life before you differently.
Sometimes all the same things and people that were familiar and known one second look completely other and utterly amazing the next second, and often because you are suddenly seeing them through another person’s eyes. That's something epiphany does.
The Christmas moment was God WITH US, Epiphany is GOD with us.
Sweet and cuddly though he may have just been, this isn’t your own private Messiah any longer, folks. He belongs to the whole earth, and all who live upon it belong to the same God who has settled himself contentedly here in your lap. You are recipients of this miracle as much as the next person, of course, but with just as little sense of what it all means - maybe less, even, than these strangers (who are, in every way imaginable, strange) seem to grasp.
I love the crazy, cozy image of Mary and Joseph around supper with these visitors, after their camels have been tended to and bedded down, when the strangers had washed up and unpacked a little bit, and the lamps are lit and the table is set. The meal at the table between these people who smell different and look different and wear different clothing and speak different languages and whose paths never, ever should have crossed in any conceivable way, but who were right now breaking bread together, drinking wine together, sharing together what used to be mostly their own private secret that nobody else could relate to but them.
And I almost can picture that star exploding right then.
It had guided the Magi to the child, over desert and mountains, through night and day and night and day and night and day they followed its singular purpose, driven by the quest, knowing this is something big, being led right to it. And then, from the moment they laid eyes on him, and Mary and Joseph laid eyes on them, the cat is out of the bag, so to speak.
King Herod is now chomping at the bit to stamp out this newly discovered threat to his power, and the news is out, things are not business as usual; God has really come, the world is topsy-turvy and strangers from a strange land are eating with that nice couple down the street, normal as you please. And then I imagine the star, it’s purpose completed, shatters into a trillion pieces, filling the sky with bright mess, scattering shards of radiance from one end of the globe to the other.
I picture them staying a while.
After all, it took many months, maybe years, to get there; they’re not just going to stay one night and leave. At least, I wouldn’t. I won’t drive 2 1/2 hours to my grandmother’s house just for an afternoon. No, siree. You’ve got to make the visit worthwhile. Share a few meals, spend a night or three, settle in long enough to catch up over morning coffee and debrief over tea before bed.
So what was it like, adjusting to being next to the miracle for a while?
Was it all the more miraculous for its ordinariness?
How did it feel to go from a distant star and a lifelong, theoretical quest for truth to a flesh and blood child who smeared his high chair with carrot mash and crashed out exhausted for naps, stunk up his diapers and cuddled the dog and threw bawling toddler tantrums?
Because here’s one truth: miracles are almost never as sexy in person as they’re built up to be.
What was it like for Joseph and Mary and for the strangers from the East, to fall into some daily patterns together, to have almost nothing humanly in common and yet get one another at a level nobody else on earth could, because your very presence represents to the other that this really is real, something really big is really happening. Like pregnant Elizabeth validating pregnant Mary’s experience, sharing the miracle and being church– this wonky little collection of folk are now church, if church means, and I think it does, the ones reminding each other that God has come, that God is here, and that our very lives are part of the wonder and life-giving, love-bringing conspiracy of God. But also maybe getting annoyed because they load the dishwasher wrong and forget to take their shoes off in the house?
And then, just after the dream warning not to go back to Herod, and the Magi bypassing Jerusalem altogether to return home by another road, (Oh, wasn’t Herod steaming mad when then never swung back by the palace! Didn’t he pace on his balcony with his eyes on the horizon day after day, the realization slowing dawning after one week, two, three, that they were NOT coming back and there wasn’t a darn thing he could do about it!).
Just after the hugs and blessings and goodbyes, the little family turning back inside, sighing, and expecting, perhaps, that life might get back to normal, normal is redefined again. Epiphany keeps going, see. It doesn’t actually let you turn back; by its very nature Epiphany’s path is almost always that of another road.
Their road is revealed when, like the one who told him two years ago not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife, an angel messenger invades Joseph’s dreams again, take the child and his mother and flea, right now, go to Egypt. Get up! NOW.
It’s your turn to be the strangers from a foreign land, Joseph. God-with-us, who was born in a stable and is now a homeless refugee, and you along with him; foreigners in a foreign land.
Some traditions hold that the little family settled in Egypt with the Ishmaelites, that they were received warmly by the way other side of the family tree, way back before Egypt became the land of their captivity, the place God had freed God’s people from, the place that represented all that they were delivered out of – back from the time when it was all the same trunk, the roots, the beginning. Father Abraham - father of us all, descendants as numerous as the stars.
It’s like baby God is on a sightseeing tour of the greatest hits.
I have been at this project for quite some time, you see…
I am the God who delivered you out of the land of Egypt, you shall have no other gods before me. He came to what was his own, but his own people did not recognize him. So to the land of Egypt they went, (part of the Roman Empire at the time), seeking safety and welcome in the hospitality, hearts and homes of strangers, who are part of the whole story anyway, while back home among the God’s chosen people, the children of Israel, “King of the Jews” Herod’s terrible wrath and fear commanded the deaths of all the male children under two in an effort to stamp out the light of the world before the flame caught and spread.
Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’
And I hate that part of the story and will never understand it, and don’t have a whole lot to say about it, except to notice both that God’s love doesn’t keep madness from happening but suffers it with us, coming as a homeless, transient peasant child, whose identity is revealed to nameless sheep-herders and pagan foreigners and NOT to the powers that be, no matter how loudly they rattle their sabers and fiercely they demand to be in on the secret. And also that as sweeping and awful as Herod’s act of terrible evil was, it seemed not to make a dent whatsoever in the God-with-us project; and while Herod himself is long dead and gone, love endures forever, profoundly and mightily in small acts of kindness and care, and the everyday, transformative sharing of life by ordinary folks that puncture the darkness with God’s light every moment of every day.
After Herod’s death the little family goes home for the first time, to Nazareth, to raise their first grader in Galilee among their own people, in their own village, with the grandparents, and the lifelong neighbors, and streets they grew up on, and the tiny, provincial world that had cradled and shaped them before their lives were ripped open by the light of the world.
How was little Jesus shaped by those early wanderings, I wonder?
What did he absorb from the Magi and the Egyptians, the welcome of strangers, the arduous journeys and the life-altering dreams?
How did Epiphany bend his path?
And what about those Magi?
The journeyers, and secret-sharers, the extended family of the God, long-distance soul-friends across barriers of every kind, pen pals in a miracle, who brought epiphany onto the scene as much as they received it themselves, and then went home by another road?
How did their trajectory change after encountering the light of the world?
And what of us?
Epiphany is our holy invitation to the miracle being revealed in our own lives, and shimmering in all the world.
Whatever this year has to bring, God is here.
Whatever the world goes through in the coming days, weeks and months, nothing can disrupt the God-with-us project.
This truth does not belong to us. We belong to it.
So Arise, sisters and brothers, and shine, for your light has come.
We are Epiphany’s offspring: light-bearers and hope-tellers, descendants of the foreign magi who set out in trust that God will appear.
Love has invaded the whole earth and summoned all people to its unquenchable light that shines brightest in the ordinary moments of with-us-ness between friends and strangers, in this messy, real, world. So like the adventurers of old, we will watch together, open and ready, for the appearance of God with us, each and every day.