|Adoration of the Magi, Andrea Mantegna, c. 1495-1505.
When Epiphany dawns, the swaddling clothes have long been packed away in the attic of the peaceful little home, with room for a workshop that Joseph had rented them in Bethlehem, 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 to be honest, since the night when the shepherds and angels and everyone showed up in a wild blur of glory and honor, life has been kind of quiet. Mary and Joseph are far from the people and place they’d call home, no grandparents pitching in or aunties around offering advice through Jesus’ first fever, first tooth, first words, first steps. Leaning on their new community for connection and support. This was not how they imagined their family life would start- not even once they rearranged their imaginings to include God-incarnate crawling across the living room floor. Other than that one time Aunt Elizabeth and Uncle Zechariah came to visit, commiserating over sleepless nights and nursing woes while the babies gurgled together on a blanket on the floor, it has mostly been just the three of them, mama, dada and Jesus, getting to know each other, gently becoming a family. Week to week, season to season, it’s an ordinary life.
Until the pagans show up and call their kid the king of the Jews.
Just when the story begins to lose its hard edges, when the nostalgia starts to descend and the lens begins to soften, when this baby has begun to feel like he is theirs, a reminder that he is not arrives in the form of sages from a far-off land, astrologers, scientist mystic-scholars who had been watching the skies for signs of God.
Surprising, perhaps, that those with no personal stake in the story generational anticipation of a Messiah, or claim to Yahweh’s promises to the people claimed by Yahweh, are the ones Yahweh involves next. Their arrival bursts the domestic bubble and exposes the light to all the world.
Epiphany, we call this day. Enlightenment. Aha! When the scene is illuminated what was familiar and known one second look completely other and utterly amazing the next, often because you suddenly see things with a broader perspective, or through the eyes of another.
The Christmas moment speaks God WITH US, Epiphany says GOD with us.
Attention! Sweet and cuddly though he is, folks, this isn’t your own private Messiah. He belongs to the whole earth! And all who live upon it belong to this little one 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 as the rest of us, maybe even less, actually, than these astonishing strangers who have arrived on your doorstep seem to grasp.
After this great entourage of exotic travelers that have flooded this quiet, provincial town exchange greetings with his parents and bestow their gifts on the child (and there were certainly many of them, of course; what a silly modern assumption that there were just three, because one gift a piece), after the camels have been tended to and bedded down, the tents erected and the strangers washed up and unpacked, I love the crazy, cozy image of lamps lit, table set, Mary and Joseph and their surprise visitors all crowded around an unexpected potluck of fragrant dishes. Wall to wall humans, who look different and smell different and wear different clothing and speak different languages, and whose paths never, ever should have crossed on this planet in any conceivable way, breaking bread together, drinking wine together, sharing together what used to be mostly their own private secret that nobody else could relate to. Perhaps tomorrow they’ll invite the shepherds back over for breakfast.
These travelers, who have journeyed over desert and mountains, through seasons and struggles, countless freezing nights and endless scortching day, driven by a quest through unknown to arrive at the very source. And then, from the moment they lay eyes on the child, and Mary and Joseph lay eyes on them, the cosmic cat is out of the bag, so to speak.
The ego-maniacal 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 visiting that nice couple down the street, normal as you please. And it’s as though that one lone star now shatters into a trillion pieces, filling the sky with bright mess, scattering shards of radiance from one end of the globe to the other.
Of course they stayed a while, these unexpected guests. After all, it took many months, maybe years, to get there, they’re not just spending one night and leaving. 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 threw bawling toddler tantrums when he needed a nap, smeared hummus on the dog, and belly-laughed when daddy tickled him with his beard?
Because here’s a truth, miracles are almost never as sexy in person as they’re built up to be.
What was it like for Mary and 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 cellular level, sharing in a reality nobody else on earth yet sees, representing to each other by their presence that this really is real. God has really come; the world is being redeemed. This wonky little collection of folk are now church, if church means, and I think it does, the people gathered around Jesus wondering together who God is, and watching together what ,God is up to. But also, maybe, getting annoyed because they load the dishwasher wrong and forget to take their shoes off in the house?
And then after the long visit, and the dreamt warning not to go back to Herod, and the Magi bypassing Jerusalem 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 turns back inside, sighing, and expecting, perhaps, that life might return to normal: normal is redefined again.
Epiphany keeps going, you see. It doesn’t actually let you turn back.
By its very nature Epiphany’s path is almost always that of another road.
The new road is revealed when, three years after the one who told him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife, an angel messenger invades Joseph’s dreams, saying, Take the child and his mother and flea, right now, go to Egypt. Get up! NOW. And it’s your turn, Joseph, to be the strangers from a foreign land.
God-with-us, who was born in a stable is now transient and homeless, 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 captivity, the place from which Yahweh delivered the Israelites from slavery, 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…
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 all part of the whole great story anyway, while back home among the children of Israel, the so-called “King of the Jews” Herod’s terrible wrath and fear ordered the deaths of all male children under two in an effort to stamp out the light of the world before the flame caught and spread.
Then it 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, and every single day God-with-us is with us, transforming our shared life, bringing belonging and hope, redemptive kindness and healing care, and continuing to break through the darkness with light, every moment of every day.
After Herod’s death the little family finally journeys to Galilee, where they settle down at home amid grandparents and lifelong neighbors, to raise their first-grader in Nazareth, where he will run through the same streets, swim in the same streams, sit in the same school and participate in the same synagogue they did, in the tiny familiar 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, from the journeys and the dreams, and then from those who shaped his sense of home? How did Epiphany bend his path?
And what about those Magi? The journeyers, soul friends and miracle sharers who brought epiphany onto the scene as much as they received it themselves? What became of their lives after their encounter with the light of the world? How were they drawn into a lifetime of attunement to epiphany?
Epiphany keeps going, friends. The light of the world shimmers in our very own lives. And nobody gets to own this story – this story holds us all. It can’t be domesticated. What God is doing is always bigger, always more, always beyond us, and also right here next to us, in the minutia of our very ordinary lives. It pierces the darkness, the horrors, the loneliness, the wandering. It shares the awkward and unknown, the familiar and the comforting, the strange and the new, the death and the life, drawing us out into worlds we can’t imagine, bringing us home by roads we can’t foresee.
Today we get star words. They are not magic. But they are a chance to lift our heads and look beyond ourselves with hearts open to however Christ might encounter us, attentive to wherever God might lead us this year. God is with us, transforming the world.
So, arise, shine, beloved, your light has come.