With the passing of Epiphany on January 6, we have completed the Christmas story. Epiphany is the crowning surprise of a disturbing story we try to couch in sentimentality and niceness. But if we’re honest with ourselves and open to the true message of the Christmas story, it’s anything but sentimental. There’s an inconvenient truth underlying all of it.
And, as with all truth, therein lies the simplicity of the epiphany. The aha! The truth appearing to us in a new and fresh way. And, as with all truth, we’re given the freedom to explore it or resist it.
Maybe that’s what I love so much about following God. God is not who I expect God to be. God does not behave in ways I expect God to behave. God doesn’t dole out predictable prescribed formulas or generalized platitudes designed for us to pour ourselves into like a Jell-O mold.
Instead, God does the unexpected. God shows up, but in ways that cause us to gasp, “Huh? Really?” I imagine God’s eyes are twinkling and smiling because we’re surprised, like when my granddaughters discover an unexpected gift in their bags. That’s what God did at Christmas and Epiphany.
The religious leaders were expecting God to send a Messiah. God did, but not in any way they anticipated or expected. God choose the form of a vulnerable baby, making quite a statement by choosing a poor teenage mother who gave birth in a filthy animal stall. Not only is Mary poor, she’s homeless and belongs to a people oppressed by the imperial power of her occupied country (an interesting historical and political context given current events).
Then come the magi from the East (Matthew 2:1-12). This is a delicious scandal for Westerners, especially ironic given our modern geo-political context. Persian (what is now Iran) priests, who are not Jewish and do not worship the Jewish God, travel a long ways to worship this baby Jesus with expensive gifts. (Huh? Really?) The magi from Persia show us that, in our propensity to prefer one ethnicity or people over another, to include those who are like us and exclude those who are different, God welcomes the worship and gifts of all people everywhere.
Then there’s King Herod, so threatened by the birth of this baby that he orders all the male children under two years old murdered (not exactly a Hallmark moment) in an attempt to protect his political power. Herod knew a political threat when he saw it. He may not have fully understood it, but he knew that strangers from the East were coming to worship a king and he wasn’t that king! This is only one of five Herods in the New testament that persecute Jesus and the early church.
The epiphany to us of the magi is that God’s kingdom is not limited to any singular people, be they Jews or the conservative religious right in American politics. And this is only the beginning! Jesus abolishes not only the barriers of nation, race, and ethnicity, but also transcends the boundaries of gender, religion, economics, and social stratification. Talk about an inconvenient truth!
Truth is never convenient. The paradox of truth is that it takes having an open mind in order to see it. It also takes faith in order to experience it. I guess the question we need to ask ourselves is: Like the magi, are we up for the journey?