The Adventurous Lectionary – Epiphany Sunday – January 3, 2016
Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:17, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-15
Epiphany is the season of revealing, of God reaching out to humankind and humankind awakening to God’s initiative. Epiphany pushes us beyond the boundaries of religion, race, and revelation. Non-Christians as well as Christians encounter God. Even non-believers – agnostics and atheists – may awaken to divine revelation. In Christ, there is neither male or female, Jew or Greek, Christian or non-Christian, or faithful or unfaithful. The wisdom of God comes to us in its “rich variety,” as Ephesians 3:10 proclaims.
On the Feast of Epiphany, it is appropriate to focus on the spiritual pilgrimages of the magi as well as the holy family’s flight to Egypt, so accordingly I will add a few lines to the assigned lectionary reading. Pilgrimage is the theme for Matthew’s gospel: a star guides the magi, a dream warns them to detour around Jerusalem and the child’s enemies, and another dream sends the holy family to Egypt, strangers and refugees – asylum seekers – in a foreign land, depending on the hospitality and kindness of strangers. In both cases, geographical journeys shape spiritual journeys and are at the heart of the Epiphany adventure that is to come. In the words of Jimmy Buffett: “Changes in latitudes [lead to] changes in attitudes.” Whether these changes are the result of a change of heart, forced pilgrimage, or spiritual experience, they can be windows into divine transformation.
Read on virtually every Christmas Eve service of carols and lessons and then again on the Feast of Epiphany, the coming of the magi (Matthew 2:1-12) sets our Epiphany journey in motion. Traveling from a far off land, Persia, and a different religious tradition, Zoroastrianism, the magi present the holy family and baby Jesus with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. God’s star shines over the holy family’s home, but the revelation begins months earlier among the Zoroastrian religious elite and guides a specifically attentive group to worship the Holy Child. These foreign followers of divine light experience God’s light among the Jews and are, as a foreign people, also the recipients of divine revelation. For ages, these magi and their predecessors may have been looking for testimony that their spiritual tradition was part of a larger revelation. They found that confirmation through a bright star and a baby’s birth. When their light comes, they “rise,” in the spirit of Isaiah, and journey toward Bethlehem.
God does not privilege wealth, power, or race. The Christ-child, the star of the ages, is born in a lowly stable, among an oppressed people, and not among the learned and affluent, or the typical preservers of the Jewish faith tradition. His first witnesses are the working poor shepherds, domestic animals, and later spiritual pilgrims from a foreign land.
Epiphany celebrates God’s generous and varied revelations among the peoples of the world. The religion of the magi, different as it is from the faith of the Jewish people, is not a fall from grace, but the result of God’s unique manifestation, appropriate to the Persian people. The season of Epiphany invites us to celebrate the many faces of God, found in the many religious pathways of humankind. Surely the magi were not the recipients of a second-class religion that needed to be completed by their encounter with Jesus. The text says nothing about conversion from their faith to Judaism or the faith of Jesus. Rather, their encounter with the baby Jesus and his star signaled the expansion of their faith beyond parochialism to become a truly global faith. God is known first in relationship from which flexible and evolving doctrines emerge.
The magi were guided by a star. However we understand the movements of the stars – astronomically or astrologically – there is congruence, the scripture suggests, between heaven and earth, between the non-human and human worlds. God’s word and wisdom – Logos and Sophia – are the creative principles of all things, guiding the stars and our souls to wholeness. We live in a revelatory universe, where the stars above and the spirit within witness to God’s loving providence. A child’s cry echoes God’s voice; a camel bearing the magi presents divine gifts; and foreigners receive a revelation. This is as true today as it was in the first century as we are presented with the wisdom of God in its rich variety.
The magi are also guided by a dream. Like Joseph, the father of Jesus, the dream changes the course of their lives. Perhaps perplexed by Herod’s response to their quest for the holy one of Israel, their ambivalence is confirmed by a dream, alerting them that Herod intends to harm the holy child. Taking the unconscious – dreams, synchronous encounters, visions – seriously as revealing of divine wisdom, they follow their collective dream.
The magi “left for their country by another road.” Following God may mean changing direction or choosing a new route for our lives. Sometimes this road presents new vistas and fills us with excitement. God’s star may take us to strange places, and yet when God changes our direction, God gives us directions for the journey.
Other times, we recognize that we will be lost if we fail to take another route, or change our lives. Transformation occurs as a result of divine lure, it also occurs through our recognition that we must change or die. The magi’s careful planning needed to be revised in light of God’s new vision presented to them.
Joseph also has a dream. Earlier in the Christmas story, Joseph encounters an angel in a dream, urging him to embrace the pregnant Mary as his wife, despite his misgivings. Once again, Joseph dreams, and this time, the angel tells him to flee Herod’s violence. The holy family relocates in Egypt. But, “relocates” is a mild word. They had to leave everything familiar, including their home, friends, and occupations, to seek security in a foreign land. Like immigrant families throughout history and our time, they depended on their own resourcefulness and the kindness of strangers.
While borders were more porous and laws more flexible in the Roman Empire, nevertheless, the holy family’s coming to Egypt might have been viewed as one more Jewish immigrant mouth to feed. While they likely moved to a Jewish community, finding people of their own ethnic background as today’s immigrants also do, they were no doubt looked upon as foreigners and perhaps chided as outsiders, unwelcome given the current state of affairs in Egypt.
The flight of the holy family is a reminder that forced immigration – political or economic – is also part of God’s revelation to humankind. While we need to be a “nation of laws,” we should greet immigrant children as Christ-children rather than alien invaders, and we should welcome them with clothes and meals, not placards and invectives. They too are following stars and are inspired by dreams – of survival, a better life for their children, and peaceful communities. The journey of the magi also reminds us that revelation is given to – and can come from – persons beyond our ethnic and religious boundaries. God is generous with revelation and salvation, and desires that we – like the magi – keep our eyes on the heavens, looking for stars to guide us beyond our religious comfort zones to discover and grow from our encounter with the varieties of healthy and insightful religious experience.
Bruce Epperly is a Cape Cod pastor, theologian, and author of over 45 books, including “Become Fire: Guideposts for Interspiritual Pilgrims,” “The Mystic in You? Discovering a God-filled World,” “Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living,” and “Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God.”