The Adventurous Lectionary – The Feast of Epiphany/Epiphany Sunday – January 6, 2022 or January 9, 2022
Pilgrimages take many forms. They can take you to Via Santiago, Mecca, Iona, or you can take a pilgrimage without leaving town. We need to move spiritually and sometimes physically in order to align ourselves with God’s moral arc. As Augustine says, it will be solved in the walking, and when we walk in faith our world expands and we see new horizons of the spirit and involve ourselves in new processes of transformation.
Whether on Thursday or Sunday, it is appropriate to focus on the spiritual pilgrimages of the magi and the holy family’s flight to Egypt. In both cases, geographical journeys shape spiritual journeys and are at the heart of the Epiphany adventure that is to come. As Jimmy Buffett sings: “Changes in latitudes, 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.
Often read on Christmas Eve, the coming of the magi (Matthew 2:1-12) sets our epiphany journey in motion. Traveling from a far off land, and a different religious tradition, 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 among the Zoroastrian/Zarathustrian religious elite. These followers of divine light experience God’s light among the Jews and are, as a foreign people, also the recipient of divine revelation. For ages, these magi 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. Foreigners are more astute than citizens, outsiders more open to God than religious leaders.
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 or the Jewish leadership. The text says nothing about conversion. Rather, their encounter with the baby Jesus and his star signaled the expansion of their faith beyond parochialism to become a truly global faith. Universal revelation became personal as they gazed on the star. The worshipped the Christchild and integrated that worship with the faith they already affirmed.
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.
The magi are also guided by a dream. Like Joseph, the dream changes the course of their lives. Perhaps perplexed by Herod’s response to their quest for the holy one of Israel, their perplexity 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. God speaks to us in many ways – conscious and unconscious – and we need to be open to God’s revelations whenever they come to us. We need to think critically and also be open-spirited to God’s revealings.
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. 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, and 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, the father of Jesus, also has a dream. (Matthew2: 13-15) 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 and concerns about the child’s paternity. 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, their 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. God’s children from Central America and Afghanistan need to be treated with respect as we discern the most appropriate legal ways to deal with their presence. Law is important, but love – God’s love – always trumps law! 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 theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of over sixty books, including WALKING WITH FRANCIS OF ASSISI: FROM PRIVILEGE TO ACTIVISM; PROPHETIC HEALING: HOWARD THURMAN’S VISION OF CONTEMPLATIVE ACTIVISM; MYSTICS IN ACTION: TWELVE SAINTS FOR TODAY; and PROCESS THEOLOGY AND POLITICS.