In the way many aspiring followers of Jesus receive sacred time, today is the Feast of the Epiphany, a generous seven-week season marking the transition between the 12 days of Christmas and Ash Wednesday.
How might we refocus and renew ourselves during this time?
The very name Epiphany carries a wonderful abundance of connotations: revelation and realization and disclosure and manifestation, all with an element of surprise – a illumination of insight in which everything is transformed.
Mary and Joseph must be surprised: first there is the shock of their unusual birthing in and of itself, which Mary receives, full of faith and defiance of empire. But then – as the story goes – the empire strikes back: this primordial couple of the New Covenant find themselves in a reverse-Exodus: fleeing Bethlehem for the safety of Egypt, with the child Jesus in tow – a family of refugees from the Roman proxy King Herod, whose insecurity-rooted policy of pre-emptive infanticide is a wall keeping them out. But a collective of wisdom figures, ‘Magi from the East’ — outsiders, magicians, likely renegade Zoroastrians from Persia — discern the language of celestial bodies and know that an anointed king dwells beyond the borders of acceptability. Herod wishes to co-opt these magicians into his own spell of power-maintenance, and they pay lip-service to his request for reconnaissance; but upon discovering the Christ child, adoring him, and offering their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, they heed a dream-warning: They return home by another way, stepping clear of Herod’s murderous dictates.
(If you’re new to the story, well, as humorist Dave Barry says, I’m not making this up. You can read it for yourself in Matthew 2:1-12.)
Promised liberation – the thrill of hope.
The old order flexing its muscles one last time before its certain futility – exile.
Dreams, signs in the heavens, intuitive gifts and obedience to magic – keeping the emancipatory dream alive.
What’s a waking-up human to do with this Epiphany?
It can be tempting, in a ‘gospel’ of moralism, to only ask what gifts we can lay at the feet of Christ. No doubt a thousand sermons will be preached this week (as they are many weeks) begging this very question. And indeed, it’s appropriate, in seasons, to reflect on what ‘time, talents, and treasure’ we’re offering to God in the life-cycle of our interconnected planet.
But this can’t be all there is. The genuine good news upends this mindset of univocal servitude. Jesus himself asks us (subversively-but-accurately rendered by the late Eugene Peterson):
Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly. – Matthew 11:28-30, The Message.
The opti-mystics of our lineage are the keepers of this happy news, reflecting the upside-down message of God’s kin-dom — turning traditional religious subjects and objects inside-out.
Rather than striving and aggrandizing ourselves in one fell swoop, seeing ourselves (by the dim light of our own stumbling virtues) as ‘wise’ and in a position to give Jesus something he doesn’t already have, what if we take our union with Christ seriously, and allow ourselves to receive?
Taking the biblical narrative not only as something that happened, but as something that is happening, what is the Epiphany that the newly-rebirthed Christ child, the ever-young God, seeks to gift us with in this new year?
What gold are we willing to let in?
What frankincense are we willing to breathe?
What myrrh are we willing to absorb?
If you found yourself over-extended in a holiday rush this year (as I did), skipping right over the usual New Years’ ‘resolutions,’ consider this your invitation to a sacred pause.
What gifts might the reborn Christ have in store for you this year?
For me, one of the ‘gifts from the East’ I’m seeking to receive is this pearl of Buddhist wisdom:
If you’re falling, dive.
When Christ — disguised as my life — gifts me with what I don’t welcome, it can be so counter-instinctual to lean into what I haven’t chosen.
But what’s the alternative? The temptation is to grab onto what I perceive that I’m losing – to steady myself on what’s passing me by.
But what does this get me? Misery!
Pain is unavoidable, but suffering is uniquely borne of resisting what-is.
How quickly, upon experiencing the disorientation of a brutally unwelcome change of circumstances, can I — as Jesus encourages in one of his trickier teachings — agree with my adversary quickly?
Swiftness of diving seems to be just the Epiphany for this moment. Because let’s face it: Globally, nationally, and in so many of our more intimate localities and lives, this past 12-month cycle has been…there’s no polite way to say this…a $#!t-show. So many of us in pastoral, prophetic, care-giving and good-neighborly roles…those of us who seek to honor the Greatest Commandments…find ourselves in Jesus’ circle above: Tired, worn-out, and burned-out, on bad religion and good alike.
In the face of all this pain, will I react or respond?
What might come from allying with this unexpected pain in my life, befriending it instead of be-foeing it?
Could my declension become my expansion? Could my mind’s wince become my heart’s gaze?
Maybe, maybe not!
When I feel caught in a ‘death-spiral’ of thinking that my dread is an Oracle, Seer and Sage, can I — as my friend Randall Worley likes to ask — question my answers?
Byron Katie provides a practical entry into this inquiry, with her four-question process that she calls The Work.
When faced with an afflictive situation, she invites us to ask:
1.) Is it true? (Yes or no. If no, move to 3.)
2.) Can you absolutely know that it’s true? (Yes or no.)
3.) How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?
4.) Who would you be without the thought?
Using this four-question framework, I can (on decent days!) soothe the beasts that stalk my headspace. Lions can lay down with lambs.
Pain is unavoidable, but suffering is uniquely borne of resistance. And joy can be found in embracing the unexpected.
I don’t say any of this to short-circuit the pain of pain. That’s real.
But so is Transfiguration.
What realizations might Wisdom— Sophia in all her glory — reveal to us, as we continue to hold the emancipatory promise, together?
What might we manifest in this new year?