This is a strange day, for more than one reason. For the western Christians, we celebrate the Epiphany, the manifestation of the Christ-child to the Gentile world. That world is represented by the Magi, astrologers from the far East who presented extravagant gifts to the infant Jesus.
Today is also the first anniversary of an armed insurrection against the government of the United States, which took place in this nation’s capital.
Reflecting on that national horror might deepen our appreciation for why Epiphany is a major feast of the Church, one that deserves attention, observance, and celebration. It also deserves our whole-hearted devotion—a devotion that relativizes and displaces all of the other loyalties we might otherwise harbor and even cherish.
It seems important to note first that I grew up in the heart of the Midwest, in the suburbs of Chicago, steeped equally in Evangelical Christianity and American patriotism. I loved this country back then, and I still do. What was revealed about this country a year ago is heartbreaking.
In addition to that word revealed we could say “appeared,” or “manifested,” or “shown forth.” These are all synonyms for “epiphany.”
There was an epiphany about this country a year ago: our deep divisions were revealed dramatically; a festering violence appeared and erupted; some of our fellow citizens manifested a profound disregard for the very lives of some of our elected officials, including the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the Vice-President of the United States; the fragility of democracy itself was shown forth to the world.
What do Christians want to say (if anything) about an epiphany like that, especially given the epiphany Matthew portrays in the second chapter of his account of the Gospel? Do these two epiphanies have anything at all to do with each other?
There are likely multiple responses to that question, but I think we begin by pausing for longer than we usually do and puzzling over my phrase above the Magi representing the “Gentile world.” That distinction between “Jew” and “Gentile” certainly mattered for biblical writers, but most of us don’t talk that way today. No one in my little Midwestern parish wonders whether someone might secretly be a Gentile.
So that first-century language can quickly obscure why Matthew’s story should qualify as an epiphany—and not just any epiphany. Christians refer to this encounter with the Magi as The Epiphany.
Needless to say, religion can sometimes divide and fragment communities in much the same way as race and ethnicity can, or as sexuality and gender can, and certainly as partisan politics can. The Christian Church itself has been a source of division over the centuries, even violently so.
But let us notice on this day that embedded in one of the Church’s own ancient stories from Matthew are the seeds for a very different kind of world, one in which God is not the source of what tears us apart but is rather the energy that draws us together and the balm that heals us.
Matthew—ostensibly the most “Jewish” of the four accounts of the Gospel—Matthew puts this story about the Magi right at the very beginning of his account of the Good News. Matthew is the only one of those four gospel writers to give us this story of the Magi, and with it, he would seem to be urging us to let go of any sense of ownership of this story—it belongs to no one and to everyone—and he would urge us to resist any tribal triumphalism, to surrender any privileged status we imagine ourselves to have in relation to God’s love and grace or, for that matter, because of any national origin!
The Magi declare with their gifts an astonishing and enduring beacon of hope: God is the one who presented a gift, the gift of God’s own self to us. And the “us” leaves absolutely no one out. The offering of God’s own self is for the whole world, for all people, indeed for all of God’s creation—no exceptions.
It’s time to revise how we describe the Magi; rather than saying the Magi represent the “Gentiles,” we need to say more clearly that the Magi represent all those we never imagined would be included, or those we thought would never belong with us or we with them, and the ones who never seem quite deserving of God’s love as they turn out to be the very first ones to witness that love in the flesh.
For quite some time over the last year, I thought it rather unfortunate and quite shameful, frankly, that a violent insurrection occurred on Epiphany, spoiling the feast, tainting it, and marring its brightness.
And honestly, how terribly parochial of me! As if my own distress, my own wounded patriotism, or my own country’s bruises are the full measure of whether a religious festival can still inspire us!
Beyond any doubt, plenty of other wounds and bruises and catastrophes have landed squarely on January 6th over the centuries, whether they were personal and familial heartaches or national blunders or global disasters.
What now seems so much more plain is how perfectly appropriate for all those wounds to land on this day. And for Americans on this day, the conjunction of Epiphany and insurrection seems nearly ordained.
Because now, our need for healing has appeared more clearly, and the source of our healing has been more wonderfully revealed.