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Insurrection as Epiphany

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!

“Adoration of the Magi,” He Qi

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.

“Epiphany,” James Janknegt
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Abbey Road

The eleventh studio album by the Beatles, released in 1969, takes its name from the location of EMI Studios in London. The cover image of the band striding across Abbey Road quickly became a pop culture icon. That image came to mind as I worked on a sermon for the Second Sunday of Christmas and as I reflected on roads and abbeys. Here’s what I mean…

In new ways this year it occurred to me that nearly all of the stories in this Christmas season feature people who on the move: pregnant Mary with Joseph journeyed from Nazareth to Bethlehem; shepherds left their fields and flocks to go see the baby in a manger; the Magi leave their home to follow a star; and when these stories turn grim, an angel warns Joseph to flee from King Herod’s murderous rage. He then takes Mary and Jesus to Egypt, where they become political refugees.

When Herod eventually dies, an angel again visits Joseph and this time tells him that it’s safe for them to return to Nazareth—and so they migrate yet again!

All these external, physical journeys were surely accompanied by internal, spiritual ones. I think Matthew hints at this, in a rather understated way, when he brings the Magi’s story to an end in his second chapter of the Gospel: After the magi presented their gifts to Jesus, Matthew says, they “left for their own country by another road” (2:12).

They went home differently—yes, they did so for fear of Herod but also because they were different people now. We cannot encounter the Word of God in the flesh, Matthew seems to say, and remain unchanged.

Mobility and migration have marked human life from the dawn of time. We are a species constantly in motion, it would seem; whether we have lived in the same neighborhood our entire lives, or whether we’ve lost count of the geographies and communities that we’ve tried to call home, we rarely sit still.

Not all of these migrations are voluntary, of course. We are currently in the midst of a worldwide migration crisis with more displaced people and refugees than at any other time in recorded history—roughly 80 million or so. 

That number is only going to grow as our climate catastrophe and ecological collapse push people toward more habitable zones on this planet. It’s already happening around the Great Lakes, the planet’s largest basin of freshwater. Duluth, Minnesota is even advertising itself as a hub for climate refugees!

We are living today in a time of profound, even turbulent change, physical and emotional movements. and chaotic social migrations. We need to face an unraveling world directly because how we live through such a time like this matters. Biblical writers thought so, too, as they frequently linked physical migrations and the spiritual movements of heart and soul.

Theologian William T. Cavanaugh offers some help in making our outer and inner journeys a matter of spiritual practice. In his book Migrations of the Holy, he proposes three different types of human mobility, of what it looks like when humans are on the move.

The first is the mobility of the “migrant,” whose identity is defined by national borders. By controlling who and what crosses those boundaries, nation-states actually control our perceptions of other people. Borders of all kinds create the oppositional dynamics of “us” and “them.”

The second type of mobility belongs to the “tourist.” Borders are important for this type, too, because borders create that sense of “home” and “abroad.” And the tourism industry relies heavily on that distinction between “domestic” and “foreign.” Borders of this type can also exist inside one’s own country, marking the difference between cities and farms, for example, or the industrialized north and the agrarian south, or the establishment East Coast and the Hippie West Coast.

I’m especially intrigued by Cavanaugh’s third way of thinking about mobility, with images of the medieval “pilgrim.” Pilgrimage is a spiritual form of mobility very different from both migration and tourism. Pilgrims embark on a journey of repentance, almost always in company with others, and for the sake of deeper communion with God.

For pilgrims, the destination matters far less than the journey itself; and that journey intentionally joins the outer mode of movement with the inner movement of the Spirit.

Significantly, pilgrims relied on abbeys along their pilgrimage routes, religious communities that were designed as places of hospitality, worship, prayer, and education—which sounds to me like a wonderful model for what it means to be church, and why church still matters, especially at a time of such profound change and disruption as we are living through today.

It is significant that this pandemic has been prompting some truly vital questions that we might not have pondered otherwise, or certainly not to this degree.

I will never say that Covid-19 has in any way been a gift—too many have died, too many are still suffering, too many are debilitated by anxiety; it has been horrible. But it can teach us some lessons, including this: what we used to call “normal” now resides in the pandemic’s shadow, and we’re not going back there, nor should we want to.

That’s an unsettling realization, to put the matter mildly, but journeys of transformation are always disorienting, just as they were for the shepherds, the Magi, and certainly for Mary and Joseph. No one in these stories “returned to normal”—can you imagine those shepherds encountering a heavenly host of angels, running to the stable in Bethlehem, and then just returning to their sheep as if nothing at all had happened?

All of these characters were changed by the journeys they undertook, and for Mary and Joseph, also by the state-sponsored terror they escaped by fleeing to Egypt.

Let us be sure, though, to note this about such stories: God does not make bad things happen just to teach us a lesson—that is not the God of Jesus Christ; set that God aside.

The God we do worship brings good things out of the bad in a process of redemption. Living faithfully with that insight means learning how to trust that God is with us, and that God is coaxing good things out of even the most tragic moments.

That’s a discipline Christians can practice week by week at the Eucharistic Table. We do not give thanks for bad things at the Table; but we do give thanks for the goodness of God in the midst of bad things. At the Table, we remember the Cross as a way to renew our hope in the Resurrection—and that hope is in part made visible by how we live with each other. and the kinds of communities we cultivate together, and the ways we bring new life to blossom precisely where it is least expected.

I am convinced that a lot more than just a few people are hungry for this religious approach to life even when they can’t name it. And just like abbeys were for medieval pilgrims, today’s churches can in fresh ways become places of hospitality, prayer, and education in a time of deep anxiety and stress.

A thriving congregation bearing witness to the transformative love of God would be a truly wonderful thing to emerge from this truly horrific pandemic.

Might it be so, and may all of us, just like those Magi, take that abbey road homeward.

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Glossy Fashion and Adoring Flesh — an Epiphany!

magi_star“Enter, stage left, the Wise Guys.” That’s what a friend of mine in college liked to say about Epiphany, the visit of the magi to the infant Jesus. Stage “left,” I suppose, because these “wise guys” hailed from ostensibly “pagan” religious traditions. “Wise,” as I have come to see in recent years, because of their quest.

The Christian quest these days seems mostly marked with institutional anxiety. How will we save the church? In my view, that is entirely the wrong question. A better one: How will any of us participate in God’s own passion to save God’s fleshy creation? Perhaps if Christians attended carefully to that question, institutional anxiety would take care of itself.

It took me some years to see this, so let me back up a bit.

In the mid-1990s a friend from seminary ripped a page out of a glossy fashion magazine and sent it to me in the mail. The full-page photograph featured a rail-thin model, scantily clothed, and lying on piles of trash. She lay there with her eyes closed, lips colored slightly purple, and a man’s foot pressing down on her arm, planted there as if in triumph. It was an advertisement for the sneaker that man was wearing.sneakers_blue

My friend included a post-it note on the photograph: “Here’s an icon for Epiphany.” This confused me at first. I found that image disturbing for more than one reason: for objectifying women as disposable play things; for perpetuating masculinity as inherently domineering and violent; and for commodifying human bodies to sell other commodities, to name just a few. Pondering my friend’s note and that image, those disturbing qualities soon began to coalesce into an icon of human flesh, its denigration, humiliation, and abuse standing in desperate need of redemption. An ideal icon, in other words, for Epiphany.

The twelve days of Christmas on the Christian liturgical calendar begin when gift-giving on the secular calendar ends, on Christmas Day itself. Those twelve liturgical days in turn end with still more gifts on the feast of the Epiphany. According to Matthew’s gospel account, magi from the East, perhaps astrologers or magicians from the region of Persia, present Jesus with gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matthew 2:11).

Ancient Mediterranean societies sometimes used those latter two gifts for embalming, as burial spices. Matthew thus offers a literary foreshadowing of events to come. The child receiving those gifts shall not escape the fate of all mortal flesh. Indeed, he will suffer the kind of indignity no human deserves, but which continues to this day, even in the glossy pages of what passes for the latest fashion.

Icons serve as windows into an unseen or perhaps forgotten reality. The flesh portrayed in that disturbing “fashion” spread opens a window on Western culture and can help to strip away the sentimentality that so often drenches the Christmas/Epiphany holiday cycle. The original story behind those holidays actually startles, or it should.

Matthew describes the magi’s gift-bearing journey as a quest. But for what? They search not for an idea, a strategy, a program, or an institution, nor even a place, but instead for a person, a flesh-and-blood child. This child does not bear ideal flesh, the kind suitable for Greek or Roman statuary or for today’s cult of youth and beauty. The child eventually found and adored by the magi bears entirely unremarkable, ordinary flesh. Flesh ordinary enough to trade like a commodity on Wall Street, or to disrobe on Hollywood’s silver screen for quick titillation, or to go homeless and starving on city streets.

The flesh of that child appears bruised and conquered on piles of trash in a fashion magazine.

T. S. Eliot once wrote that “the hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.” The hint (only just intuited by ancient Persian astrologers), that gift (only barely grasped by gospel writers), the epiphany still so desperately needed today appears as this: with us and among us and in our very flesh, God takes great delight. Not abstractly or generally or vaguely but in all the material details of human life, the magnificent and tender ones as well as the heartbreaking and tragic.

communityProgressives and conservatives alike tend to extol the incarnation at Christmas, perhaps also at Epiphany, and each in their own ways. Relatively few make clear that the flesh of the Incarnation comes in a rainbow spectrum of colors (what modern Westerners call “races”), or that Western society has generally cared far more about male- rather than female-identified flesh (and still does), or that “flesh” stands for much more than whatever we mean by “human.”

Today’s liturgical feast invites Christians to do what so many of us have been taught resembles a scandal if not a sin: adore flesh – not for the sake of fashion, but to be decidedly out-of-fashion. When Christian churches figure out how to do that and why, we will change the world (for the better).

A changed world might well be what set those ancient wise guys on a long journey. Happy Epiphany!

(This post is a revised version of a section of my forthcoming book, Peculiar Faith: Queer Theology for Christian Witness. You’ll be able to pre-order it soon!)