Epiphany Year B
Vicar Reed Fowler
Grace and peace to you from God the Creator, Christ the Anointed One, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today we are observing the feast of Epiphany, when the magi travel to see the Christ-child, God incarnate. We are nearing the twelfth day of Christmas, and moving towards Jesus’ baptism. Epiphany is a season of joy, of revelation, and embodiment. As Advent was leading up to Christ’s birth, Epiphany lays the foundation for Jesus’ life and ministry – his incarnation, his relationship to power, and his baptism.
Today is also our first Sunday gathered together in 2021! One of the rituals that often accompanies Epiphany is a house blessing for the new year, marking with chalk on the doorway the year we have just entered into and the letters C, M, and B – both an abbreviation for the Latin “Christ bless this house” and the initials of three of the magi – Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. I love this ritual of going into the new year with blessing. Because I don’t know about you, but over time, I have become hesitant to engage with New Year’s Resolutions, at least with how they are popularly practiced – too often they are centered on body shame, diet culture, and toxic productivity. Whether or not we make, or keep, resolutions can impact how we feel about our self-worth, even though no resolution makes us more or less beloved by God. We are good and enough as we are, and we are still becoming. The infant Jesus was loved before doing anything other than being born incarnate.
What could be different if we committed to New Year’s Blessings instead? This year, I am leaning into transformation, into slowing down and reflecting on how I move through the world, dreaming about what it means that God is incarnate. What if we leaned into the seasons – seasons of harvest, fallow seasons of rest, times for growing and times for exploring. Reflecting on the gifts of our lives, and how we offer those gifts to God and to our neighbor, in response the miracle of love and incarnation. This feels connected to another tradition some congregations have, with Epiphany star words. When Epiphany is marked, everyone receives a star with a word on it – words like joy, courage, resilience, transformation, and folks are encouraged to reflect and act on that word throughout the year.
I think it’s significant that both Christmas and Epiphany are seasons, not single days. It gives us space to dwell in these seasons – to dwell in joy, and love, and community, and grief, and hesitant hope that something different might be on the horizon.
But that spaciousness, that time, is counter cultural. In the Nativity story, we often compress the events of Jesus’ birth and early life into one event, one Christmas pageant, one service. We compress the different Gospel stories, and the folk legends that have been passed down. Mary and Joseph and Jesus are together with livestock, and the shepherds, and the angel, and the magi. And there’s good reasoning for that – for many people, religion isn’t an organizing principle of their lives. Our society isn’t structured for people to be able to take weeks off for religious holidays – that’s true across faith practices. So we compress the story, in the hopes that we can pass on all the joy, all the hope, all the wonder that is Christmas and Epiphany. For these stories to spark and resonate and nourish.
Yet, the Nativity narrative is messy, and complicated. It’s placed within a larger season that is set up to give us space to reflect. To dwell in joy, and in the incarnation of Christ. Of God. A God that was born into an un-simplified, messy world. And the arc of the magi’s visit to Jesus, and the events that followed, bring God right into the messy reality that is our world, that holds both great joy and great pain.
The magi are fascinating figures. Also known as the wise men, or the sages, or the astronomers. They come to Jerusalem, having observed a rising star. The magi are not Jewish, they are not Roman. They are not under the rule of the Temple authorities, or the rule of King Herod. As far as we know, they don’t have any prior connection to Jerusalem. But they recognized the star marking Jesus’ birth, and followed it to pay him homage. Even though Jesus was born into a different faith practice, and a different cultural background, and even as the sages had different ways of knowing. The magi know that there are cosmic events that impact all of Creation, and that God shows up in many and unexpected ways.
Interfaith dialogue and collaboration is a core part of my faith practice, especially in work organizing around shared principles of justice and shared dreams for a transformed world. The magi can be viewed as an example of interfaith engagement – while they are not Jewish, or Roman, they recognize that the birth of a different kind of king – a kind of king that makes Herod quake – has widespread ripples. That it doesn’t lessen their own faith practices to respectfully honor the prophets and the Divine in other faith traditions. Just as it doesn’t lessen our own faith practices to honor and respect religions other than Christianity, and to push back on the assumption that there is only one pathway to God. God is bigger and more mysterious than we could ever dream to fully understand or categorize, outside of love, and Creation.
And so the magi go to Jesus. They are overwhelmed with joy when the star stops, when they get to Mary and Jesus, when they witness the incarnation of God. They are so overwhelmed with joy that they give generously to the family – gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Gold, which has been purified and refined by fire, and is a gift fit for a king. Frankincense, a gift fit for the divine. Myrrh, for healing, for an anesthetic, for burial practices. These gifts are largely symbolic, rather than practical, foretelling and remembering the kind of life Jesus will lead.
Dreams play an important role in the Christmas and Epiphany narratives. Joseph is visited in a dream by an angel in the Matthew nativity narrative, where he is told that the son his fiancé will bear was conceived through the Holy Spirit. In today’s text the magi dream. After encountering the Christ-child and being overwhelmed with joy, they are warned in a dream not to return to King Herod. They listen to this message, and they go home a different way. They do not return to Herod.
I wonder if they believed the message in their dream not just because they had faith that God speaks in dreams, but also because of their own experiences with King Herod. I wonder if the magi felt a disconnect between the fear of Herod and his claim that he too, wished to pay the babe homage. From the first moment the magi arrive, King Herod, and many of the people of Jerusalem, were frightened by the portents they brought. Frightened by an infant. An infant that is still utterly dependent on those around him, an infant that could grow up to be anyone – yes, it is foretold that he is the Messiah, yes, all who have encountered him so far react with awe and joy – but Jesus stepping into a role as a king would still be years, if not decades, away. This reaction of fear doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense to fear a newborn infant.
The magi were right to listen to their dream, to not return to Herod and tell him where Jesus and his family were. They were right to take a different path, to defy authority where that authority had ill-intent, and to instead follow their own instincts, and the way God was speaking to them.
And then Joseph dreams again – he dreams that his family is still in danger, even though the magi did not return to Herod. He dreams that Herod is still frightened, and is continuing to search for Jesus and his family, to destroy Jesus. And Joseph listens to his dream, and flees with his family to Egypt. Going into exile, crossing man-made borders, starting over as strangers in a new place – these were safer options for Joseph and his family than staying in Bethlehem, with their community. This story is not unknown to us. Jesus’ family is reflected in the families that have been separated at the US/Mexico border. His family is reflected in Palestinian refugees. It is reflected in all families that are displaced by violence, climate change, or political unrest. Jesus’ first weeks of life were not all overwhelming joy and gifts. He was born into a world that was already so threatened by his presence – by the presence of God – that his family needed to flee for their lives.
Herod either doesn’t know, or doesn’t care, that Jesus’ family fled. He proceeds to order a slaughter of all children under the age of two. This action is often known as the Slaughter of the Holy Innocents. Herod was so frightened that God was incarnate, that a different kind of ruler might emerge, that his system of authority was threatened, that he killed an entire generation. He lashed out against overwhelming joy with overwhelming violence. Herod fell victim to a fear and scarcity-based mindset. He wasn’t dreaming about abundant possibilities – he didn’t realize that he too, could be transformed with joy at a new world order, a new kind of king. Epiphany and the Slaughter of the Holy Innocents are intertwined, as we navigate a world that holds both an incarnate God and unimaginable violence.
We know these stories in our bones. Stories of families fleeing to find a safe place to lay their heads. Magi who choose a different path. Rulers who stay stubborn at the expense of themselves. Violence and pain that is unexplainable, and unfathomable. Moments of joy that take our breath away. And on a smaller scale – we know stories, we might’ve experienced stories, where our joy is met with violence, or where we receive a dream or a gut feeling and know it to be true. Where we lash out with violence, due to fear, and manufactured scarcity. Where we take a risk, and make a different choice, or we don’t.
Epiphany is a season of dreams, and of resting in the overwhelming joy that is God incarnate, even as it is a season of sorrow and change. In this new year, where are your dreams calling you to? What are their messages?
What in your life are you fleeing from? What are you meant to return to?
Where are you finding overwhelming joy in God? Where are you finding rest in God?
How are you building your capacity for joy, and for grief?
In this new year, may you be held in God’s love, and receive holy dreams of blessing. Amen.