Epiphany: Celebrating the Imperfect Journey
“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’” Matthew 2:1
Tomorrow we celebrate the feast of Epiphany—the beginning of a season in which we look for the “showing forth” or “the revelation” of Christ in the world. We begin by commemorating the journey of the wise men to seek the Christ child, and celebrate their arrival at the manger with longing in their hearts and gifts appropriate for the One who would be our king, our priest, and our Savior.
In yet another strange twist to the Christmas story, these pagan astrologers were among the first and most venerated visitors to the manger. Theirs was an occupation that was expressly forbidden in Jewish law—the modern-day equivalent of those who read and interpret horoscopes—and yet they were welcomed and their gifts received.
So Epiphany is a season of revelation—the manifestation of God’s presence in earthly form—showing up in ordinary and unexpected places to ordinary and unexpected people.
Nothing about the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth was ideal. Mary was pregnant out of wedlock. When it was time for Jesus to be born, Mary and Joseph were on the road due to political forces that were beyond their control. There was no good place to have the baby and so they ended up in a humble stable for this blessed event. It is doubtful the conditions were sanitary by any standard!
Beyond these intimate imperfections, the larger landscape was very bleak. Jesus was born into a time of political and religious upheaval. Herod, an insecure and power-hungry man, was king at the time, creating a very dangerous environment for anyone who threatened him. His violent actions and reactions showed little regard for human life.
The wise men, for all of their wisdom, were actually more of a hindrance than a help: they tipped off Herod to the fact that there was a potential usurper being born in Bethlehem. This knowledge sent Herod into a jealous rage which caused him to order what is now known as “the massacre of the innocents”—the murder of all children two years and under. From a human standpoint it was not a good moment for ushering in a new spiritual reality in the guise of a vulnerable baby. It was not a safe environment for spiritual seeking. But Jesus came anyway. And the wise men left their home country to seek this One who offered them hope.
Seeking and Finding
We are all seekers and none of us does our seeking perfectly. The wise men show us this. But for all of their bumbling, the story of the wise men is about our longing for more of God than we have right now (no matter who we think we are) … and our curiosity and questioning about whether there might be more for us. Whatever the wise men had going for them back at home, they had bumped up against the limits of human wisdom to truly satisfy. This part of the story helps those of us who think we know something to acknowledge that even with all of our human wisdom, there is a poverty of spirit that can only be satisfied through a fresh encounter with Christ. This longing compels us to move beyond the borders of life as we know it in order to discover a deeper spiritual reality.
The story of the wise men is a story of pilgrimage. It is about being willing to leave the familiar in search of our deeper spiritual home. It is about seeking and not even knowing what we are seeking until we stumble upon it where we least expect it. A good journey begins with knowing where we are and being willing to go somewhere else, as Richard Rohr reminds us.
Seeking can be a dangerous venture. And the truth is, everyone in this story was in danger. None were immune to the imperfections and the vulnerability of the human condition. And the only way to make it safely through such dangerous territory was to follow the guidance that was given—whether it came from a star or an angel appearing in a dream or an inexplicable longing in the gut.
Those who fared best were those who responded immediately to whatever guidance they received.
A Spirituality of Imperfection
Perhaps one of the reasons I am so attuned to the imperfections and dangers in the Christmas story is that I am so attuned to imperfection in my own life. For all the gifts that come to us at Christmas—and there are many—there is always the pain of imperfection as well. There are old wounds that get reopened so often I wonder if they will ever heal. There are places of darkness in my own soul where I cry out to God with such deep longing for light and a way ahead that sometimes I wonder if God gets tired of listening to me.
It takes courage to name the questions at the same time as I am celebrating the ways in which Christ is being born in my life. It takes an almost desperate faith to keep crying out to God, asking for an epiphany—a showing forth of Christ’s presence—in the places where it seems least possible.
But it is in the courage to seek and to question that a deeper kind of faith is forged. Here we learn that we can prepare the way for the coming of Christ, to the best of our ability, but in the end we cannot fix everything that needs to be fixed. We can’t make everything perfect, but Jesus comes anyway. He shows himself in the least likely places to the least likely people—including us!
The Scandal of Christmas
The Christmas story does not end with cattle lowing, angels singing, and wise men worshipping. No, it actually ends the way it begins—with imperfection and senseless violence. The presence of evil is real, crouching outside the door to the stable.
King Herod is so infuriated at having been tricked by the wise men that it is not safe for them to return home. He is so threatened by the spiritual reality that has been birthed and now recognized that Mary and Joseph are forced to take Jesus and hide out in Egypt. Thousands of young children are murdered and only briefly mentioned as a side story in this unfolding drama.
It’s tempting to wonder how anything good can come from a scenario like this; I rail against it because I am an idealist. A perfectionist. I confess it freely. I spend my days dreaming big dreams, seeing great visions, trying to be perfect and trying to manage everything and everyone around me so that they are perfect. I take it far too personally when the world is not perfect and carry its imperfection as a weight on my very own shoulders.
Your Light Has Come!
But the scandal of the Christmas story is to see, really see, that Christ came into a situation that was imperfect in every single way. But the imperfection did not keep him from coming and it did not keep the wise men from striking out on their own journey in response to the light they saw. The light that is Jesus could not be snuffed out by the darkness all around.
That light shone in the sky and over the manger giving guidance to those humble enough to follow—no matter how that guidance came. In this most imperfect situation the prophecy of Isaiah was fulfilled with perfect precision:
Arise! Shine! For your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory shall appear over you.
Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
Lift up your eyes and look around…
then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and rejoice…
they shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.
Prayers for the Journey
And so we pray, Lord, help us to journey with you even in imperfection. Help us to recognize the light of your star, rising to give us guidance. As we come to the end of Christmas and enter into this season of revelation, help us to do so with eyes lifted up, looking for your presence in all the places where we expect you and all the places we don’t. Make our faces a radiant reflection of your light even in the darkest places. Give us courage to take the perilous journey that is ours to take.
Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer. Amen.
©Ruth Haley Barton, 2007, updated 2019.