Epiphany: A New Kind of Journey

Lectionary readings for January 6, 2011: Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-23; Matthew 2:1-12

“Christians of the future will either be mystics or they will not be.” Karl Rahner

Today is the feast of the Epiphany—the day when the Church commemorates the journey of the wise men to seek the Christ child.  On this day we 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.

Epiphany is the culminating event of the Christmas season in which we celebrate the “showing forth” of God’s presence to unlikely people in unlikely places.  In yet another strange twist to the Christmas story, it was pagan astrologers who were among the first and most venerated visitors to the manger. Although theirs was an occupation that was expressly forbidden in Jewish law (it was the modern-day equivalent of those who read and interpret horoscopes), they were welcomed and their gifts were received!

A Spirituality of Imperfection

One of the most striking elements of the Christmas story is it’s imperfection by any kind of human standard. None of the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth were ideal.  Mary’s baby was born 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 dirty stable for this blessed event.

Beyond these intimate imperfections, the outer landscape was very bleak.  Jesus was born into a time of political and religious upheaval.  King Herod, an insecure and violent man, was in power at the time creating a very dangerous environment for anyone who threatened him.  The wise men, for all of their “wisdom”, were actually more of a hindrance than a help in the whole situation:  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 slaughter of the innocents”—the murder of all male children two years and under.

These were dangerous times and none of the major players in the Christmas story had any control over any of it. It was not a safe environment for spiritual seeking nor was it a good time for ushering in a new spiritual reality in the guise of a vulnerable baby.  But Jesus was born anyway.  And the wise men left their home country and travelled through dangerous territories to seek this One who offered them hope.

Seek and You Shall Find

None of us does our seeking perfectly—least of all these wise men.  But for all of their bumbling, the story of the wise men is about a longing for God that cannot be quelled, no matter who we think we are. Apparently the wise men had reached the limits of human wisdom to truly satisfy the longing of the human heart.  In the midst of whatever knowledge they had achieved, there was a poverty of spirit that could only be satisfied through a fresh encounter with Christ.  Their longing propelled them to move beyond the boundaries of their previous existence in order to discover a deeper spiritual reality.

The story of the wise men is really a story of spiritual pilgrimage.  It is about being willing to leave that which is familiar in order to arrive at our deeper spiritual home. It is about seeking something that we don’t fully understand until we stumble upon it where we least expect it and coming home changed.  If we are at all awake during this season of new beginnings, we might sense ourselves being invited to a new journey of our own—a journey that in some way involves leaving familiar territory in order to seek and find new ways to open ourselves to God’s presence even (and perhaps most especially) when we feel that our circumstances won’t allow for it.

Through Many Dangers, Toils, and Snares

But this journey put all the major players in the Christmas story in danger. They discovered, as we all must, that the only way to safely traverse such dangerous territory is to follow the guidance that is given—whether it cones from an unusual star, a friendly angel, a pertinent dream or an inexplicable longing. Those who fared best in the unfolding of the greatest story ever told were those who responded immediately to whatever guidance they received.  In order to “get with the program” of what God was doing Mary, Joseph, Zachariah, Elizabeth, the shepherds and the wise men all responded to phenomena that were outside the norm.

This brings us to a most interesting point of learning and it is this: all the major players in the Christmas story were mystics! They were those who were open and responsive to the mystery of God in Christ and the revelation of the mystery of how God was choosing to be at work in the world. They were completely given over to God’s mysterious ways which are completely beyond our human understanding and can only be perceived through spiritual revelation. (Ephesians 3:1-12)  Many of us have a stereotypical view of what it means to be a mystic.  We think it refers primarily to the experience of ecstatic union that only a few rarefied (and very weird!) saints achieve. This is a very limited view. The truth is that mystics are those who really believe what the rest of us say we believe—that God is real, that God is mystery (that is, totally beyond our human comprehension), that God can be encountered in the depths of our being, and that our human lives can be radically oriented and responsive to the One who is always present with us.

Mystics are those who are open to actual encounters with God that are often unmediated by religious trappings.  Furthermore, these encounters are often given to those who are on the fringes of institutional structures while at the same time they are radically committed to what is truest about our faith.  Mystics are those who have a longing for God that is so profound that they make radical choices to seek God and respond to God’s leading in their lives.

Theologian Michael Downey writes in his book Understanding Christian Spirituality, “The spiritual life and especially its expression in mystical experience, is not so much a matter of striving for heights of mystical union between the soul and God who is utterly different from us.  It is rather more a matter of attending to God’s presence with us and responding to God’s presence by being altogether present to the divine presence which is always near.  The long history of Christian spirituality has to do with the various ways of responding to God’s presence and participating ever more fully in the divine life altogether present in human life, history, the world and the church.”

Amen and amen!  This is the journey I want to be on in 2011—the journey of learning how to be ever more present and responsive to the divine presence even when that Presence moves and moves ME in mysterious ways.  Like those wise travelers who bumbled along and finally arrived—imperfectly but altogether present to the presence of God in their moment of human history—I, too, want to be a part of that long history of Christian seekers who participate ever more fully in the Divine life as it expresses itself in this moment of our human history. A moment that is imperfect and pregnant with possibility all at the same time!

We thought we knew where to find you;
we hardly needed a star to guide the way,
just perseverance and common sense;
why do you hide yourself away from the powerful
and join the refugees and outcasts,
calling us to follow you there?
Wise God, give us wisdom.

We thought we had laid you safe in the manger;
we wrapped you in the thickest sentiment we could find,
and stressed how long ago you came to us;
why do you break upon us in our daily life
with messages of peace and goodwill,
demanding that we do something about it?
Just and righteous God, give us justice and righteousness.

So where else would we expect to find you
but in the ordinary place with the faithful people,
turning the world to your purpose through them.
Bring us to that manger, to that true rejoicing,
which will make wisdom, justice, and righteousness alive

in us.[1]

©Ruth Haley Barton, 2011.  Not to be used without permission.
Ruth Haley Barton is founder of the Transforming Center.  A spiritual director, teacher, and retreat leader, she is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life.

[1] Stephan Orchard, All Glorious Names (United Reformed Church Prayer Book, London, 1989)

Print off the Scriptures for Epiphany (or find them in your Bible) so you can settle into a place that is conducive to quiet reading and reflection. Read all four passages slowly and reflectively, not primarily to gain information or analyze the texts, but to let the readings for today just wash over you. Allow for a few moments of silence after each passage. Notice the theme (or themes) that emerge for you and notice how they speak to your life as it is right now. Note in particular the many reference to mystery (which shares the same root as the word “mysticism”) in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians and also the mysterious or mystical elements in the journey of the wise men. How comfortable are you with mystery as it relates to your own faith journey? What is the new kind of journey God is calling you to in the New Year?

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Ruth Haley Barton

(Doctor of Divinity, Northern Seminary) is founding president/CEO of the Transforming Center. A teacher, seasoned spiritual director (Shalem Institute), and retreat leader, she is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Life Together in Christ, Pursuing God’s Will Together, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, and Invitation to Solitude and Silence.
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[…] about this feast, the more surprised I am at the lack of attention it receives in most churches. Ruth Haley Barton of the Transforming Center writes this about […]

Wow – a friend and I encourage one another with “He is with you always” – holding up one hand and counting the words. We finish every conversation, the last words texted, etc. “5 fingers”. Devine Presence is truly a practice and I, like you want that for 2011. Your words touch my heart!! Thanks, Keri

Thank you for expanding my perspective on the Christmas season. It truly continues long after the last ornament is packed away and the cookies devoured. It is a journey that continues, that beckons, that pulls us into deeper relationship with the One who rested in a feed bin.

I love this reflection on Epiphany. The comment about the journey you want to be on – “This is the journey I want to be on in 2011—the journey of learning how to be ever more present and responsive to the divine presence even when that Presence moves and moves ME in mysterious ways.” – resonates in my soul. Thanks so much for the encouragement you give me through your writings. Judy

Ruth, this is one of your best. I want to join you on your journey in 2011. Keep up the good workk and my God bless you and your ministry. I encourage others in the Wheaton area to join with you at your center. Paul, from Marytown’s Gift Shop.

[…] Epiphany: A New Kind of Journey […]


I always appreciate your stuff, but wanted to express how much I benefitted from this piece on epiphany and mystics. I was about set to say a few brief words to our Mountain folk in an enote, about Epiphany — you know the drill — hoping to make a foreign and strange sounding aspect of the Christian year come alive with relevance and pertinence — when I ran across today’s enote. Thanks for your consistent good work. We are looking forward to your being with us in a few months.

Ben Cachiaras, Mountain Christian Church, Joppa, MD

Thank you, Ruth. Encouraging reminder to find Him each moment today.

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