Epiphany: A Dangerous Journey

“The Christian of the future will either be a mystic or will not exist at all.”
—Karl Rahner

Lectionary readings for Second Sunday after Christmas Day (January 5, 2020):
Jeremiah 31:7–14; Psalm 147:12–20; Ephesians 1:3–14; and John 1:(1–9,) 10–18

Lectionary Calendar (Cycle A) and guidance for using the lectionary

This Sunday officially marks the end of the Christmas season and the beginning of the season of Epiphany—the “showing forth” or “the revelation” of God’s presence to unlikely people in unlikely places. On this day the Church commemorates the journey of the wise men to seek the Christ child; 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. And a dangerous journey it was!

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 (the modern-day equivalent of those who read and interpret horoscopes!), they were welcomed, and their gifts were received. But they almost didn’t make it home alive.

A Spirituality of Imperfection

One of the most striking elements of the Christmas story is its 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 the time for her delivery came, 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, so they ended up sharing this blessed event with livestock in the place where animals were kept.

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 which created a very dangerous and volatile 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 unfolding of the Christmas story: they tipped off Herod to the fact that there was a potential usurper being born in Bethlehem. This 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. Surely the parallels with the violence of our own place and time are not lost on us. Mothers, fathers, and whole towns weeping and lamenting the loss of their children echoed throughout that first Christmas season as in our towns today.

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.

None of us does our seeking perfectly—least of all these “wise” ones. 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 pieced together, 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 norms of their previous existence in order to discover a deeper spiritual reality.

Through Many Dangers, Toils, and Snares

The story of the magi is a story of 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 we don’t fully understand until we stumble upon it where we least expect it.

If we are at all awake during this season, we might sense ourselves being invited to a new journey of our own—a journey that involves leaving familiar territory in order to seek and find new ways of opening ourselves to God’s presence even (and perhaps most especially) when we feel our circumstances won’t allow for it.

The journey of the magi was a dangerous one that put all the characters in the Christmas story at risk. They discovered, as we all must, that the only way to traverse such risky territory is to follow the guidance that is given—whether it comes 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 para-normal phenomena.

Ordinary Mystics

In a very real sense, all the major players in the Christmas story were mystics! They were open and responsive to the mystery of God in Christ and the strange revelations of how God was choosing to be at work in the world. They were attuned to God’s mysterious ways, which are always beyond our human understanding, and, as our Epistle reading for today points out, such ways can only be perceived through divine revelation.

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. These encounters are often given to those who find themselves on the fringes of institutional religious structures while remaining 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. As German theologian Karl Rahner famously points out, “The Christian of the future will either be a mystic or will not exist at all.”

Present to the One Who Is Always Present

In his book Understanding Christian Spirituality, Catholic theologian Michael Downey writes “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” (emphasis mine).

This is the dangerous journey I want to be on in 2020—the journey of learning how to be ever more present and responsive to the divine presence which is always near—even when that Presence moves and moves ME in mysterious ways. Like those “wise” travelers who bumbled along imperfectly until they finally arrived at the place where the presence of God was being revealed to them at a particular moment in human history, I want to take my place in the long history of Christian seekers who participate ever more fully in the Divine life as it expresses itself uniquely at this moment of human history. It is a moment that is imperfect and dangerous and pregnant with possibility all at the same time!

©Ruth Haley Barton, 2020.

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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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Greetings and New Year blessings, Ruth.
I too have read several of your books and followed TC postings for years now. Your Invitation to Solitude & Silence book actually was one of the tools God used years ago to set me on a personal retreat pathway when I was working as a linguist/missionary in West Africa! It has remained in my personal library and been revisited and lent many times to encourage me and others to “be present”, as this timely and insightful meditation again reminds us.
I thank you for being willing to go out on a bit of a contemporary limb about mysticism, making it just a tad more enticing to at least be open to what God might be doing through the ‘paranormal’ – just as, you point out, all those ‘normal’ people in the original Christmas drama were! I personally have been intrigued and deeply enriched by how God meets us, so often, in mysterious ways, IF we are open!
I also appreciate you highlighting Epiphany which has been lost in many American church traditions. Aside from being (for the most part at least) a delightful account and perhaps providing the means which Joseph and Mary needed for their trip to Egypt, the socio-cultural significance of the Magi is definitely ‘worth’ lingering with! Having lived and worked in Africa for decades among people groups of many religious persuasions where the sacred and the profane were rarely separated by ‘reality’ or ‘correctness’ boundaries, I have always been intrigued by the role the ‘magi/sages’ play in gospel accounts (Ruth Beechick’s book ‘Adam and his kin’ gives interesting details as to what their astronomical and astrological traditions might have looked like).
That said, one bit of your piece here I would take issue with is your portrayal of them as “bumbling”. It seems to me, you mention their interaction with Herod and its disastrous consequences as one example of them being bumbling. Contrary to your interpretation (what I see as a modern day, perhaps slightly ethnocentric perspective), I’d suggest instead, they were indeed very wise people, and knew exactly what they were doing. Just one possible explanation for that ‘detour’, culturally and politically, could be that they were obligated to go before the local ruler to gain access to the region where they knew the star was leading? If they hadn’t, they might well have been arrested, or worse, summarily executed along the road, as foreigners with no business being there. For whatever reason, they stopped by Herod’s place…his resulting actions, for me at least, do not in any way demean or diminish their wisdom or worldly intelligence, as they continued to follow the star which did in the end (mystically!) lead them to their preordained destination. I think we in the west, myself definitely included, too often have a tendency to do this sort of ‘type casting’ with people and actions we don’t fully understand, especially where mysticism is concerned or perhaps just cultural ignorance – and I don’t mean that negatively, just literally – we know so little in the grand scheme of things worldwide.

Thanks so much, Betsy, for this expansive and more culturally sensitive view of the wise men. I feel so enriched by having the opportunity to reflect on this perspective! So I read the story again this morning and it is still my sense that the wise men fumbled a bit. Unless I am really missing something, it seems so unwise to tell a reigning king who is insecure and violent that a potential usurper has been born. It seems there was something honest they could have said about the purpose of their visit (we’re here looking at some unusual star formations) that would not have tipped Herod off to Jesus’ birth, which put him and all the other male babies who had been born around that time in grave danger. The “slaughter of the innocents” is a direct result of the wise men being (in my opinion) too forthcoming with a king they knew was capable of terrible violence. Try telling the mothers who lost their babies that the magi were truly wise! Jesus’ teaching about being wise as serpents and innocent as doves comes to mind. I can’t help but wish the wise men had practiced a bit more “serpenthood”, but that’s just me. Of course, we will never know for sure this side of heaven. Thanks again for such a thoughtful response!

P.S. The reason I have found this interaction to be so enriching is that it has caused a very specific prayer to rise up within me and that is, “Oh God, show me what true wisdom really is and give me true wisdom.” Sometimes the stakes are so very high!

Beautiful words, Ruth. As we head into 2020, it will be a privilege to pray for you and yours, and the TC as your story continue to unfold. Indeed, as Thielicke says, “We live by God’s surprises.” Also appreciate your prayers for IFBR as we crest our fourth anniversary this February. Great to be co-laborers in the vineyard with kindred spirits. Godspeed!

You are such a blessing, Scott. Thank you! Yes, co-laborers in God’s vineyard, that is what we are!

Thank you deeply Ruth. I have read several of your books. I have listened to your podcasts during Lent, Summer & Advent. Looking through my journal for 2019 you have inspired me in keeping me center on His presence on my journey. May God bless your ministry at Transforming Center abundantly in 2020!!

Thank you for your words of wisdom. To be present to the One who is ever present is what transformation is all about in this life of imperfections.

This is so beautifully crafted. Thanks, Ruth. Very moving for someone like me who struggles to be a disciple of a Lord. My phrase for 2020, as borrowed from your text: To be present to the ONE who is always present.
Such a blessing to have modern day mystics like you who endeavour to enrich our lives with profound reflections!
God bless!
Geraldine, Kuala Lumpur

Dear Ruth, I’ve loved your Advent series of podcasts with Steve. And now this on the Epiphany. Oh my. Thank you.

I too sense an ‘awakening’ this year in stepping into the Lord’s presence and discovering the wonder of fullness and oneness that Jesus and Paul prayed for us all. I’m excited to walk this year with your wisdom as a wonderful guide.

Blessings to you and the TC team.

Ruth, I have enjoyed reading your books and just recently was introduced to the Transforming Center. I have enjoyed listening to your podcasts and am glad to find a community of seekers. Thank you for this message of epiphany. I have been on this journey for a while now and experiencing the love of Christ in such a deep, meaningful way and pray that others will follow their hearts to the center of the love of God. Blessings in all you do in, through and for Christ in 2020!!! Karol

To be open to journeying on a road, as yet, untraveled. To sense the dangers of the path as yet stay tender-hearted to the direction.
You remind me to pay attention to God’s call this year —even when I cannot predict His means. Even when that uncertainty screams—-don’t go —stay safe!!!
You remind me of the call to be a mystic who loves and follows the mysterious God- I say YES!

I love everything about this.

My wife and I are not pastors or even in ministry but we love hearing your podcasts, reading your books and your open and tender heart. Your voice, your explanations and your vulnerability draws us in and captures our hearts and minds. Thank you! We want to take that mystical journey as well. Shalom.

This is such meaningful encouragement. Thank you. So grateful to be joined on the journey!

Thank you for always sharing what is developing in your heart and soul. I too want to be more aware and responsive to the presence of my Lord and King. If that means I’m a mistic-awesome!

Yes, indeed it does!

Beautiful and true encouragement in your writing RUTH! Thank you for the sweet reminder and charge to seek God’s Presence and to be ever watchful. Blessings to you.

Darlene Hixon

I love reading your work. This was truly thought provoking. In these perilous times I’ve felt a heaviness concerning the true lack of belief in the realness of God by those who profess Him. You have kindled hope in me that too will change and my part in the change will come to fruition. Thanks for the spark!😊

It only takes a spark…:)

Thank you for putting context to the yearning of my spirit to grow in trusting and hearing God clearer in 2020!

Thank you for these words, Ruth. They are a great encouragement. My word for 2020 is “awake”. I desire to be awake and alert — to pay active attention to the work of God in and around me, to notice the signs and wonders, to be more attentive to relationships, and not to miss the gentle nudging and movements of God.

So rich Ruth…thank you for being one whom our God uses to continue to nourish the souls of many.

Awww…thanks so much, Eric. Great to hear from you!

Always love reading your work, Ruth but this one is fantastic. Thank you!

So good to hear from you, Biz! Thank you. May God’s richest blessings be yours in this new year.

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