Where God Appears
This week’s sacred story comes from Matthew 2:1-23 where Magi follow the wild star, defy a tyrant king, and the Holy Family flee as refugees. Read the full story here.
It’s a new year and perhaps some of you have been reflecting on what has passed and what lies before you, what has been a blessing to you, good for your health and your wholeness and what you hope for. This moment, moving between old and new, invites us to reflect on the world around us and the world within us. This moment both suspends and extends time, and offers us a chance to see its vastness which we often miss. This moment allows us to take a step back from the fray, and in doing so, to see ourselves with deep honesty. As I read and reflected on this sacred story and my place in it, I was brought to the honest admission that I’m more like Herod than I want to acknowledge.
We are alike in that we will tell ourselves and others whatever lies are needed to have our way above God’s way. These lies take all shapes: that I don’t have enough, that I am not enough, that “others” are a threat to me or the cause of all my suffering, that I must protect myself and the world from these “dangers” at all costs, and that this is the kind half-life God wants for me. All of these put me at the center and so even if they’re awful, I cling to them. Things can easily begin to escalate. As more and more power is invested in “our way”, the result can be proportionately brutal resistance to the Prince of Peace - to the point that even children become pawns in a game and collateral damage along the way.
And this messy reality is exactly what God steps into. God with us, taking on the fullness of the fragility and beauty of human life in Christ, doesn’t skip around the rough places. The birth of God isn’t just halos and singing angels. Before Jesus’ first birthday, he and the rest of the Holy Family become refugees - leaving everything, risking everything to escape the gang of Herod - to have even a chance at survival.
While the story we read unfolds over a matter of a few sentences and paragraphs, the lived experience takes place over weeks, and even years, and hundreds and hundreds of miles. First, they walk about 100 miles from Galilee to Bethlehem (while super pregnant) to be registered as a family. Then, a caravan of mystics and Astronomers who don’t share the same Jewish faith as Mary and Joseph, the ones we call Magi, journey from foreign lands, night after night after night after night after night, following their curiosity and questions, to see this mystery for themselves. They come with gifts that represent a sacred life and death and the work in between. God has taken on skin and now these strangers risk their own skin, defying the direct orders of a tyrant, for the sake of truth and justice. Perceived (and rightly so) as a threat to the Roman Empire and its appointed rulers, politicians like Herod, the young parents and their new baby then flee and live maybe a few years as refugees in the foreign country of Egypt with different traditions, ethnicities and religion than their own. Eventually, regional politics allow this wandering family to walk hundreds of miles and miles and miles more to return to their hometown of Nazareth. They’re “home” but they’re also different because of their lived experiences, the people they’ve met and the worlds they inhabit, and...there are still complications.
Clearly God isn’t about a quick fix, but in this for the long haul. Jesus spends his whole life traveling the range from the margins and fringes of society to the halls of power, back and forth, again and again. That’s a lot of layers of meaning and relationship and geography. Epiphany, is a moment for us to take a step back and take in the vastness of it all. From the beginning, God has experienced and connected to and been a part of the whole world as far as the gospel writer of Matthew knew it. God is political, God is trans-national, tran-ethnic, God is beyond even a single religion or tradition. Essentially, this holy scripture (with all its messiness and drama) still reveals that there is no place, no people, no one outside of God’s redemption, not even Herod, not even me. Nothing remains untouched or unchanged by the Good News of God moving, suffering, loving, hoping, transforming...with us.
God appears in the midst of our mess. But God does not show up merely to show solidarity with our mess, but to transform it in radical ways and make us part of that transformation in ways that often surprise us. Here we witness a God who is clearly on the move. May we, like the wise ones of the world, follow our questions and curiosity toward the beauty of mystery. May God open our hearts and our minds to the ways in which this mysterious love enfolds us and changes us. May we reflect God’s shining light to all whom we encounter just as we recognize God’s light greeting us through them as well. Amen.