1/2/2011 -- Emily Guthrie -- Epiphany

posted Jan 4, 2011, 5:31 PM by Unknown user   [ updated Jan 4, 2011, 5:33 PM by Terry Brady ]

Let us pray.

Vulnerable and mighty one,

Lead us by your light,

And grant us courage for the journey, so that with your grace, we may daily choose to lay down our fears, and embrace your tender love, so that our lives may shine. Amen.

Will we act out of Fear or Love? It’s always the question. And perhaps a particularly apt one today as we celebrate Epiphany – the celebration of the manifestation of God in the person of Jesus, and the revelation that God is present in and among all peoples, whether Jew or gentile, outsider or insider, poor or rich, servant or king… a season therefore of light shining in the darkness.

Matthew’s story this morning juxtaposes two very different responses to the Christ child: to that extraordinary possibility that God inhabits human form in all its vulnerability and wonder, fragility and power.  The response of the wise men from the East on the one hand and that of King Herod on the other. 

Only in Matthew’s story of the birth of Jesus do we encounter the journey of the mysterious magi, astrologers from the East who follow the star looking for a child-king.  For Matthew, it was essential to have foreigners, outsiders, at the birth in order to emphasize the radical change that in Jesus the God of justice, peace, love and mercy made known in the covenant with the people Israel – invites all the peoples of the earth into God’s embrace.   [Plus as one commentator pointed out the magi did not have the baggage, as it were, of the expectations of the religious community. They didn’t know how it should be – they only knew of the possibility of something, someone extraordinary to which they were drawn. ]

It’s a marvelous vignette, that scene captured in every artistic way imaginable: of the magi following the star, searching for the Christ child, and arriving at the manger.  Given that it is a symbolic journey, we don’t see the blisters, smell the dromedaries, or hear the bickering as they traverse unknown territory.  Nevertheless, their journey has found its way into our collective consciousness because we can identify with the courage of searching, following, asking for directions, getting lost, pressing on.

The magi go first to Jerusalem asking where the child is….’so that they might pay him homage’.  When Herod, King of Judea hears of this, he is afraid.  Herod governed with fear and violence, going so far as to kill his own sons to secure his position, so it isn’t surprising that he would be wary of any threat to his power or that of the Roman Empire.  Fear drives his choices.  We didn’t hear it this morning, but the slaughter of the innocents is the next part of Matthew’s story. When the magi don’t come back to tell him where the child is – Herod has all the children under the age of two in Bethlehem killed, forcing Mary and Joseph to flee to Egypt. This act part of the direct parallel that Matthew draws with the story of Moses and the exodus throughout the infancy narrative echoes the Pharaoh’s killing of the first born of Israel…a depiction of unspeakable violence born of primal fear. 

Contrast this response with that of the magi.  They follow the star to Bethlehem and find not a throne, but a mother’s lap, not a crown, but a little head, soft and vulnerable. And they are “overwhelmed with joy.” They kneel down and humble themselves before him.  They make themselves vulnerable… as vulnerable as the baby and family before them.

The magi, these wise men, must have felt something there at the feet of a humble child and his parents and believed that this was the place they sought, that they belonged there. And they responded with love.

The Magi are changed by the encounter with the vulnerable presence in that manger. They were led to the manger by an extraordinary external light…but they went home with a light burning in their hearts.

They forgo the power of Herod in favor of finding their way by a far more ambiguous, far more life-giving light. Was the trip home any easier?  I doubt it, but they had sought and found a new kind of ruler – a new way– and carrying that radiant light inside, they had the courage to go home by another way. 

There are days when I can identify with those magi – not because I fancy myself a queen, or a good astrologer, or even very wise – but I can identify with the searching, the journey, the quest for the wellspring of life and love and meaning. 

Will I have the courage to open my heart to the source of love, in great vulnerability and imperfection?  Or will choose the way of fear like Herod, and stay protected, guarded and attack anyone who would threaten my power? Will I choose certitude and fear or risk and love?

It is easy to answer that in the abstract: but practicing those choices in our daily lives? Well that’s another story and a story that is not depicted in medieval triptychs or captured in concertos and yet it is the place where we encounter the challenge and possibility of the Epiphany.  Not long ago one of my friends and her husband were both sick, dead tired, and neither was feeling up to caring for their two young children. It was Sunday morning, so my friend decided she would take the children to church, frankly to get a bit of a break. Unfortunately, her five year old’s idea of dressing for church was drawing all over her little body with magic markers!  While I can imagine this being pretty fun for her, it was the last straw for my friend.  In spite of her best intentions, she just could not find one more ounce of patience or compassion for her children, her husband and most importantly herself. She cried for help, screamed at her husband, scaring him, the children, and herself.  It was and is a painful time for all of them.  They are courageously working to piece things back together, but this story speaks to me of the reality of our lives. There are moments when we are in the grip of our own fears: fears of incompetence, fear of loss of control, fear that if we risked being completely vulnerable with our spouses, children, or friends, we would leave ourselves open to pain and hurt.  We live in the tension of wanting to protect ourselves from pain and wanting to risk being open to love. 

Perhaps the promise of this Epiphany is the reminder that living faithfully is walking and loving in the ways of a vulnerable God who infused all of human experience with holiness, compassion, and mercy.  The faithful response is the journey and the struggle to have the courage to claim that radiant love in our hearts…so that we might go home by a different way.