I imagine a dark-skinned man with traveling robe and rucksack draped over his arm, crows’ feet deeply etched into the skin around his eyes, gray hair interspersed among the black.
There will be no camels; [he says]
we are going on horseback,
at least for some of the way.
And we won’t arrive there
a few hours after everyone else.
It will be weeks, perhaps–
We are not in a hurry.
That is not the way we work;
we are not Europeans.
We will discuss the phenomenon–the star–
and if it does not go away,
and if we still feel curious,
we will travel… [“The wise man’s journey,” in Cloth for the Cradle, Iona Community, p. 125]
One salty old commentator observes that “sentimentality is one of the greatest enemies of understanding the gospel, especially around Christmas and the stories surrounding it.” (Stanley Hauerwas, cited by Dan Clendenin in “Journey with Jesus, 12/31/07) so when we come to the story of the Epiphany, it’s good to check the schmaltz level. We have so many memories of little ones in Burger King crowns drooping over their eyes, following the bathrobe-clad shepherds down the aisle in Christmas pageants that it’s hard to read and hear the texts for what they might be telling us.
Maybe it doesn’t help that Paul, or whoever wrote the letter to the Ephesians in his name, writes of “how the ‘mystery;’ [or, really, the ‘secret’] was made known to me by revelation.” It adds a certain aura of fantasy, as maybe the smoke of the incense rises in wisps, the pungency of the myrrh burns our noses, the glitter of the gold leaves its mark on our retinas and blinds us, like looking up at the sun too long.
But an epiphany is, as one writer puts it, “An awakening. An opening into higher consciousness. A discovery. A parting of the fog of confusion, revealing a new kind of clarity. Webster’s says that an epiphany is a sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something.” (Jim Burklo, in Faith Forward, 1/3/12) “In former generations this mystery–secret– [of Christ] was not made known to humankind,” Paul writes, “as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit; that is, [the secret is]: the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”
Oops! Did we miss something way back then? Have we kept the secret hidden? The secret that God’s intention in Christ was that all people–not just Jews, maybe not even just Christians– but all people have access to relationship with God. That the God who became incarnate in Christ Jesus is not like every other tribal god– jealous, bloodthirsty, demanding that you utter just the right words and make just the right gestures… Sshh…don’t tell anyone, but I think we’ve been going to war and exterminating and inquisitioning people all this time in the name of Christ when what God was trying to tell us in Jesus was that God wants to be in relationship with all of us, with all people, even those who call themselves Jews or Muslims or Hindus or Buddhists or none of the above.
The story of the Epiphany, as one writer says, is so great because it says that this “sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something,” in this case, the birth of Jesus, or Christmas, if you will, was made known to “three guys from somewhere in Iraq or Iran. They were the first non-Jews to “get it” about Christmas. Think of it! [he says] Jesus was barely born before his message was out of the Jewish box. Hmm….isn’t it about time that his message got out of the Christian box?” (Jim Burklo, ibid.)
The magi didn’t change religions, didn’t become Christian, when they found Jesus. [He goes on to say.] “They already had [a religion] and didn’t give it up. They followed the star because their religion suggested it….Faithfully following their own religion got them outside of the box of their own religion, even while they continued practicing it. Maybe that’s something we can emulate today. By following Jesus in a serious way, he’ll lead us out of the Christian box and inspire us to explore other religions and become better global citizens. He’ll lead us to be humble about our religion, even as we continue practicing it.” Now that is a secret worth sharing, which is what Paul says he was commissioned to do.
The magis’ religion led them to observe the stars, and when they noted this unusual astronomical event, they didn’t just make note of it in their journals. They packed up and headed out to follow it, to check it out, to see for themselves, to be present to the mystery, not just wonder about it and talk about it. There is wisdom in that for us as well. Not only are we to be open to and observant of the mystery, but we are also to be fully present to it, immersing ourselves in it, not just as spectators but as participants. Be present to it, body, mind, and spirit.
That’s what yoga helps me do. In fact, “yoga” means “union”–the yoking together of body, mind, and spirit. It helps me feel grounded, aware that my mind and spirit are in union with my body, that I need to be aware of this breath, or this part of my body that is being stretched or strengthened.. There are many Christians who think that yoga, which originated thousands of years ago, way before Jesus was born, by sages in India, has no place in the Christian life, let alone in Christian churches (There is a yoga class that takes place here on Wednesday mornings). But I have found most yoga practices (not all) to be extremely hospitable to and even enlightening to my own spiritual practices.
At the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health where, as you know, I go regularly for rest and renewal, there used to be portraits of figures like Mother Teresa (a good Catholic) and Martin Luther King Jr. (A good Baptist) in addition to the ones you might be more likely to expect, like Gandhi or various yogis and gurus in every stairwell. Now there are just quotes from various teachers like Gandhi or from the Bhagavad Gita. Here’s a sampling–See if you feel threatened–
“Yoga is seeing life the way it is.”
“Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.”
“Yoga is the practice of tolerating the consequences of being yourself.”
“Better is one own dharma (or unique set of gifts and calling) though imperfectly carried out than the dharma of another carried out perfectly. Better is death in fulfillment of one’s own dharma, for to follow the law of another brings great spiritual peril.
“Yoga is skillfulness in action.”
“Yoga is achieved through persistent practice and non-attachment.”
Which of those wouldn’t be helpful wisdom for your walk in Jesus’ Way? “The secret is that the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus….”
The magi were guided by a star, but you need darkness to see a star, so not only did the magi travel by night, they were also present to the darkness of their subconscious, paying attention to their dreams, which provided guidance as well. “Warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went home by another way.”
Remember that wizened old magi who spoke to us at the beginning? His monologue ends like this–
We will be upset, angry even,
to find that Herod is ignorant
and that his residence is not the birthplace.
We will find it hard
and intellectually demeaning
to bow the knee to the son of refugees.
And all this…
All this upset will be compounded
when it comes to journeying back
and we discover
we have to go home by an alternate route.
That is the trouble with God.
He does not let you leave as you came.
He sends you back,
stripped of your presumptions,
making for home by an alternate route. (Cloth for the Cradle, p. 126)
One pastor writes of the experience of so many that mirrors that of the magi– “We anticipated a predictable future, whether personal or professional, and discovered that we had to change course to be faithful to God or merely to survive.” (Bruce Epperly, Faith Forward, ½/12) Seemingly out of the blue, we receive notice that our position at work has been cut; a medical test comes back with a disturbing result; a loved one whom we thought was pretty healthy drops dead. Home by another way. Life is what happens when you’ve made other plans. “The season of epiphany is about alternative routes to the future.” (Epperly)
But there are stars to guide us; even dreams, intuitions, signposts along the way, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear. Maybe the alternative route to the future involves a new calling, the discovery of a new gift or passion, a new relationship formed that would never have happened had you stayed on the road more traveled.
So keep your eyes and ears open. Travel far, but maybe more importantly, travel deep. The wonderful secret is that we have lots of traveling companions, maybe more than we ever knew. The secret of Christ is that the Gentiles (that’s all of us non-Jews) have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. The “secret” is that God wants to be in relationship with all of us.
Who knew? We should have known, that God, whose name is Love, would have intended that from before the beginning of time. So now we know. Tell somebody else. Thanks be to God!
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark