Epiphany: Looking for God in all the wrong places

Yesterday I wrote about Twelfth Night, about how the Wise Men were nearly at the door of the stable, eager to see what lay on the other side. Well, today is Epiphany; the door is opened and we walk on up to the manger.

This moment has been a long time coming. Maybe things wouldn’t have taken quite so long if we hadn’t ignored the star and found ourselves wandering unaware down some dark deadends. There’s a whole star to follow, but we get seduced by our own assumptions, our own expectations.

I wrote at the beginning of Advent how I wanted to find Jesus again this Christmas. And I meant that, but so much was happening, so much to think and worry about, so much to pull me off course. And so I’m not sure I found Jesus again so much as gaining the knowledge that I still look for him in all the wrong places. It’s possible to miss the power and the glory of the Incarnation because we want Jesus to grow up and become a carpenter, just so we can ask him to fix our shelves.

Just a few miles from Bethlehem, the Wise Men stopped following the star and followed their own assumptions instead, ending up in Herod’s palace rather than God’s stable. And that mistaken conviction, that kings must be born in palaces, draws the attention of a paranoid despot and comes pretty close to wrecking everything. Because God’s not one for palaces, he’s more likely to be found in stables or tents in the desert. We should start looking for an Epiphany in places where Christ is, rather than where we think he should be. Look in the manger, not in the palace.

Of course, what we see – or rather, who we encounter – in that manger demands a response. We can’t see the vulnerability of God and the divine glory of a dozing infant without being changed. We came here as the result of one journey, but we, like the Magi, need to go home by another route.

Changing direction, getting on the right path, reorientating ourselves to a brighter star… These aren’t unusual metaphors for a faith journey. They’re the literal meaning behind the word ‘repent’, after all, the DNA in our pilgrimage. If we encounter Jesus in the manger we need to let the power of that encounter transform us and send us away from Bethlehem on a different path.

Here’s my confession: after all these years on the journey, I still look for Jesus in the wrong places, still expect him to meet my assumptions than transform them. I still need an epiphany, every day, an epiphany of the reality of Christ, not of who I’d like him to be. I need to be transformed by the arrival of Jesus in this world, and I need to allow some of the stuff I know about God to make its way into my heart.

Today is Epiphany, the stable door creads open and light leaks through the cracks into the cold and dark of a winter’s morning; the door creaks open, beckoning us forward. May each of us be transformed by what’s on the other side.

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Twelfth Night: Nearing Journey’s End

It’s Twelfth Night, and the Wise Men are almost at the stable.

 Almost, but not quite. The journey isn’t quite over. There’s a sense that they’re nearing their destination, the star looms large over Bethlehem. They’ve taken wrong turns, failing to find a new king in a palace, finding the old king’s paranoia instead. Their expectations are being re-written on the fly, and you can almost sense their anticipation as they move closer, closer to the City of David, manoeuvring their way through dark narrow streets illuminated by star light.

We tend to focus on their arrived, on them kneeling before the manger and presenting the baby with gold and frankincense and myrrh. It’s a scene heavy with symbolism, and we may see new meaning birthed from it if we keep our eyes open.

But that’s for tomorrow. That’s for Epiphany. Tonight is Twelfth Night, and the journey isn’t quite over.

Instead, let’s think about what it means to near the end of a journey, a season, a quest. Today’s the day the lights come down and we pack away the baubles. Christmas is over; the wrapping paper is getting recycled, we’re back at work as if we’d never been away. A season ends today, but the stable door hasn’t yet been opened. We stand at a threshold, hand raise to knock at the door but paused by apprehension: what happens next? what will the next moments bring, how will things be transformed as the door creaks slowly open?

Maybe we celebrate our New Year five days too early. After all, we’re not formed by fireworks; we’re formed by the beginning and the ending of seasons, and how we hunt for the divine in the midst of them.

We stand at the threshold and we have two choices, almost: to return to our routines, to breathe a sigh of relief as our lives get back on track, or to  embrace the next steps, to see what’s over the next hill, through the next doorway. The Wise Men could have partied at the palace, but they had a star to follow and a baby to meet. Comfort vs Change. You stand at the threshold, but it’s not too late to turn back, right?

And hey, it’s okay to mourn the end of a journey; it’s okay to regret the mistakes and the wrong turns, it’s okay to be angry at those who sent you down dangerous paths, who tried to derail your quest with words and swords. Change is a passing of sorts, and we need to lean into that, but we can’t live there forever, A destination, be it joyous or sad, always leads to a new journey eventually.

So be prepared; for change, for opportunity, for revelation. Grieve the season that’s ending, steel yourself for the season that is to come. Keep your eyes and ears open, because the descendants of Herod will try to trick you; be brave and speak out your dreams, because they might just save someone’s life, even if right now they’re just muddled visions in the dark of the night. Rest as one quest nears its end; pause, and then start planning the quests to come. Approach the stable, gifts in hand, knock on the door and wait for it to open. What lies beyond it may be familiar, but it may also be strange and new, an epiphany. We don’t know yet.

Because tonight is Twelfth Night, and the journey isn’t quite over.

A Weeping in Ramah (Matthew 2:16-18)

cranach_massacre_of_the_innocents_detail“A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”

Today is the Feast of Holy Innocents, or Childermas Day. We commemorate the Slaughter of the Innocents, the New Testament’s signature atrocity carried out when Herod the Great sought to eliminate a threat to his throne by engineering the murder of Bethlehem’s baby boys. Matthew’s gospel links this with a quotation from the prophet Jeremiah; it’s a familiar reading simply because of its connection to a familiar story. But what’s Matthew getting at here?

The key is the reference to Rachel. The wife of the patriarch Jacob, she died in childbirth in the region between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, with the region eventually becoming known as Ramah. Later in Israel’s history, Ramah became one of the places from which the Jews were taken into exile in Babylon – that’s the context of the original passage from Jeremiah, in which Rachel is the personification of the land weeping over her children being exiled, not killed. Matthew appropriates Jeremiah’s words to express the horror of Herod’s actions.

That’s all very interesting, but it’s not really the point, is it? The truth is, the Slaughter of the Innocents isn’t an isolated incident, an act of archetypal horror that exists within the pages of the gospel as an example of pure evil. No, we see the innocent slaughtered on a regular occurrence.

When I was 15, I visited Israel on a school trip. We went to the Yad Veshem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. In it was a hall filled with photos of children, all of whom had been gassed or shot or starved by the Nazis. You can’t walk through that room without hearing the weeping of Rachel. It echoes down the years: Dunblane, Sandy Hook, Columbine, Rwanda, Aleppo, child refugees. The Slaughter of the Innocents is a totemic example of the horrors we unleash upon children, not a one-off atrocity; Jesus was born in the midst of a world of destruction and death, was forced into hiding because of it.

So today we remember all the sins against the world’s children; maybe we need to pledge to work more actively against that. Maybe we need to reconsider how we vote, or how we spend money. Maybe we need to consider where we go to church, or if we’re willing to financially support denominations that aren’t proactively acting against child abuse. Maybe this Christmastide we need to awaken to the reality of the Slaughter of the Innocents and commit to responding with urgency whenever it threatens to recur in our own day and age.

 

St. Stephen’s Day

In an earlier post I said I’d struggled with Christmas this year,  that all the busyness and stress and associated chaos of 2016 had pushed out the reality of the Incarnation. But while that post was an honest attempt to grapple with faith and feelings, I have to confess its self-indulgence. After all, I still freely celebrated Christmas yesterday; I went to the morning service, the family gathered, we ate turkey, kids unwrapped a small mountain of presents.
No-one was arrested. No-one firebombed the church.

As part of the capital-C church, I’m theologically part of a family of believers that encompasses the world. Christians facing presection under IS, or in North Korea, are my brothers and sisters in faith as well as shared humanity. And yet I don’t live like that; I get introverted and insular and neglect the bonds of blood that unite me to the persecuted church. Maybe that’s something to remember on the Feast of St. Stephen, the day on which we commemorate the first Christian martyr.

Many Christians out there face arrest, face violence, face ostracism and shunning. Many find themselves unable to get jobs, or disowned by their families. Many see their churches burned; this happens even in a staunchly Christian environment like the US. Many claiming refuge for their faith find themselves having to articulate complex doctrine or dogma in a second or third language, and yet true faith isn’t a measure of someone’s academic theology, it’s reflected in their lives and their hearts. I’m sure many people turned away for not being a ‘true’ Christian have faith that would put me to shame, even if they’d struggle to articulate a theology of the Trinity on the fly.

How we respond to this affects everything – how we pray, how we worship, how we talk about God. The causes we support, the politics we espouse, how we respond to issues like the selling of arms and the welcome we give to refugees. It affects the rhetoric we legitimise, the actions we’re willing to overlook. If we truly believe we’re the sons and daughters of God, we need to make that a reality. We ignore our family at our peril.
There’s another side to this though; sometimes, in the comfortable West, it’s difficult to identify with the persecuted; rather, it’s easier to become the persecutors. Sometimes that’s because of our apathy, sometimes it’s because we see others as collateral damage in the face of a greater cause, sometimes it’s because we see them as enemies to be crushed. This cannot stand; the church thrives under persecution, but become the persecutor and eventually we die, we die but not before we become Cain.

Stephen was the first Christian martyr. There have been plenty more since. We need to remember them, speak for them, amplify them. And we need to remember they’re our family, our brothers and sisters in Christ, held together by the same blood, one church that holds together, even in the face of persecution, even in the face of suffering.

Christmas 2016: Mary and Joseph, José y Maria

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Jose y Maria, by Everett Patterson

I’ve struggled with Christmas this year; it’s come too suddenly, with Advent being railroaded by a thousand and one other things that have been shouting louder than the carols. Something has been lost and it’s been difficult to catch a glimpse of Bethlehem on the horizon.

But in the midst of this, I’ve been helped by a piece of art by comic book artist Everett Patterson. The piece, entitled José y Maria, depicts Mary and Joseph as a young Hispanic couple stranded in the car park of a seedy motel, the merciless light of a No Vacancies sign impassively looking on behind them. Their star is neon, their halos are adverts and the words of the prophets are scrawled on the side of a pay phone.

It’s a fantastic piece, and one that’s become something of an icon for me. In contemplating the picture I can find a new way in to the story, especially when put together with Bruce Cockburn’s ‘Cry of a Tiny Babe’. It reminds me that Mary and Joseph were real people, that they endured danger and difficulties, that the first Nativity took place in flesh and blood and wood and stone, not an alternative spiritual reality untouched by the world around it. I like to think that, just around the corner, there’s a drunk tank in which the characters from Fairytale of New York are singing to each other. I need the reminder that Christmas breaks through history and into our lives.

But we’ve got to make room for that. At his blog, Patterson points out that the perspective of the picture is designed to make us view the scene at some remove, as if we’re passing on the other side of the street, or driving past from the comfort of our car. We see José and Maria, stuck outside the motel in the pouring rain, but it’s none of our business. We keep on walking, driving; complicit with the dismissive innkeepers.

But then it’s easy to become estranged from the story, to forget that the incarnation didn’t just happen two thousand years ago in a Middle Eastern backwater, it’s an ongoing, present reality. God is still with us; Jesus is still Emmanuel. If Christmas isn’t any more than a historical commemoration then it has no more power than National Hamburger Day. But that’s not true, is it?

Because look at the picture again. Look at the feet of the characters, look amongst the beer cans and discarded newspapers and the graffiti that speaks of Word become Flesh. There’s a tiny shoot emerging from a crack in the pavement, new life sneaking past grey concrete. That shoot is alive with light and life and it’s growing in the heart of a scene that might otherwise appear without hope. The image has biblical resonance, but you don’t really need to know that to understand that the tiny shoot working its way out of the ground represents hope sprouting in the despair of life, hope breaking through even when there’s no room at the inn.

It’s been a rough year, a year marked by loss and pain and the world seemingly shifting and mutating into forms and happenings that we don’t yet understand. The stable in Bethlehem can feel long ago and far away. I’ve wanted to go there but the nights have been so cloudy that I can’t see the star.

But we don’t need to go to Bethlehem, because God is with us here and now; he stands with the homeless couple in the parking lot, he feels the cold of the rain, he’s experienced our worry, our stress, our despair. He knows all this because he’s been there and done that, and because of that he turns to us and says “do not be afraid”. And that statement wasn’t easily won: it comes from being laid in a feeding trough as a new-born and then, thirty years later, being nailed to rough-hewn wood.

So this year,  José y Maria remind me that it’s not about the memory of Christmas, it’s about the immediacy of it. It’s about trusting, not in history, but in the present, in relationship. And that trust may not be bigger that a tiny shoot sneaking into a big bad world, but it still needs nurturing, still needs protecting as our hopes and fears intersect on the story of Christmas and the God who was born in Bethlehem, who lives with us today.