By Sister Janet Marie Peterworth, OSU
Epiphany is God’s day for show and tell. Really, it’s true—it’s God’s day for show and tell and it is our day—at least it was my day for recognition. Just as surely as Matthew needed to write this story of the Magi for his early Jewish/Christian community, I needed to hear it again. This time, as I reflected, I tried not to hear it with old ears, in the old way. It is a quaint story, and it is so familiar. This time I tried not to wonder if there really were Magi, if there really were just three, or if they came on camels or white Arabian horses, or if there really was a star or what planet it was and if there really was a dream. I tried to stay with the idea of recognition and not only recognition, but more importantly response…my response.
Epiphany is a day of recognition. It is the day that we commemorate the moment when the Christmas mystery was unleashed to become a world-wide revelation. Rome had not recognized the Christmas mystery. The Jewish people had no insight into it. It took shepherds the lowest of the low. And it took a politically naïve and politically inept question from Gentile strangers to bring insight into the Christmas mystery. And would you believe that Herod, one of Caesar’s puppet kings, in all his wickedness was one of the first to have insight…one of the first to realize what the Christmas mystery, fully recognized, can do to one’s life? Matthew tells us Herod was troubled, and further, all of Jerusalem with him. For Herod sharing with another king meant he would lose some of his power and this was troublesome for him. For the people of Jerusalem, recognizing that maybe this baby could be their long-awaited Messiah and realizing that they might have to share that Messiah with Gentiles was troublesome for them. It meant foreigners might draw close to the center of Jewish life. This was troublesome for the Jewish priests and Pharisees. Jerusalem would not be the same after this visit by the Gentile strangers. Recognition of the Christmas mystery would call for change.
And recognition changed the Magi, too. As they moved on in their journey toward recognition—and their recognition was progressive–they find the infant king in a simple house. What faith it must have taken to recognize a king in such humble surroundings! What trust it must have taken to open their gifts to this simple child! But somehow insight came, recognition was there…and the Magi responded. And you know —life was never the same after that—starting with the fact that they had to be re-routed on their homeward journey.
Remember T.S. Eliot’s poem, “Journey of the Magi”? “A cold coming we had of it. The very worst time of the year.” The poem goes on to talk about what a hard journey it was with grumbling camels and discontent men and expensive hostels. They finally arrive and were not sure what they had seen. At the end of the poem, the Magi storyteller reflects that this was all a long time ago but “we returned to our places these Kingdoms, but no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, with an alien people clutching their gods.” That is what recognition of the Christmas mystery means, I think! That is what it meant to the wicked Herod; he was no longer at ease. That is what it meant to the Jews of Jerusalem; they were no longer at ease. That is what it meant to the Gentile strangers, and that is what it means to me. I can no longer be at ease with the old dispensation…with life going as usual. Nothing can ever be the same once Jesus has broken into my life. Once I have recognized the Word made Flesh inserted into this world, it can’t be business as usual. I can no longer walk in darkness once I have seen the great light.
And, you know, when I thought about that and reflected on how many Christmases I’ve celebrated but how seldom real recognition of the Christmas mystery has come with those celebrations, I was troubled…along with Herod and all of Jerusalem and the Magi.
I recognized this year—maybe for the first time or maybe once again in a new way—how dangerous and unsettling this warm, chubby, innocent curly-haired baby lying in the manger really is. He is surely as dangerous for me there, as he was for the Pharisees when he rode into Jerusalem some thirty-three years later. Remember the scene in Jesus Christ Super Star where the Pharisees sing, “He’s dangerous?” That baby in the manger is dangerous!
The Christmas mystery is dangerous and troubling for me because it calls me to radical conversion. Jesus calls me to power-sharing, and He calls me to allow the stranger in. He calls me to let people who are different from me get close to the center of my life. This infant God is inviting me to re-route my life and with the Magi to no longer be at ease in the old dispensation.
I said at the beginning of these reflections that I needed this Feast and I needed these readings, but there is a part of me that doesn’t want to have God’s show and tell project to go on any longer. There is a part of me that wants to say: “Some other time. Some other place. I don’t need any more light. I don’t want any more insight.” But now the insight has come and just as surely as the Magi followed their star—their insight—I will have to follow mine. I don’t know where this will lead. I don’t know when I am going to be called upon to share power. I am not at all sure when a stranger or a foreigner will want to get close to the center of my life and I don’t know where the re-routing will take me. All I know is that I need to be ready to respond as the Magi did with great faith and humility.
When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea,
in the days of King Herod,
behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying,
“Where is the newborn king of the Jews?
We saw his star at its rising
and have come to do him homage.”
When King Herod heard this,
he was greatly troubled,
and all Jerusalem with him.
Assembling all the chief priests and the scribes of the people,
He inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.
They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea,
for thus it has been written through the prophet:
And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
since from you shall come a ruler,
who is to shepherd my people Israel.”
Then Herod called the magi secretly
and ascertained from them the time of the star’s appearance.
He sent them to Bethlehem and said,
“Go and search diligently for the child.
When you have found him, bring me word,
that I too may go and do him homage.”
After their audience with the king they set out.
And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them,
until it came and stopped over the place where the child was.
They were overjoyed at seeing the star,
and on entering the house
they saw the child with Mary his mother.
They prostrated themselves and did him homage.
Then they opened their treasures
and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod,
they departed for their country by another way.