A Star and Dreams More Powerful

Today is Epiphany, my favorite day of the Christian calendar! It is the celebration of when the wise leaders, religious  leaders, scholarly leaders of the world acknowledge the humility of God-among-us-in-the-flesh. It is the great revelation of the world acknowledging God–even as a small helpless babe.

In the narrative of the wise men (Matthew 2) God is found because the learned, the insightful, the sought-out-for-advise-giving saw a star rising in the East. These leaders, the wise men, saw a new star and followed through foreign lands in the hope of seeing the greatest of a kings–a babe asleep in his mother’s arms. I wonder what the other wise men said as they packed their bags for the long  journey. Were they laughed at? And if not why did only three make the journey? What would they have told the border guards as they crossed from nation into nation? Surely, telling them you were going to see a new king would have raised suspicions. Is that why Herod called them to meet with him? Come to think of it, the wise men surely knew Herod was among the most ruthless of rulers in the ancient world, and THAT is saying something. And still the wise men had the courage not only to cross the desert on their journey, but to risk their lives in crossing Herod because they held onto the hope that the child beneath that star was more powerful than the most feared ruler of the world.

One of the things that always strikes me in the Christmas-Epiphany narratives cycle is the role of dreams. Joseph is encouraged in a dream to remain with Mary rather than dismiss her in her pregnancy. The wise men are warned in a dream after seeing Jesus the infant, not to return to Herod, and they go home by another way. And finally, the dream seldom heard as more that a footnote, is Joseph’s dream in which the angel again comes and warns him to take Mary and Jesus and flee into another nation. We live in a world where we seldom make decisions based on dreams, at least the ones that come in sleep. In the modern world we are more apt to follow the big dreams that come to us by way of national pride or Hollywood. These are not the dreams of the biblical narrative. The dreams of the wise men and the dreams of Joseph are, rather, those dreams that come to us seemingly out of nowhere when we have gone inward enough to still ourselves and discern the will of God.  It is often God’s dream for our lives that leads us on journeys more powerful than we could have imagined, even if it is not a journey that follows the screenplay we ourselves had envisioned.

What dream has God put into your heart, that frees you from the tyranny of oppressive forces, and calls you onward to great journeys in search of the promised hope of justice and the personal opportunity to behold God and know, beyond all doubt that no matter the cruelty of the world, that God is with you, and indeed all of us?

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The Wisdom of Women

I must confess, Epiphany is my favorite day of the Christian year. It is ripe with possibilities that often go overlooked. It also has deep personal meaning to me because of the tradition my family of origin created to celebrate the arrival of the “kings.”

The three kings, found in only one gospel, add a mysticism to the Christmas story that I venture to say we find no place else in the entire Advent-Christmas-Epiphany story. It is the kind of mysticism that may only exist in one other place in Christianity, namely the Resurrection.

Epiphany—realization. It’s the story of the arrival of the “kings” into the presence of the babe called Jesus, and his parents. It’s a story not only of realization but one of being equipped for the holy journey. Here we have the three “kings,” scholars from afar, arriving to welcome the child of a young and unknown Mary and Joseph. Mary and Joseph we know had been told in visitations and dreams that there was something of celestial destiny associated with their child. But the then there was the arrival of these strange kings who had held audience with the local ruler in their search for Jesus. It does not seem strange to me that scholars, kings, paying attention to the signs of their time and heeding the leading of the divine in their own lives would seek Jesus out. Indeed, I think the grown Jesus once spoke of the need to heed the signs of our own time.

We too, I believe, are each in some way to be equipped for the journey ahead of us, be it a journey we anticipate or not. There are signs of our coming reality that we may not always see for what they are. Perhaps one of the reasons I love Epiphany so much is that each January 6th of my school age years, I would awake to find three wrapped gifts at the foot of my bed. They were not Christmas gifts, and although they were wrapped, they were never shiny toys designed to delight. No, they were shoes, socks, a shirt…usually things that needed to be replaced at that time of the school year. I looked forward to these gifts sometimes more than gifts from Santa, and often I was allowed to discover what lay inside the wrapping in the privacy of my own room—no family snapping photos, no requests to model what might lay inside. Simple gifts designed to equip me for the journey ahead. It would be some where in my twenties that I would realize one of the reasons behind my visits from the wise men was the fact that—living paycheck to paycheck—my mother could not always buy what she wanted to get me for Christmas at one time and this was her way of “making up” for what seemed to her—not me—as meager Christmas mornings. Mother’s wisdom.

As I think about the story of the three kings, it really is strange that they would give Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. What strange gifts. Yes, we get that they were valuable, but what is a baby from a poor family to do with those? Ah, yes, the family was soon to flee into Egypt to escape from Herod. Gifts of wealthy to empower refugees fleeing for their lives. The gifts the wise men gave equipped Jesus’ family for the journey but the gifts were also over-the-top extravagant. They were gifts in the ancient tradition; gifts of tribute given to a king—a person of great power in the world. And in this sense the gifts were ones of recognition of the arrival of the person come in the form of a babe to live among the marginalized in an occupied land.

—A babe whose ultimate omnipresence in the world we just celebrated at Christmas. Wait, what? Usually we think of God as omnipresent in the world, not Jesus. Yes, I hear the theologians among you complaining. And I protest. My thought for Epiphany 2012 is this: the gift we received in Jesus’s birth was Jesus bringing God to us and showing us how to bring out the recognition of the Holy Spirit into the world in return. It was the gospel and work of the grown Jesus to invite in the poor, the disabled, the women, the children, those who had no voice in society into the conversation, to demand that they be heard and that they be fed both literally and with justice. Christmas is the beginning of that, Epiphany the recognition of it, and the rest of the church year is a discussion on how to live into and out of the babe recognized by kings.

This is hard work. It is being shaken to the core, ceased by the spirit, and acting upon completion. As I write this, I am returning from a denominational meeting in which the discussion of diversity and inclusion not only left out but further marginalized people with disabilities. In the meeting, I was sitting and processing how to respond. But then a lone woman stood up, interrupted the meeting, spoke out for justice, and sat down. Then I stood up and spoke on the same topic. Then a third. And the church was silenced into the realization that Jesus is still present and calling for the inclusion of the marginalized, and the Spirit is still moving within the church with an overpowering wind when necessary. Woman-Spirit in partnership with wisdom.

As we close this devotional season at Women Who Speak in Church, I invite you to take this realization of the omnipresence of Jesus calling for liberation of the marginalized, and the knowledge that the Spirit is still blowing the winds of God’s justice with you into this new year. May we all live fully, knowing that we have been somehow equipped for journey ahead.

Amen for Epiphany!

Observing Epiphany (When Epiphany Wasn’t Cool)

I’m sorry, but the Lectionary readings just aren’t doing it for me. And to be honest, I am just not interested in parsing some verbs or offering some kind of literary criticism or insight of scripture at the moment. I am, however, into fun. So let’s try something different.

At the risk of sounding a little like Sophia from the Golden Girls, picture it: we’re in Marietta, Georgia, maybe in the late 80s. It’s Christmas, which is the only holiday my mother would decorate for. After all, everyone knows that Halloween is “the Devil’s Holiday” (I am being sarcastic). My dad has managed once again to string the 15 foot Santa and reindeer replica between the two trees in our front yard. The Christmas tree with all its different colored lights and icicles is sparkling in the living room. It’s late. My parents are in bed and I am sneaking down the hallway with my Rainbow Bright in hand, quiet as a mouse. (Don’t act like you don’t know what Rainbow Bright is.) I get to the living room, now crawling across the burnt orange shag carpet, past the wood paneling that would really mess with you now. Finally, there it is! The Nativity. For some reason I was fascinated with the figurines. I am not really sure if it was the real hay or the fact that I played with them like dolls, but I remember spending hours on the living room floor playing with the nativity pieces.

Having some 20-plus years to think about this childhood experience I think I have made some conclusions. I think I was fascinated because the traditional nativity scene just throws everyone together and when you think about it… what a bunch! There are angels, a young mother, a carpenter, shepherds, and Magi—all of which are hovering around a little baby in a feeding trough. Even with this kind of diversity, the Magi stood out for me. I remember thinking they were a tad overdressed and that their presents weren’t really practical for a baby, but as a kid that is about as far as it went. As an adult I can see why I was intrigued back then, because even now I am still intrigued. There is just so much we don’t know about them. For example, do we really know how many there were? We don’t know at what time in Jesus life they visited. We don’t really even know what they did in life even though some scholars have suggested they were astrologers. There are more questions than answers. What we do know is that they are the proverbial Other. They represent the Gentile, the foreigner, the outsider, and yet they were beckoned to come and see about Jesus, a Jew.

Even with all the mystery that surrounds them we do know two things. Scripture records the Magi as having brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh. There are those who ascribe symbolism to the gifts and that may be the case; it is interesting to note that such descriptions are given about the gifts and not the givers. Scripture also states that through a dream the Magi were warned about Herod, thus making them protectors of the Christ child. The Magi, whoever they were, journeyed together, brought gifts, and eventually become the saviors of the child. I love it! For me it is the quintessential expression of inclusion.

Those many years ago as a child I was celebrating Epiphany when Epiphany wasn’t cool, and I didn’t know it. I was observing the power and importance of Emmanuel. I recognized that God beckons all ranging from shepherd to Magi to come and see what God has done. Perhaps it is a lesson I had forgotten as an adult and needed to be reminded of through the eyes of child that with God, all are welcome!

Who Do You Say This Child Is?

I love the celebration of Epiphany! I love the celebration of recognizing that God is among us in the world. For this is what January 6th on the Christian calendar means. This is what I have always been taught. This year, however, as I have journeyed through the Advent/Christmas season I find myself questioning the meaning of this festival.

If what we celebrate on Epiphany is the recognition of God with us, then what does that say about the rest of the Christmas story? Let’s review.

  • There is Mary, who is informed by Gabriel that the child she will conceive will be the Son of God.
  • There is Elizabeth, who recognizes who Jesus is (still in utero) via the reaction of the child in her womb.
  • There is Joseph, who is visited in dreams (also while Jesus is in utero) and told who Jesus is.
  • There is Zechariah, who is told by Gabriel in the holy of holies who Jesus is to be, and who experiences the holy power by being forced into silence for nine months.
  • There are the shepherds who are visited by the angels in the field and told that Jesus the Christ child has been born—this is why they take leave of their fields and rush to the manager on the First Noel.
  • There are the three Magi, informed of Jesus’ birth not by angels but instead by a star.
  • And there is even King Herod, who searches out the newborn “king” so desperately that he massacres a whole generation.

Are the spiritual experiences and revelation of who Jesus is prior to the arrival of the Magi somehow invalid? Do I need to get liberation on this story?

There seems to actually be a lot of recognition in the gospels about who the baby Jesus is, very apart from the reference to the Magi—which is only in the Gospel of Matthew after all. Both before and at his birth there seems to be something widely known to be special about this Jesus. Really, are all babies visited by scholars, politicians, and night watch security guards as they are attracted to this new life?

On Epiphany we traditionally celebrate the recognition of Jesus’ being something divine come into the world. Perhaps this had to do with the divinity of the star in the story of the Magi. As the celebration of Feast of the Magi—Epiphany—approaches it occurs to me that the Magi are but the last in a series of persons to learn who baby Jesus is. Many people were already aware of the birth of Jesus and somehow aware of the significance of his birth. These were not just any people—they were the parents, family, workers, and outcasts of Jesus’ world come to pay homage to the “newborn King.” In some sense the arrival of the Magi is just the signal that all those outside Bethlehem and Israel are to be affected by this child.

In the lead up to this Epiphany, I am aware that the recognition that something special had arrived to all the Earth occurred long before the arrival of the Magi. And, after all, why do we need to wait for them? But this also reminds me that it is up to each one of us to recognize the holy come into the world; the Christ child in our midst, and to respond to the world out of that reality. It comes down to a question Jesus will later pose to his disciples, and bears recalling at this season: who do you say that I am? Who do you say this child is?

Oracle of Possibility

It almost seems fitting that the last day of the calendar year would come to us with such a richness of daily lectionary texts that it is hard choose much less move on into what may lay ahead. With that in mind let us begin to begin.

One of the lessons for today is from the prophetic book of Isaiah:

Lift up your eyes and look around;
they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far away,
and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.
Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and rejoice,*
because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you,
the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
A multitude of camels shall cover you,
the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.
All the flocks of Kedar shall be gathered to you,
the rams of Nebaioth shall minister to you;
they shall be acceptable on my altar,
and I will glorify my glorious house.
Who are these that fly like a cloud,
and like doves to their windows?
For the coastlands shall wait for me,
the ships of Tarshish first,
to bring your children from far away,
their silver and gold with them,
for the name of the Lord your God,
and for the Holy One of Israel,
because he has glorified you.

—Isaiah 60:4-9

This text reminds us that liturgically we are in the season after Christmas, the season in which I always eagerly await Epiphany—keep reading your WWSIC advent devotional for that story. As I read this text, the oracle telling of people coming from “far away” on “camels of Midian” with “gold and frankincense,” I can not help but think of the three scholars or kings who followed the star to find the baby called Jesus. As a hospice chaplain who knows that music touches us in deep ways we do not fully understand I find I have been singing the hymn “We Three Kings” quite a lot this week and will continue to do so next week. There is one verse from this hymn that stands out as shocking to me, it goes:

Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes of life of gathering gloom
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb

It is as if our tradition really wants us to understand that the good things yet to come only do so with the death of what currently is.

It is of course not the best policy to read the Hebrew Bible through the lens of the New Testament, historically this has lead to many problems. So I had to look into this text to see if it was hinting that the old must go away to make room for the new. As I look at the scholarship on Isaiah 60:4-9, I note that David Peterson in his book The Prophetic Literature: An Introduction comments on the “global religious perspective” of the oracles in Isaiah with reference to these verses and earlier chapters of the book (78). Marvin Sweeney (whom I will always call Professor Sweeney) in his book writes that Isaiah 60:1-9 is an “announcement of restoration directed at Zion concerning the return of YHWH’s glory and the approach of nations who will return Zion’s son’s and daughters and bring gifts and sacrifices to YHWH’s altar” (81). In some ways, the text today is an oracle of hope and peace, the return of God’s Kindom on earth. And, yes that does seem to indicate a change—from what is to what will be.

What does change mean to us? On the micro and the macro levels, certainly this is something we are all considering this week if not today and tomorrow. Here we have an oracle of change, and oracle of hope and restoration from what for the people and context the oracle was given to was complete destruction. Let us think about that for a moment….Few of us in the modern context know total destruction and exile as behind the context of this text. There does seem to be growing recognition in our American society however that the social and economic structures we live with are not working for us as they once did. Might this oracle also be for us? Might it also bring a message of hopeful change to us as we stare into the sunset of 2011? It is possible there could be that hope for us, too, in this text? Look again at the text. It is not grace freely given here, but grace after surrender, grace after intentional move toward the Kindom of God. I wonder what it is that we need not just to surrender, but as Sweeney suggests “sacrifice” and allow to die so the new may come into being? For this is what both the Christian and the secular traditions of New Years Eve suggests. What is it we must we let go of in order to bring our gifts and riches to the Kindom of God to proclaim the glory of God?

***

“Kindom of God” is not a misspelling of Kingdom of God, but a known and accepted feminist interpretation of that ideal. Read our Feminist Eschatology for more information.