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!

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Hannah, Mary, and Miraculous Motherhood

1 Samuel 2:1-11
Luke 1:26-38

This Advent season, I have been reflecting on how thin is the line between life and death, between being and non-being. In my work as a hospital chaplain, I wait with families as someone they love crosses that line, a time that is bathed in mystery and wonder. But more personally, in the past month I have celebrated birth with two of my closest friends, and I have mourned the death of my unborn niece, lost to my brother and his wife at just twenty weeks. What a painfully exquisite juxtaposition it has been.

Most striking to me is that the division between life and death is the work of a single moment—of a last breath, of conception, of miscarriage—and of many moments—the length of an illness, nine months of pregnancy, a lifetime of hardship and joy. What tilts the balance one way or the other? Why does one person survive an illness while another does not? Why does one woman give birth to a healthy baby while another aches with emptiness? How do we make sense of reality transformed in the merest breath of time?

I hear echoes of these questions in our readings today, which include the words of two women whose lives radically change in a moment. They come to motherhood at very different times in their lives but by equally mysterious and miraculous means. Hannah has suffered years of infertility and endured the vicious barbs of other women, especially her husband’s other wife Peninnah. She has passed countless nights in tears and deep sorrow to the point that she cannot eat. Then, after years of fervent prayer, the priest Eli blesses her petition, the Lord remembers her, and she conceives and gives birth to Samuel, one of God’s prophets. After a lifetime of struggle, in a moment, Hannah’s barrenness becomes fertile. Her “death” crosses the thin line into new life.

Mary knows no such struggle and heartache when the angel Gabriel visits her. She has scarce begun to even think of babies and parenting when, in a moment of annunciation, she changes from a lowly girl into the mother of the Most High. Puzzled and frightened, she hesitates only briefly before saying yes to God and beginning the march of events that will culminate in another passage between life and death.

And as they walk the narrow edge of childbearing, both Hannah and Mary sing hymns to God, of favor found and enemies conquered, of faithfulness rewarded and status reversed. In God they find the source of life, the deliverance of the poor, the light of peace. And in death, darkness, barrenness, and pain they find God.

Perhaps my Advent musings, then, have led me to nothing more profound than to say with Hannah and Mary that God is in all moments. But perhaps that is also the most profound truth we can ever proclaim—that God is in all life, and God is in all death, and God is in the whisper of an instant that divides the two. So as we wait through these final days before the Christ child is once again in the manger, reflect for a time with me on all of the fragile moments of death and of life and fully know that God is there.

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Sarah Green is a per diem chaplain at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital-Weill Cornell in New York City. She is a candidate for ordination as a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and a graduate of Claremont School of Theology in Claremont, CA.