On Thursday, we celebrated Epiphany as the climax to the 12 days of Christmastide. The new year is underway, and we begin it with the Infant Savior lighting the way.
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary, his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
I imagine Mary reacted to the arrival of the Magi in much the same way as when the shepherds paid the holy family a visit in the stable: “Mary treasured these words and pondered them in her heart.” Much of our faith is found in the earnest questions we ask- maybe even more than the answers we get. In fact, we continue to question today exactly WHEN the magi arrived at Jesus’ side. We don’t really know when, but we know what occurs when they do. Jesus’ divine nature is affirmed yet again. To live in faith like our ancestors Mary & Joseph is to receive the gifts of the divine in our lives, with wonder and awe- unanswered questions a part of the journey.
I suspect it’s the wonder that brings the Christmas story to new life each year. Will Joseph dismiss Mary upon learning of her pregnancy? Or will he stay by her side? Will someone allow Mary a place to lie down as she endures the pain of labor, or will she be denied entry yet again? Will King Herod find Jesus and put an end to his story so soon? Or will he live to be the savior of the world?
The concept of journey is a deep part of the scriptural narrative. And as we begin a new year, it’s the perfect time to recommit to our own pathway of following Christ. What does that look like? For one, it means we’re on the move- we’re learning, growing, adapting, coming into the potential that is our birthright: to bear the image of God. Like the Maji, compelled by the signs of the stars, embarking on a meandering journey to discover the divine within a human. Some mysterious Spirit compelling them onward.
Have you ever tried to explain to someone else that feeling you get when a prayer or shared experience or an image of nature catches your breath? It’s weird, right? The rational world seems to fade just a bit, because you KNOW you’ve encountered something real, a connection within your soul, even if you can’t find the words to express it. That, my friends, is the journey the Christ-child inspires in us- something divine experienced on earth. Stories are often how we choose to convey that type of spiritual connection, which is why I love to lift the story of the Maji- the strange unveiling of Jesus’ divine nature. Scripture is a gift, meant to be pondered like Mary, a word of life and hope.
This year we missed opening gifts with my family- stupid flu. But I made certain the kids opened their grandma’s gift (my mom) over our video call, because I knew it was an experience that would connect us across time and age.
On Christmas Eve, I shared a bit about my Grandma Yvonne, who has since passed away- but whose spirit remains very much a part of my family. She had a few tricks up her sleeve come Christmas. She LOVED laughing, mostly at herself. Like, you tell her she spilled chili down the front of her white shirt, or that she had butter smeared all over her face… and instead of getting upset or embarrassed, she would let out a great big belly laugh- and she meant it. Joy found in the strangest ways.
We always knew what gifts grandma brought, because she wrapped hastily: sometimes with duct tape or three types of paper; often we’d find loose popcorn as a filler. We never quite knew what grandma was up to, but we could count on a surprise. In particular, one gift each year would be wrapped a certain way. One of us four grandkids would luck out and get this gift. On the outside it looked like any of the others. We’d peel back the paper, open the box, only to discover-- another wrapped box inside. Maybe you know this trick, yes? We’d unwrap that box, open it to find yet another. With each unwrapped gift, my grandma’s laughter got louder. On and on, sometimes 5-6-7 layers deep these boxes- until we’d get the actual gift. We enjoyed what she gave us, of course, but what we learned to look forward to most was the sound of her voice filling the room. The journey she would take us on, filled with joy in not knowing what came next.
Obviously, I needed to keep this tradition alive, so when the kids opened my mom’s gift over video, she watched box after box unwrapped, until shared laughter filled the screen.
Our lives of faith are like unwrapping that kind of gift. Part of the delight of living is not knowing what we’ll find when we open another box. Who knows what 2022 brings our way? I don’t, but I do know where I intend to direct my gaze: toward Christ who lights up the world with wonder and awe. The one eternal mystery: God in the flesh.
I know it can be unnerving not knowing the outcome of another year. Can you even imagine what must have raced through Mary & Joseph’s minds as they heard news that the King was trying to take the life of their firstborn son? Forced to live as refugees in a foreign land? They show us the way to live in faith. Keep on moving, follow the guidance of the wise ones, and receive each day as a gift that it is- to be opened with wonder and awe. Oh- and use those star words to guide your hearts toward greater awareness of the gifts you bear in this world.
Rev. Emily Munger
delights in connecting sacred texts with everyday life.