So we’re 1-for-1 in church attendance in the liturgical season of Epiphany and in the calendar year 2020. Over the past few months, my attendance at formal (ha!) church services has been more scattershot than it’s been since before 2010 (my Decade in Review, had I written one, would have prominently featured my eventually successful search for a church home in New York City). Most regular readers of my church blogs will know this already, but in case you didn’t, I’m expecting the arrival of our first little one in May, and I’ve struggled mightily with the pregnancy symptoms that have helped me to get better acquainted than ever with my bed and my couch. And even when I was at church, much of the time I once spent writing was spent sleeping or dealing with brain fog or headaches that don’t make close and extended proximity to screens all that comfortable, so blogging fell to the wayside for the better part of the past few months. But I’m hoping, as the worst of the symptoms (very gradually) subside, to return to a fairly regular blogging schedule and figure out how to keep making this writing thing work in a way that will be sustainable when the little one arrives.
So. Epiphany. We remember one trio fleeing (the Holy Family) and another heading home (the Wise Men). Appropriate, since the news, in this young year, constantly asks me to choose between fleeing for another country or simply barricading myself and my small family in our apartment for approximately always. (I enjoyed, and by “enjoyed” I mean I did not enjoy, the Twitter discourse around Christmas regarding whether or not the Holy Family were “refugees.” Technically, at the moment of Jesus’s birth, maybe not, but by the time they fled into Egypt during/after the massacre of the Holy Innocents? I mean, yes, obviously. Seems like a pretty open-and-shut case of a matter of life and death to me!) It should be blindingly obvious to us, as Christians, at this time of year especially, that war, poverty, and the destruction of the natural world are great evils, and yet the election and news cycles invite us to debate these points, as if our tradition doesn’t repeatedly and explicitly condemn all of the above, as if the worship of empire didn’t bring about the death of the Holy Innocents and, eventually, of Jesus Christ himself. As James Taylor wrote in “Home By Another Way,” “A king who would slaughter the innocents/Will never cut a deal for you.” What is this other way?
We often associate the epiphany of Epiphany with the Wise Men’s visit with Jesus itself, but Micah’s sermon yesterday suggested that the actual epiphany is the dream in which the Wise Men are warned not to return to Herod. Like Joseph after his dreams, they choose against the empires, against the worst of what both religion and government have to offer: Joseph chooses not to divorce Mary or condemn her to death, and engineers the flight into Egypt; the Wise Men decline to share their intelligence with Herod or to further engage with what him and what he represents. Joseph says no to the ugliest excesses of patriarchal religion, the Wise Men say no to the bloodthirsty demands of a tyrannical sinecure. They all find their ways home, but not by the ways they came.
I think about this a lot as I consider raising my own child. If home is Christianity, if home is America, how will I cultivate healthy senses of these identities? How do I model saying “no” to the distortions of these identities in our current state of empire, appalling as it is, while ensuring that a sense of home remains? The Wise Men suggest an answer: they couldn’t stop Herod, not completely. But they could purposely choose a small disruption with huge ramifications. They could simply decline to play along.
We don’t know what happened to the Wise Men next. They never reappear in the Gospels. It’s worth noting that the Gospels lose track of Jesus himself, also, for nearly twenty years. I’ve often wondered if Jesus ever made his way back to them in those lost years, if he asked, What did you see? What did you find out? What do I need to know?
Maybe he did. Maybe they told him what he would need to know to complete his ministry. When you go up against an empire, you might still lose, they might have said. You and yours might suffer exile or death. At very best, you’ll be unpopular and poor. But you’ll give people hope. You’ll show people that there is another way.
And maybe that was enough.