The Epiphany of the Lord
Have you ever tried to size up a stranger from a distance? When the police do it these days we call it “profiling”…but we all do it from time to time. Someone catches your eye—maybe it’s mere curiosity, or maybe there’s a sudden romantic attraction—and you begin to look for clues, to read the signs, attempting to figure this person out. You look at what he’s wearing, how she carries herself, and even begin asking questions of others, using a combination of observation and intuition to formulate an idea of just what sort of person he or she might be.
Sometimes we read the signs rightly, but other times we get them all wrong. You might assume the ring on her finger means she’s spoken for, and so decide not to approach and engage her in conversation…which means you’ll never find out that the ring is a keepsake from her grandmother that she pulled out of her jewelry box this morning.
There’s only one way to really get to know another person, and that is if the other person speaks and opens his or her mind and heart to you. We may try our best to gain knowledge from the outside, but the inside must be revealed to us. And when that person reveals him- or herself, then we must adjust or initial perceptions—confirming what we got right and correcting what we got wrong.
That little insight from everyday experience can shed some necessary light on the life of the soul.
We live at a time (although we’ve seen it before in history) when people want to divide spirituality from religion. We’ve all heard it: “I’m spiritual, just not religious.” There are any number of reasons for this. Some people are just asserting their independence, and don’t wish to be considered a member of any particular faith. Others believe it would be insensitive, or arrogant, or downright undemocratic, to make any specifically religious claim on knowledge of the absolute. Some think that differing religions only serve to divide the human race and disturb the peace. Others are convinced that all spiritual paths are equal and lead to the same conclusion. Many claim they can encounter the divine just fine in their family, in their work, or out in nature, and so they don’t need any outside help or interference—thank you very much!
And so we end up with a lot of folks who are spiritual, but not exactly religious; who are comfortable with vague intuitions of the holy, with the basic, common wisdom shared among many traditions, but not with specific, definitive claims to the truth; who are seekers, but not quite believers.
The thing is, when we settle for spirituality alone, God becomes something for us to discover—as if the Almighty has gone and gotten himself lost, and it’s up to us to bring him out of hiding. It makes us the active party, and God pretty passive. Even more, it tends to make God a vague presence, a distant and disinterested power, an abstract force. And such a God makes no concrete demands of us—and we rather like discovering a God on our own terms and based on our own expectations, which might even be able to manipulate.
The God of Christianity, however, is not like this at all. The God of the Bible isn’t an abstract force, but living and personal. The Lord isn’t standing far off, waiting for us to figure him out all on our own; rather, he has spoken to us, opening his heart and mind, revealing himself. In fact, God is the seeker—pursuing man. It’s earth that’s shrouded in darkness and clouds, and glorious light from heaven that dispels them—not the other way around. It’s God self-revelation that gives order, focus, and direction to the vague notions and longings of the human spirit—both confirming what we got right and correcting what we got wrong.
The magi help us to see how this applies to each of our lives. Who are these magi? We don’t really know. They’re likely from Babylon or Persia. And they’re clearly star-gazers: a cross between astronomers and astrologers, who not only study and record the movements of the heavenly bodies, but who also attempt to find meaning in them. In other words, they’re seekers—and they represent the spiritual seekers of all times and places. But despite their great intelligence and keen intuition, they still don’t really know where they’re going as they follow that star…that is, until they come to the Holy Land and encounter the Jewish people. By way of King Herod, they come in contact with the chief priests and scholars of Israel: the experts in God’s revelation.
The Israelites were a people specially chosen by God. But while distinct and unique, they weren’t chosen for themselves, as if they were somehow better than everybody else; they were chosen for the sake of all people, of all seekers. Israel is not just one nation among many, pursuing a spiritual path equal to all the rest. To this particular people God has spoken his mind and opened his heart, gradually revealing himself, forming and preparing them for the crowning moment of his revelation: when he sends the Messiah, his Son.
Now the magi can find what they were always looking for! It’s no longer a vague search, and ambiguous quest, but something very, very specific: in this town, in this house, resting on this young mother’s knee, is the One that all people always and everywhere seek.
We should learn all we can from science and philosophy and literature. We should study the world’s great spiritual traditions to soak up their wisdom. But we must also realize that this will never be enough—that such knowledge and insight must yield to something far deeper. We Christians have become stewards of the mystery made known by revelation. All spiritual seeking remains incomplete unless it draws us to the God of Israel, to that swaddled infant lying in a Bethlehem manger, who is himself God’s great Epiphany: the manifestation of his mercy in our human flesh, the revelation of his love for the whole world to see.
We thought we were seeking God. It turns out we’re the ones being sought.
In an age that so often settles for spirituality alone, we must not be afraid or ashamed to share our religious convictions. Revelation is our inheritance as Christians, but it’s one that all people need. Share what we believe and help the seekers of our day to find what they’ve been unknowingly looking for all along.