A reflection on Matthew 2:1-12 by Andrew Stephens-Rennie for the Feast of the Epiphany
For several years I taught at a youth theology program at Huron University College in London, Ontario. My friend Bill, then chaplain to Huron, and now Bishop of the Diocese of Brandon, had a saying that over the years got drilled into my brain (and that of countless teenagers there for the program).
“If the gospel isn’t astonishing,” Bill would say, “you’re not reading it right.”
That has been a good and challenging word for me over the years. And whenever I think or start to act as though I’ve got the gospel figured out, and I know exactly what it means, these words come back and remind me that Spirit keeps breathing, Creator keeps creating, and that the Son continues to redeem and reconcile all things.
Epiphany is everywhere. God continues to astonish us and reveal God’s self in new and unexpected ways all the time – if only we had the time to pay attention.
“If the gospel isn’t astonishing, you’re not reading it right,” Bill says. This notion confronts those of us who think we’ve got this whole Jesus thing figured out, and can just go through life on cruise control. But sometimes you have to put on the brakes to stop and see what’s going on. Other times you have to jump on the accelerator and simply get moving.
There is no Cruise Control in the Christian life, or at the heart of the gospel. Simply put, we are not in control. Rather, “at its heart,” Bill would say, “the gospel of Christ is about Grace and Mercy.”
Grace is when you get what you don’t deserve.
And Mercy is when you don’t get what you do deserve.
So far, so good. It’s all pretty simple. Here’s Bill’s third and final contention: God always acts first.
God always acts first to extend grace and mercy. God always acts first to fill the world with the breath of life. God always acts first to create something out of nothing. God always acts first to reconcile all things back to God’s self.
That’s a God I can believe in. That is a God worthy of worship.
And this week, in a world of upheaval and conflict, suspicion, and violence, God gets on with this astonishing gospel plan right under Herod’s fearful nose.
Last week, in his marvelous Christmas sermon, Peter drew out an argument by English theologian Ian Paul, raising doubts that Jesus was born in a barn around the corner from the local Holiday Inn. Rather, he suggested, Jesus was born in the guest room of a family home. The narrative we’re so used to, the one on which so many of our Christmas songs fixate, the writer argues, is grammatically and culturally implausible.
Rather, having returned to Joseph’s hometown, Mary would have given birth smack dab in the middle of the living room, amongst the other relatives who had also been called home for the imperial census.
Thinking back over the last week, with 15 people crammed into Ericka’s parents’ house for Christmas – parents, siblings, kids, and a few hangers-on, I can’t imagine adding a newborn baby to that mix. It was chaotic enough for this introvert. Where was the time to read, or to nap in silence?
And yet, it is into the complexity of a human family – with all those crazy dynamics that come out at Christmas – that Jesus was born. And on that first Christmas, you can imagine that all eyes turned to the newest member of the family. Each with some ownership and responsibility for nurturing him, caring for his mother, and clearing out some space amongst the livestock for the baby to rest, and cry, and begin its bodily exploration of this world.
Last week, in his sermon, Peter drew out some further implications for our own discipleship. And there is one, in particular, that has stuck with me throughout the week:
Rather than develop a spirituality that takes Jesus away from where life is being lived, away and isolated with his parents in a stable, this explanation puts the incarnate God right in the middle of what’s going on now—the incarnation of God is in the midst of life—and so must our spirituality take seriously the world as it is, not be an escape from the hard realities of life.
I don’t know how it is for you, but every now and again I catch myself feeling as though my relationship with God might be stronger if I could only get away – just for a little while – from the realities of day-to-day life. If I could just put things on cruise control for a bit, and disengage from what’s in front of me.
And yet, this take on incarnation challenges that.
If anything, it challenges me to engage more deeply with the reality of what is right in front of me. The other side of that, of course, is the challenge to let go of the things that are not. There is wisdom in discerning which is which.
Two days before Christmas I found one afternoon to escape the house, taking with me Esther DeWaal’s book on Benedictine Spirituality. As I sipped an Americano in Rossland’s Alpine Grind, I immersed myself in a chapter focused on stability. In it, De Waal writes:
Here is something fundamental to human need. The Benedictine recognition of the role of stability is not a piece of idealism, it is essentially realistic.
Everyone needs to feel at home, to feel earthed, for it is impossible to say, “Who am I,” without first asking, “where am I? Whence have I come? Where am I going?” Without roots we can neither discover where we belong, nor can we grow. Without stability we cannot confront the basic questions of life.
Without stability we cannot know our true selves. For we are pulled apart by so many conflicting demands, so many things deserving of our attention…
We are pulled apart by so many conflicting demands. Just like Herod. So many conflicting demands, so much to do to keep his grasp on power. But here’s a new dynamic: astonishing news of a newborn king. That’s out of control.
And it leads Herod into further worlds of intrigue and genocide, one in which he tries to embroil the Magi. This story has so much to say about today’s political realities. And yet this time through, my mind was drawn to a more personal dimension.
It isn’t a stretch to suggest we live in a culture and in a city full of grasping for control. But the gospel does not call us to control. And the story we encounter today – the story of the Magi leaving Herod’s anxieties behind – calls us to rest in the stability of God’s love.
Even so, I often become captive to the desire to control my surroundings. With the barrage of news from the world over, I can also find myself taking on emotional responsibility for things over which I have absolutely no control.
In her chapter on stability, De Waal goes on to say:
For we are pulled apart by so many conflicting demands, so many things deserving of our attention, that it often seems as though the centre cannot hold. Simply at the level of working out an acceptable life-style the choices have now become quite bewildering.
And we can all fill in the blanks. Shall I do this, or that? Should I invest in this cause, or this one, or this one? In a world operating at breakneck speed, we often find ourselves adding more, and more, trying to control more, and more. But to what end? De Waal continues:
I may well end up flitting from one to the other until I have collected a ragbag for myself of well-intentioned but half-thought-out ideals based on a confused and superficial amalgam of some of the more attractive elements of each. The danger then of course is that I too become confused and superficial.
She concludes her thoughts in this way:
Instead of this bewildering and exhausting rushing from one thing to another, monastic stability means accepting this particular community, this place and these people, this and no other, as the way to God.
The Magi did not take on Herod’s quest for control, even though I suppose they could have. They had a sense of their journey, their call, and their quest. And they would not be deterred. They had to find the child whose star had captivated their attention – wherever it took them. And when they found him, they were overcome with joy.
A deeply moving revelation. A beautiful epiphany.
On entering the house, they knelt down and paid him homage, offering all that they had brought to honour the incarnation of God, in all its grace and mystery right there, in the midst of life.
And so, as we embark on this new year, we find ourselves gathered here in this particular community, in this place, and amongst these people. Entering this year together, I wonder how we too might be astonished by the epiphany of God’s very incarnation in our midst.