A good friend and maturing spiritual master clued me in this year to the depths of Epiphany. I learned that, during this Christian festival of lights, believers for thousands of years have dwelt upon Jesus’ humanity. I like that. There is a sense that we got back permission to be human when God did it.
This epiphany prayer introduces three important texts for the festival:
Today the bridegroom claims his bride, the Church,
since Christ has washed away her sins in Jordan’s waters; the Magi hasten with their gifts to the royal wedding; and the wedding guests rejoice, for Christ has changed water into wine, alleluia.
The magi tell us something profound about the nature of our humanity. Have you ever met a religious person who lives a life so beyond this world that you don’t know whether to revere or pity them? I am not so afraid of raw human pride. But when you mix it with religion, the results get explosive and often violent.
This is why the author of Matthew foils so starkly the comparison between Herod– the religiously sanctioned King of Israel– and these faithful magi from the east. At its most simple level, the point is that Jesus is King to all the world. But we must dig deeper and ask some hard questions. After all, these non-Christians followed a star and were actually right about it. Their astrology worked. This should unsettle the average Christian.
We must also ask: what kind of humans were these who considered bowing their dignity low before a baby hundreds of miles from their kingdom? These are certainly as much unlike Herod as possible, who could not travel 6 miles and discover the creator made flesh on earth. When he did, he sent his force to kill the babe. Well, we can learn a lot from the magi, who were not fueled by their projects. They were drawn on by hope. They not only knew but gave themselves to their destiny, which was utterly tied with the cosmos. And as they brought gifts from the earth to the swaddled baby, they knew that they must consider worthless their royalty or status if they were to gain the worth of human dignity they found on their knees before their maker, even if they knew him not.
Epiphany is about breakthroughs. But these moments of aha insight don’t take us into space. They ground us further into our humanity. When our deepest religious epiphanies come, we are taken beyond our selves and often asked to give up our most cherished titles. Yet, we always come back to our awkward, feeble tongued, issue filled lives, which depend on the earth as much as we toil upon it. Still, somehow we are just a little bit more ourselves and a pinch more the type of humans we always wanted to be in the first place.