Today much of the Christian church celebrates a feast called Epiphany. 12 days after Christmas, the traditional remembrance of the Magi who came from the East to find the new King. The word comes from a stem of shining, light, appearance, manifestation, with the intensifying prefix. As in that crucial star, that juxtaposition of planets that inspired the scholars to pack up their camels or elephants and trace the migration of Abraham. For everyone without Jewish ancestry, this is a day to be thankful that the Messiah's grace extends beyond all human constructions of boundaries, nations, classes, genders, roles. Because God ensured that even as a baby Jesus would be announced to the world beyond Palestine. In fact we see in the story a dual effort of God to make things clear, known, with dreams and light and stars and clues. And of humans to understand, with questions and study and history and observation.
And we see not just enlightenment for the Magi, but rescue and provision for the family. Gold, and spices, probably came in pretty handy as currency when running for their lives across international borders.
December was not an easy month around here, or anywhere. 2021 does not so far look a lot better. Besides the obvious: COVID hovering like a dark cloud, vaccines still a distant dream for most of the world, one new low after the other with our democracy in the USA as we brace for contentious elections in Uganda, family far away . . . there is the daily slog of life in Bundi. Before 8 am most days we are confronted with hard stories, today a woman with AIDS coming to ask for help, a friend telling about her very sick adult daughter being taken to church for prayers against spiritual oppression, some confidential issues on email. We hit the ground running to the hospital. The tiny tiny infant born at 26 weeks is back up to 700 grams, wearing her little striped crocheted hat splayed between her mother's breasts, a sliver of hope for a woman who has lost every previous child. But, so tenuous. On the Paeds ward I find that 13 of the 50-ish patients are malnourished. The boy who had his spleen rupture in a beating needs a transfusion, he's breathing fast and looking distressed. Multiple kids await transfusions by the end of rounds, their lifeblood melted away by malaria or sickle cell or trauma or hunger. A child we nearly lost last week is still with us though, and miraculously we get a positive TB test giving us a life-saving path to recovery (it's a fatal disease that can be completely treated if we only find out). Five days this week we have evening zoom meetings--three of those days are 4-hour conference times, the kind of meeting that used to occur in the context of fellowship at a retreat center or hotel; and now occurs sitting on stools at our kitchen counter staring into a computer. It's good work, grounded in routines and relationships. But it's not terribly glorious.
I suppose for Mary and Joseph, there was relief in surviving the birth, wonder during the visits of the shepherds and the recognition at the Temple . . . but mostly the post-delivery time in Bethlehem might not have felt so glorious either. Perhaps they found better accommodations, ways to wash clothes and find food. Perhaps there were negotiations with relatives our landlords. Perhaps Joseph was looking for work to give Mary time to recover for the walk back to Nazareth. Then just when they may have been tempted to doubt whether the angels had been only imagined, the surprise visitors. Gifts. Wonder. And chaos.
Because God's presence is not typically something that leaves the situation calm or straightforward. Epiphany is immediately followed by flight, by genocide. A baby shines; the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms react with a vengeance.
Yesterday one of our Serge team leaders (hooray for PhD theology students) explained "hallowed be thy name" as the pulsing force of love at the heart of the universe. A kind of molten gravity, a weight, a truth that anchors us to this life. An epiphany I suppose: holiness-gold-starlight-power-purity-presence packaged in a baby that changes the entire arc of history. The one sure thing upon which we stand; love. And yet that love requires faith, as we run for our lives with Mary and Joseph and the baby to Egypt, as we evade the dark murderous slaughter. Epiphany as the lava core of revelatory grace shining and drawing us in; epiphany as the encounter with disruption, the gateway to expel us out into good trouble.
Would you pray with us into 2021? The verse I have taped on my wall this year is from 1 Corinthians 16: 13-14:
Watch. Stand fast in the faith. Be brave. Be strong.
Let all that you do be done with love.
Sounds epiphany-worthy, prepared for evacuation, cognisant of danger. Centering into God's presence, propelled out to the world. A lot of standing against difficulty, and a lot of tempering everything with love. We feel poised at a point like Joseph and Mary as we peek into 2021, in need of miracles, God moving rulers to make a way. Pray with us.