What images of Epiphany stand out for you this year? Our most common image is of the star in the gospel of Matthew—a star guiding wise men to the infant savior to whom they wanted to pay homage.
Their journey is not a journey into exile, nor is it a journey home from exile. It is more like a pilgrimage to an unknown place in honor of a future promise, rather than a past accomplishment.
Most pilgrimages are to shrines of persons whose stories and lives of holiness are known retrospectively. But our wise men, of unknown origin and number, are said to gather to seek a newborn king who is not from their own lands, and whose greatness has still to unfold after the child Jesus grows into an adult.
The story of the wise men ties Gentiles into God’s covenantal history with Jews — Gentiles who find their way into a Jewish story by following their own sage traditions and astronomical guidance. Likely legend, it draws us into a strange kind of journey – a journey not of exile, not of returning home, not of moving, not of pilgrimage to an established sight. The wise men’s journey is perhaps most like the story of the Hebrews who leave slavery in Egypt and wander in the wilderness under the guidance of God via pillar of fire and moving cloud, heading towards a promised place.
But the wise men do not settle in by the side of the infant Jesus, to live near him always. Instead, they go home again, by their separate ways, content to have borne witness to a promise.
And it is like that for us too, isn’t it? We wait and hope with anticipation during Advent, and at Christmas celebrate the Word incarnate in a vulnerable infant. We gather to sing Joy to the World and Silent Night. Then we blow out the candles and go off into the night, back to our separate homes, some of us putting away our Christmas decorations well before Epiphany. We do not settle in beside the baby Jesus. We go home and give him space to grow up, to encounter us again as an adult. The incarnate one also becomes for us the crucified and risen one, whose teachings about the Kingdom of God never cease to challenge us.
This Christmas season one child tried to find a light to guide her journey. On January 2, seven year old Sailor Gutzler survived a plane crash in Kentucky. She tried to light a glow stick or torch with the fire from a burning wing to help her find a path through the trees where the plane had crashed, but couldn’t get the stick to light. So she followed a light she saw in the woods, walking a mile to it through thick forest and underbrush without shoes in 38 degree weather, until she came to the house that was the source of the light.
This has been an image I associate with the light of Christ this Christmas and Epiphany season. Despite her age, Sailor had some training by her family in wilderness survival, and that training cultivated an attitude of figuring her way out. Likewise, even with the guidance of a star, the wise men had to stop and ask for directions. They changed course. They adapted to their circumstances, under inspiration that came only as they risked making a grave mistake by consulting Herod.
What Sailor found was not a home – not her home — but a place where she could reconnect with the human world and survive.
What the wise men found was not a home – not their home — but a place where they could bring respect and gifts for a newborn child whose authority they trusted would touch many, long after they themselves had gone.
The song of the Little Drummer Boy envisions each of us making an Epiphany journey to the home of the newborn Jesus. We bring nothing but ourselves – ourselves as we are at this moment, mixed up in some ways and figured out in others.
And then we go back to where we live, knowing that the child we have honored is also the Risen Christ into whose own journey we have been baptized. Our own journeys are now united with one who walks before, with, and ahead of us, revealing light every step of the way.