There are different ways of seeing this feast of the Epiphany such as being about a long journey, Jesus as a guiding light, or welcoming peoples of all nations. It also raises the question as to who do we follow. Is it the depraved power of King Herod and its abuses or the life-giving power of Jesus? In Herod, and contemporary leaders such as Donald Trump, and George Bush before him, we see brutality and paranoia where violence is justified against so-called ‘bad people’.
Churches and religious institutions are not exempt from such violence as seen in the colonisation of Indigenous peoples, the Crusades, inquisitions, as well as toxic teachings that cause pain and suffering to people today and which have nothing to do with Jesus’ message. In the Gospels and Paul’s writings, God’s power is portrayed as subversive, vulnerable, life-giving, merciful and where second chances are offered. The Epiphany story, as the Christmas story, shows us how God comes to us in Jesus without overpowering us but dwells among us and loves through us. Today’s message contradicts hyper-patriotism, the ‘othering’ of foreigners, and any attempt to fit God into narrow religious categories. We are challenged today to transcend blind ethnocentrism, exceptionalism, and expand our horizons to at last become citizens of the world. The word ‘epiphany’ means the manifestation of God who is a God of peace and social justice; a God centred on the world and the cosmos.
The coming of the Magi upsets the political equilibrium. It called into question the rule of an insecure king whose anxiety, fear, paranoia and sense of threat to his power led to the killing of boys under two years of age. The politics of domination and of costly resistance that resulted in Jesus’ death on the Cross were present at his birth as children were being murdered. Their encounter with Herod and for the child in the manger also provoked a crisis for the Magi. When they left the child, their ways of thinking were shaken up and their priorities challenged. Would they collude with the power hungry Herod or follow the God revealed in this child? As with any crisis we may face, this crisis meant not coming out the same whether it be for the better or worse. A crisis reveals what is in one’s heart – how big or small. Many have experienced this in the current pandemic as they faced the question of prioritising power and violence and maintaining institutions and structures over vulnerability and peace relationships.
Pope Francis constantly calls us to develop a ‘culture of encounter’ which includes all people and all Creation. A genuine encounter cannot leave us as we are as occurred with the Magi. They could not return to their old ways and take things for granted. Herod’s response to the Magi mirrors our culture and the church where a focus on the individual and the expedient makes us see the other as foreign and threatening. It prevents the kind of response of the Samaritan who, as Pope Francis writes in Let Us Dream let himself be struck by what he sees and is changed because ‘he stops, pulls up, acts, enters into the world of the wounded man, throws himself into the situation, in the other’s suffering, and so creates a new future.’
In Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis invites us to see how COVID-19 demonstrates of our intimate connectedness which requires establishing networks of solidarity at all levels of our lives. As we approach 2021, we are invited again to look for ‘epiphanies’ or manifestations of God among us and do things differently as we shake ourselves out of our status quo and beyond the limits of our comfortable relationships and thought patterns. We are challenged to see traces of God’s presence everywhere - particularly in places and people easily overlooked-the margins. The call is to expand our horizons and see ourselves as sisters and brothers in the world.
Daring to step out of our comfort zones, going beyond the familiar and safe, looking at our sisters and brothers and sharing their experience and befriending them makes a ‘culture of encounter’ possible. It involves entering the life of ‘the other’ whether as individuals, communities, a church or a nation. It means, as Pope Francis says, moving to the world’s margins and peripheries which may as near as the next street or distant parts of the world. Wherever it is, we need to expand our horizons and boundaries of concern towards people that God choose to make a home amongst – ‘the least among us’. After Donald’s Trump’s inauguration in 2016, Paul Bayes, a UK bishop, was alarmed that ‘Christians’ had uncritically supported Trump. He saw it as collusion with a system ‘that marginalises the poor, a system which builds walls instead of bridges, a system which says people on the margins of society should be excluded, a system which says we’re not welcoming people any more into our country.’ Australia has also been successful in building such a system. Such collusion and injustice is made possible by our silence and when we see ourselves as distinct from and ‘other than’ others. The religious leaders of Jesus' day had worked out a somewhat peaceful accommodation with the Roman Empire as has have many parts of the Church in the USA with Donald Trump as well as in our country in the face of many injustices. Accommodation and complicity results in silence on injustice. The Magi took another road!!.
God’s presence is found in engaging compassionately and sharing with others, and protecting and defending the least. We cannot be content with our ‘faith’ if it does not touch suffering people and ‘the least’ among us. We cannot be content when our church leaders make decisions based on the dollar and remain silent when Indigenous people call for a voice in this land, when asylum seekers languish in detention centres for years, when women voices are ignored, or when our government spends on military hardware rather than social welfare. The One who attracted the Magi also attracted Samaritan adulterers, immoral prostitutes, greasy tax collectors, despised Roman soldiers, and ostracised lepers – and he would pay the price for that.
We have choices. We can respond to the broadness of God of mercy or contain God within the bounds of our doctrines and imagination? The magi chose another road. They chose to do things differently – to be ‘about the things of God’ - the things close to God’s heart. As we begin another year, we might listen to those seekers, especially young people, who want more than what conventional and ritualised religion can offer. God is bigger than any ritual or tradition and is always waiting to encounter us anew, somewhere beyond our expectations.
Epiphany is any time when God appears in surprising places and pushes against our constructed realities. It may surprise us in the places and people where we might meet God. It may surprise God when we courageously show up in places and situations and be with people because we have taken another road.
The pandemic is opening our eyes, helping us to recognise the centrality of relationships in our lives and the importance of community, revealing the intrinsic interconnectedness of all things. We can make the foolish claim that tenderness triumphs and that love wins. We have a choice. We can begin to imagine a new way of being together on this planet. We have seen that many people have made that choice already by their courageous actions to provide health and pastoral care during this pandemic; who have dedicated themselves to protect the elderly, prisoners, those in care facilities, refugees and asylum seekers from Covid-19 infection; when people have tried to be creative and bring beauty into deserted streets and dark corners by playing music solo from balconies or on Zoom. These and many other such actions nourish us and give rise to a new way of being together.
Pope Francis invites us to an ever deepening understanding of Epiphany. He constantly acknowledges the presence of God in all faiths, in all nations, and in creation. His message is that we are tied together in communion with all living things by bonds of reciprocity where the dignity of every person is respected and the earth cherished if we are to overcome the violence of exploitation and domination.
Epiphany calls us to wake up – to grow up and to return home as the Magi did ‘by another way’ that was not the way of ethnocentrism, wealth, or cooperation with kings, priests and empire but remember that God is for everyone and may we hold our doors open as wide as possible to everyone.