I have the privilege of living next door to an Anglican colleague who is a specialist in liturgy. He still has his Christmas wreath hanging on his front door – but now, with a star in the middle, it has become an Epiphany wreath. He tells me that it is to remind his Methodist neighbours that Epiphany is (for many) a season, not a day, and that it still continues. His Methodist neighbours are only too pleased to have such authoritative justification for leaving our own wreath up for a few weeks longer!
Epiphany is concerned with the revealing of God in Christ; it is about the glimpses of glory that come in unexpected places. So it is both surprising and appropriate, then, that it is bound up with a story of political power struggles and the fragile ego of an insecure autocratic leader. Surprising, because such places are not where we expect to encounter God; appropriate, precisely because God delights in encountering us where we least expect it.
As the world holds its fascinated gaze on the inauguration, this week, of the 46th President of the United States, a part of the fascination comes from watching as that beacon of democratic idealism navigates its way between the right – so fundamental to democracy – to protest, and the temptation – so potentially damaging to democracy – to turn to violence in order to enforce one’s wishes and reinforce one’s privilege. And we hear the debates about damage, violence and death caused by differing sides in very different protests; how comparable are the Black Lives Matter protests to the storming of the Capitol? Is violence or damage to property ever justified in a political cause? Were the Trump supporters representative of white working classes, too long overlooked by the political élite, or of white entitlement, experiencing loss of privilege as persecution?
As Christians, perhaps we should be attentive to the season, and add into these questions and debates, another deeply important one – where does God make surprising appearances in the whole situation? And, indeed, where is God in our own political and public life?
The travellers from the East, that first Epiphany, were clearly men of great wealth, and, it seems likely, significant power. They were not Jews, nor had they any political part to play in the life of Judea. They were outsiders, and yet guests to be received with a measure of courtesy and caution; guests who felt in no way unworthy to arrive at the ruler’s palace in Jerusalem, and yet guests who were not above arriving at an obscure house in Bethlehem. They expected births written in the stars to take place in a royal setting, and yet were open to being directed to the least of the cities of Judah. They were Magi – people of standing within their own religious and cultural life, who yet were prepared to find divine action in a far-away land and a foreign religion. They were revered, and yet willing to pay homage to a young child, having been ‘overwhelmed with joy’ at finding him (Matthew 2:10; NRSV).
In contrast to these visitors stands Herod. He has power, privilege, authority, and yet he is driven not by self-confidence, but by fragility. He is motivated by the fear of losing his position, and driven to extreme measures in pursuit of a toddler.
How different these responses are, to God’s coming in Christ! On the one hand is joy, and a willingness to go to the ends of the earth in order to see and to worship. On the other hand, there is fear, hatred, denial, atrocity. Or, to put it another way, God’s coming asks of us a question: are we ready to find God at work in unexpected people and places, and to recognise in that encounter an invitation to know ourselves and others as God’s beloved children, of infinite value precisely because of God’s loving grace? Or are we afraid of the challenge that might follow, to set aside our cherished ways of measuring our value and that of others? Are we ready to be surprised by God, or do we look simply for a vision of God which reaffirms our place, our privilege, our sense of superiority? Does our response lead us to service, or do demand to be served?
This is not just a question for the citizens of the USA. This is a question which should open up every aspect of our lives – our political ideals, our unconscious prejudices, our sense of justice, our interactions with others, our use of power, our willingness to cede power to others…
And above all, it is a question which strikes at the heart of who we are: how do we value ourselves and others – by wealth, power, talent, privilege, or by the measure of God’s love, revealed in Christ?