Jan 6, 2021
Gloria Austerberry, Certified Spiritual Director
We’re aware of elements in nature changing form
It is not every day we get rain from ice, but it happens. Do you remember a day like this? A fall shower froze, coating everything with ice. Two days later, without a cloud in the sky, bright sun shining, it seemed to rain! The trees had mostly already shed their shriveled leaves. Under them and close by, wind-driven ice melting in the warming sun rushed off the branches and splatted down like rain.
It played to my ears as joyful music for an hour. I walked amazed among the graceful trees in the neighborhood, drinking in the gift, feeling kinship with trees, sun, sky, birds, squirrels, and grass. The elements shouted that God’s loving provision for me and all creation would suffice, even in the cold of winter yet to come.
Scientists say that water molecules stick to each other in cohesion, and they stick to other kinds of molecules in adhesion. For me, on this particular day, it was enough to consider how the fact of ice becoming water and leaving its woody berth turned a sleepy moment into a spectacle of sun, wind, and nourishing rain. Falling leaves played their part in the dance. I was lost in wonder, praising our Creator God who makes all things new even in the darkest season.
Our Lord changed forms, too
The infant Jesus entered the world like we all did, in physicality and a certain messiness. The church year helps us celebrate the Christ-child, “God-with-us”, born anew in us, through Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. The Gospel of John says this Word of God “pitched his tent” (1:14) with us. Jesus chose to camp out with us, getting close to us right where we are. This very day, January 6, starts the Epiphany season of the church year. Scripture readings focus on Jesus’ ministry on earth, shedding light on what God calls us to do.
He came into our lovely and our messy
Our Epiphany focus starts with Easterners, the Magi, who studied and followed a new star in the sky. They finally located Christ in a humble dwelling, quite unlike the palace where they looked first. They traveled far, then engaged King Herod and religious scholars in his service to find the new king they sought.
Asking King Herod where to find the child-king made sense to them because Herod’s authority. It came from Caesar, the powerful ruler of Rome and all its conquered lands, which included the homelands of the Jews. The scholars direct the Magi, who succeed in finding the promised child. They worship him and present precious gifts to him. Although Herod had feigned a wish to adore the child also, he unfurls cruel hatred against his perceived competitor, and orders the slaughter of all the infant boys in the region.
Why ever should this horrible detail intrude into the otherwise beautiful story we revisit so often? We employ every imaginable way to dramatize the awesome significance of Jesus’s birth. However, the tragedy of the slaughter of the “Holy Innocents” we prefer to slip by unnoticed. We cannot sugar-coat it or explain it very well to ourselves, let alone to the little ones. But we must acknowledge, ever so reluctantly, that it is of a piece with hatred and violence prevalent in our world today.
With his power, the messy and hateful can also change
Just as natural events can be two-sided, like a winter storm that beautifies an urban scene and yet causes harm to people in cars that have accidents, Jesus’s stories, and our stories, can have contradictions. The new king dwells in a humble home. The little child seems to be a political threat to King Herod. Epiphany demands that we look below the surface of everything.
As the Epiphany readings have it, God’s will prevails. The boy Jesus lives, thrives, and grows to manhood. The Gospel writers show him beginning his ministry with words from the book of Isaiah he reads in the synagogue. The transformative work he claims through God’s Spirit astounds his hearers. He reads of good news proclaimed to the poor, proclamations of release to captives, recovery of sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and the acceptable year of the Lord. Jesus says God’s Spirit is accomplishing this as he reads the words (Luke 4:17-21).
Imagine being in that room, hearing this with your own ears! Marvel that the year 2021 is the acceptable year of the Lord!
Jesus then tells of Old Testament stories where God favors foreigners more than the children of Israel. This is too much for this hometown boy to say, the congregants conclude. “We know his parents! We saw him grow up! How dare he talk like this?” They leap up, throw him out of town, and try to shove him over a cliff (Luke, chapter 4). Hometown boy made good, or a scandalous outrage, Jesus passes through them to safety. Here is another contradiction: the Bringer of peace on earth and good will to all is despised and faces death threats at the start.
What a roller coaster ride we have with Jesus, when we take in all the details! It is like life as we know it today, actually! We bask in the warm sunshine of God’s love for us. Then in a heartbeat, we see ourselves broken and alone. A stray bullet may end the life of a promising young person. Home evictions happen during the pandemic. Some may despise us for addressing a controversial issue. Yet, there is God’s Spirit, Jesus’s Spirit, calling us into the sorrows and the joys of all the world. Calling us to follow in his way, transforming the world.
We get to be part of making that change happen
We do not have to go on a far journey like the Magi to share our gifts. We can thank the letter carrier for today’s delivery, and the check-out clerk for showing up at work. We can write loving thoughts to isolated residents in care facilities, pick up the phone to reach out, tutor a student, cook a meal. We can ask “How are you?” and show that we do not want to merely seem polite, but that we really want to hear what weighs on them, intentionally putting time aside for meaningful conversation.
Each kind act we do helps make for peace in a troubled world. Each time we show love and care to others we reenact the way God’s love has touched our lives. In the Old Testament we see the prophets go even further. They call for mercy and justice time and again. When we respond to calls to take a stand for racial justice, justice for any oppressed group, and justice for creation itself, we can meet challenges with the help of God we never imagined possible. In a dream God told the Magi to avoid Herod, to return home another way, to not enable Herod’s murderous intent.
It takes time, effort, and prayer to get involved for change in the oppressive systems of our society today that hurt people and the earth. Conversation, study, organizing others to take action with us, and depending on “the Spirit of the Lord upon us” are necessary.
“Let justice roll down and righteousness like ever-flowing streams.” (Amos 5:24)
Have a most blessed Epiphany season!
Gloria Austerberry, Certified Spiritual Director