Epiphany: we can’t go home again

Do not now turn away from the brilliance of that star in the east which guides you. Become a companion of the holy kings; accept the testimony of the Jewish Scriptures about Christ and avert the evil of the treacherous king. With gold, frankincense and myrrh, venerate Christ the King as true God and man. Together with the first fruits of the Gentiles to be called to faith, adore, confess, and praise this humble God lying in a manger. And thus, warned in a dream not to follow Herod’s pride, you will return to your country in the footsteps of the humble Christ.

Bonaventure, The Tree of Life, 6 in Bonaventure: The Soul’s Journey Into God, The Tree of Life, and The Life of St. Francis (New York and Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press), pp. 130-31.

As I reflect on the missionary themes of the season of Epiphany, I am struck by these thoughts from the great doctor of the Church, a contemporary of Thomas Aquinas, and minister general of the Franciscans at a time of great turmoil. For him, the star leads us with the three kings to “this humble God lying in a manger.” He invites us to join the first fruits of the Gentiles in faith and devotion, so that we might return to our homeland “in the footsteps of the humble Christ.”

But of course, we can’t just go home to the tried, true, and familiar. T. S. Eliot famously observed that the Magi had come to see a birth, but also found death. That they could no longer be at ease here in the old dispensation. The manifestation of the world’s true King and the one true Light shakes loose our settled convictions and patterns of living. It causes us to forsake the path of least resistance and to enter into new and unsettling relationships and ways of life. Ways of life based not on domination but on brotherhood and sisterhood.

As the Episcopal Church, among other Christian bodies, wrestles with a sea change in our self-understanding and mission, we too would do well to consider what the Magi saw that night in Bethlehem and how it changed them. What might it be for us to be called to greater faith? How might we best adore, confess, and praise this humble God? And how might that be Good News in a world that longs to hear it?

There’s a lot that we can do in terms of mission and program, in terms of structure, in terms of engagement with our communities. But it all begins with Christ, who reorders our priorities, gives us new horizons, and turns our lives around.

It is instructive that the two great feasts of the Western Christian year, Easter and Christmas, follow desert periods of preparation, are celebrated with great joy, and then culminate in great missionary feasts and seasons. When we behold the humble God, lying in a manger, as when we see him lifted high upon the Cross, we are changed. We are pushed out, beyond the security of a rented room at an inn. We are driven outside the gate, out beyond our walls and defenses. We are summoned, in the great joy of the resurrection, beyond the locked doors of the upper room, and out into the highways and byways, out into the public square.

Because in Holy Baptism, we do not go into the waters alone. We are brought into relationship, not only with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, but with every human being—indeed, every living thing. By our baptism into Christ, we are called to the life-changing work of reconciliation, and into a universal fellowship of love.

The Rev. Bill Carroll serves as Rector of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio. His parish blog is at here

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