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One of my confessions about the church year is the wonderful variety I find in the different character of the seasons. If we are paying attention, we feel the unbridled joy of Christmas as a single event, the coming of an incarnate Lord among us, God made human so that we might become divine, as the early church fathers put it. So strong is the pull of this joy that it reaches, for most of us, beyond the reports of retail sales, the list of cards to send that grows like a weed every year, all the things we do to both celebrate and control this event of a “God with us”. At some level, we know that we do not have to understand it; we simply accept this event that comes unbidden into our lives and the depth of the love of God that it reflects for each of us.
But Epiphany and the season that follows it make us work harder. Older than Christmas, Epiphany compels us to search out what this God-with skin-on means in each of our circumstances, among the poor and the lonely, the heartbreak and the hope that are fused into our lives, the sense that we are journeying with the disciples to try to make sense of why the world feels so different. It begins with a baptism, one in which the heavens are opened, the Spirit descends like a dove, and a voice cries out that, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well-pleased”. But most of us, as wonderful as our baptisms are, spend our lives trying to determine what that event means. Embedded in this life-changing gift is the hard work of determining the meaning of this manifestation of the love of God and proclaiming it by word and example, as our prayer book has it. What it means is uncertainty, and in a time when we make idols of our ability to determine the trajectory of everything from the weather to our stock portfolios, that uncertainty can be deeply unsettling.
The challenge of Epiphany is this uncertainty, the hard work that we do to see God made manifest in the smallest events in our lives. When I was asked recently by one of the young people of a parish I had served, “Why do we let Jesus into our hearts?”, my response was that we let him in because that is where he lives, and we would not deny him a home. The hard part, however, is being able see the face of this Christ among us, in the stranger and among those we say we love.
Embedded in this challenge, however, is an opportunity to know that the love of God is greater than any of our attempts to measure or quantify it. What it demands is a kind of ability to be attuned to the presence of God made manifest while understanding that our own view of this world will always be incomplete. Just as our salvation is dependent on one another, so is the knowledge that we are playing a small but irreplaceable in that salvation, a part whose effects we may never know. As Esther de Waal puts it in one of her collections from the ancient desert mothers and fathers:
Let us live with uncertainty
as with a friend
to feel certain
means feeling secure
to feel safe is unreal
a delusion of self
knowing we do not know is
the only certainty
letting the self be lost into Christ.
My hope is that Epiphany and the weeks following will draw you from the things we think we know and toward the mystery of the Christ made manifest in all the unexpected corners of our lives.