We Need To Stop Sending Private Investigators After Jesus: A Manifesto
Every year we celebrate the season of Epiphany, but most of the time, like this year, the actual day of Epiphany falls on a weekday.
Big deal, anyway, right?
It’s a strange little holiday that we don’t celebrate very much.
We don’t get each other Epiphany presents.
We don’t hang up Epiphany lights or set up an Epiphany tree.
There are no Epiphany turkey dinners or Epiphany fireworks.
What is the point of this holiday?
Well, first of all, Christmas is ending. Today was the twelfth day of Christmas.
Jesus was born on December 25, and tomorrow, Epiphany, marks the day he is revealed to the world for who he really is, the Son of God.
Mary had twelve precious days to hoard him to herself.
Only Joseph and the shepherds knew he was alive.
But then the Wise Men arrive, and that is the first century equivalent of giving a press release. They witness his glory, and go out to spread the good news.
The word Epiphany means appearance or manifestation. Another word for what’s happening is Theophany—the appearance of God.
It’s remarkable that God is already allowing Jesus out onto the public stage at not even two weeks old.
Surely it would have been possible to keep Jesus’ identity hidden until he was a sturdier year old, or better yet, twelve years old, or better yet, twenty years old.
He’s going to be a target for curiosity seekers and fans and lovers and assassins, give the kid a chance.
Two weeks old and already the word is out?
Yes, the Word with a capital W is out, quite literally.
Because God coming to Earth as a helpless baby is a key part of the message.
So the ones breaking the news are the Wise Men, or the Three Kings.
The shepherds already knew about it, but they don’t exactly have much pull in society.
Who’s going to listen to them? They’re poor and insignificant.
Probably important that they were the first witnesses to the Incarnation.
But the Three Kings are heads of state. When they speak, people listen.
When they say, “We followed a star and found a savior,” people pay attention.
What strange characters they are.
How does one become a Three King, one of the Wise Men?
That’s a question I would dearly love to have known the answer to between ages 6 and 12.
Every single year in the Christmas pageant in our little Episcopal church, as soon as I graduated from being such a baby that I was an extraneous sheep like all the other pre-literate children, I had to be a Wise Man and my little sister Merideth got to be the Virgin Mary.
I was bitterly jealous.
I was tall for my age and wore tortoiseshell horn-rimmed glasses. I guess my look was more Magi than Virgin Mother.
Well, I was furious.
Merideth knew it, too. Every year after Thanksgiving she would start auditioning her dolls for who would play the Baby Jesus that year, holding them in her arms and looking angelically toward heaven while I fumed.
I quit at the earliest available opportunity, the year I turned 13, and stormed off to the refuge of many an angsty Episcopal teenage girl—the church nursery, watching the babies and toddlers.
It had the guise of noble self-sacrifice while offering the delightfully naughty benefit of missing the majority of the Eucharist, especially the sermon.
I should have taken the route of one of the young pageant participants I remember from my time here at Christ Church Cathedral.
She declared, with all the gravitas that only a four-year-old can muster, that she would be participating in the pageant not as a sheep with the rest of her age group, but as a tiger.
She was quite certain that there was a tiger in the original manger scene, she would be participating as a tiger, and that was final.
It’s a funny story, but it’s actually important to know who we are in the Christmas-Epiphany story.
In fact, we have to choose who we are in the story, or rather, our behavior will choose for us.
I was struck as I studied this story this time around by Herod, and how consumed by fear he is.
The Wise Men show up in Jerusalem and begin asking for the King of the Jews who is heralded by the star they have followed from lands afar.
Herod is terrified, and he’s not the only one. Matthew says, “When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.”
And how does Herod respond to his fear?
He tries to co-opt the Wise Men and sends them out to investigate on his behalf.
He doesn’t go to find out himself.
Why is that?
Well, he probably thinks he’s too big and important to go to some stable for an astrology-driven rumor.
But underneath that, he’s probably afraid that it’s true, that the true heir to the throne he disingenuously occupies has just arrived.
After all, the investigation is based on a fulfillment of prophecy that all the chief priests and scribes have just verified is authentic, that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem.
It’s so comfortable to think that we’re nothing like that nasty Herod.
But unfortunately we are all too likely to exhibit this same dynamic of behavior.
When have you sent someone else to find Jesus while you stayed comfortably at home in your own power and security?
Clergy and lay people have a tendency to do this to each other, actually.
Sometimes lay folks support the attitude, often without realizing it, of “the priest does the ministry. That’s what we pay her for, isn’t it?”
And then the clergy turn around and say, “I’m just here to empower the lay people to do ministry,” thus enabling ourselves to stay comfortably distant from actually caring and serving.
We all send other people to investigate Jesus, afraid that everything we’ve heard about him is actually true, and knowing that if it is, our old attitudes and habits are threatened by the reality of who this child really is.
But it’s actually a much more frequent pattern even than that.
Approaching the manger ourselves is an experience of extreme reality.
It is seeing the Word made Flesh, it is encountering Emmanuel, God With Us.
It is mustering the humility and the trust and the faith to put our entire selves in the hands of the fragile infant Christ, one who cannot heal or teach or save anyone, at least at the moment.
In the moment that God reveals Godself to us, we are utterly revealed before God.
It is the only way that encounter can happen.
In order to kneel by the manger, in order to see God in abject vulnerability in the Christ Child, we have to become equally vulnerable ourselves.
And that is a terrifying prospect.
So we send other people to investigate Jesus on our behalf, afraid that everything we have heard about him is true.
Think about our relationships with each other.
Think about the moments when we have to approach the frontiers of life with each other.
How often do we downplay or avoid those serious, important encounters and conversations?
How often do we stuff down anger or avoid confrontation, paper over grief or dim our exuberance, just to keep the situation smooth and comfortable?
That is sending someone else to investigate Jesus, because Jesus is always at the heart of the margins of life, the extreme situations and emotions, the places we want to avoid.
Jesus is in the wilderness.
He is in the stable.
He is on the Cross.
And we don’t want to go to those places.
But we don’t have to send someone else to investigate for us.
We don’t have to stay in our place of comfort and security and control that is really just a prison of fear.
Instead of Herod, we could be Magi.
We could set off after the star and go and investigate for ourselves.
We could set off to find Jesus and run the risk that everything they say about him is true.
We could set off to find Jesus and run the risk that when we find him, we will be changed.
It doesn’t require a literal star or some high-flown spiritual impulse of any kind.
I guarantee you something will happen to you this week that will give you the choice either to stay safe and afraid in Jerusalem, or follow the star to a place of poverty and lack of security to find Jesus.
I had two this week, actually.
The first was the birth of my parishioner’s daughter.
I arrived about 30 seconds after the delivery and was in the room within the first ten minutes of this child’s life.
It was beautiful and holy, tender and raw and full of joy.
The second experience was just yesterday, when a very dear friend of mine told me that she had stage III non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
It was beautiful and holy, tender and raw and full of pain.
In both of those experiences, I had the choice to send someone else to investigate or go myself.
If I had sent someone else to investigate, that someone else would have been the professional pastoral persona that I can put on like a mask, that lets me get through a difficult or intense situation and say the right things while remaining emotionally distant myself.
Your someone else that you send to investigate may not be a pastoral persona, but it is someone else.
It might be a mask of niceness, or a mask of confidence, or a mask of humor.
But this is us sending someone else to investigate Jesus, while we stay safe and afraid in Jerusalem.
And although I have done exactly that a thousand times, the grace of Epiphany must have been working on me this week, because I did not do that this time.
I was there when that baby was born, and I was there when my friend told me she might die.
It wasn’t some virtue of mine.
It was the Holy Spirit finally tricking me into following the star myself.
And the same thing happened to me that happened to the Magi. “When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.”
The naked presence of Jesus in the naked moments of truth in our lives—both moments of joy and moments of pain–can do nothing but overwhelm us with awe and drive us to our knees.
We cannot come out of that encounter without having been changed.
But we do have a choice about whether we allow that change to continue to unfold within us, or to go back to our old places of hiding, our old places of comfort and power and control.
It happened to the Wise Men, the change and the choice to continue that change.
The gospel says, “And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”
Let’s not go back to Herod.
Having found the courage to approach the manger as ourselves, to love and grieve and laugh and be present with one another without any safety nets, let’s not go back to the land of safe chains, the land of thrones made of fear and crowns made of dread.
“Having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod”—this is the dream.
I’m warning you right now—I’m warning myself—do not return to Herod.
We must to back to our own country by another road.
We must return to everyday life changed by finding Jesus for ourselves, having given up the quest to make someone else do it for us.
It is a terrifying prospect.
Even the glory and the joy shining out of that manger cradle does not quite overcome the itching discomfort of laying down all our armor, all our masks, all our personas that we send out to do the real work of life and ministry.
How will we find the courage to do it?
We will find the courage to do it because someone else did it first.
God came to us Godself. That is the entire meaning of the Incarnation.
God did not send anyone else to investigate, to encounter, to be in relationship with us.
The prophets, the angels, the messengers of all kinds were only in preparation for God’s purpose all along: to come to us Godself.
And God did not even have the benefit of being a self-sufficient adult like us.
God came as a fragile human baby, the most vulnerable form possible.
That is the knowledge that gives us the courage to leave Jerusalem to come to Bethlehem.
And Bethlehem may be by the side of a hospital bed or in a coffee shop, at your own dinner table or in a homeless shelter or feeding ministry somewhere nearby.
The star is always there. We choose whether to follow it.
When the Wise Men arrive, they give their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
When we come ourselves into the presence of Christ and kneel naked of spirit before him—that is the only gift he ever wanted of us.
To simply come ourselves.
Because everything they said about Jesus back in Jerusalem is true.
And that God came to Earth to be with us, Godself, no one else, because God simply could not stay away—that is the most true of all.
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