This past Sunday many churches recognized Epiphany. This event recognizes one specific story: the journey of the Magi from “the East,” who want to pay homage to a child who has been born the “King of the Jews.” They have deduced this baby-king by reading the stars, and even though they are from a completely different land, the Magi undertake a long journey to revere an infant of another culture and religion. Of course, Epiphany, literally, means some kind of personal revelation of a new concept/realization/experience that has the power to change one’s life or way they look at the world. It’s a massive “aha” moment. Or at least that is how I usually define it, but the word can also mean “the appearance or manifestation, especially of a divine being.” In the case of the Magi, the Epiphany is the first manifestation of Jesus to the Gentiles.
During this winter break I went for a walk at Lake Padden with a new friend. She had wanted to swap stories about how we have experienced God in our lives. I had made a comment a few weeks before about having heard God talk to me, and she wanted the particulars. The bonus was that I got to hear bits of her story as well.
I told her about the two instances that I have deemed as God talking to me, and in the telling of those stories, I realized another, and then another, and then another, when it felt like I was receiving pretty clear direction from God. I’m really, REALLY cautious about stating “God told me,” like REALLY, and yet in these occasions it feels fairly safe to restate to others with at least a little confidence that “It certainly felt like God was speaking to me.” These experiences were quite significant in my life, and it felt good to remember them as a group of incidences.
My walking partner relayed stories to me where she had woo-woo experiences that she, in the same cautious way, said were occasions where she thought God was communicating with her directly. The interpretation might be a little sketchy, but her best explanation was that God was reaching out to her, which induced a sense of wonder, gratitude, and mystery.
Two weeks prior I had a lovely phone call with a person who used to attend Echoes but had moved away. They told me that they had had a recent epiphany experience with God. They wanted me to know that God had reached down and revealed God’s self to them, and they were basking in the glow of the love, acceptance, and harmony of that encounter. My skeptical self is usually to be like, “hmm, okay…” It’s possible that the energy behind this encounter will fade, but there’s no point in MY denying that this epiphany really happened. And in the retelling of their story I learned a few things theologically that were really profound. God met this person, and I got to hear the story because they wanted to say thanks that Echoes had given them a safe space to re-envision the church as a place that could be safe. They said, “Echoes led me to the river of God, but didn’t push me in.” After this experience they feel like they are in the river, and that Echoes had a role in getting there. I loved hearing that.
This past week, in reading the story of the visit of the Magi in preparation for Epiphany I was struck by the vortex that was created by the birth of Jesus. Jesus is born and the shepherds are recruited to drop what they’re doing and worship this newborn baby.
Jesus is born and travelers from the East show up because they’ve been reading the stars and they want to locate the “child who has been born the King of the Jews” because they want to pay homage to the child.
We don’t really know who these people are. Christmas carols would say that they are three Kings from the Orient, we have no idea how large the party was, no idea what their occupation of society position was, nor exactly where they were from. So we cannot confirm that there were three, that they were kings, nor that they were from the Orient. There’s good reason to believe that they were magicians or astrologers, but we don’t know. And if they came from a long way off they might have had a really party with them, maybe men and women. There is so much speculation around this story, speculation that adds nothing of value.
The people presumably had NOTHING to do with Israel. They aren’t Jewish, they don’t need to be in good graces with Israel, and they probably had careers that would be very reviled by the religiously-observant in Israel. But they saw a star, determined what it was, and seemingly could not resist coming to Jerusalem to find this infant who would become the King of the Jews. It’s not like we have stories in the Bible where this is a common practice.
Something about this story, and this baby, pulled them in.
From a long way off.
From a very different cultural context.
From a very different religious context.
From a very different political context.
And yet they came.
Maybe or maybe not on camels, but they came a long distance.
The stories that I have experienced, that the friends I mentioned above have experienced, that these travelers in the Matthew 2 text experienced, plus the shepherds, plus the crowds that gather to hear Jesus preach, plus the millions of people throughout history who have been pulled in, mysteriously, inexplicably, to this Jesus person…it all kind of sounds like a vortex.
And I didn’t really know what a vortex really was, but it sounded appropriate, so I looked it up.
I got, “a mass of fluid (such as a liquid) with a whirling or circular motion that tends to form a cavity or vacuum in the center of the circle and to draw toward this cavity or vacuum bodies subject to its action; especially: whirlpool, eddy” (Merriam-Webster)
So, something swirling creates a pull towards the center of the swirl by the very nature that it’s swirling.
Jesus seems like this swirl, this vortex. He is born and people start gravitating towards him immediately. Shepherds come, travelers from the East come, and even Herod get pulled in toward him when Herod perceives Jesus as a threat.
If Jesus really is a vortex, how are we pulled in?
In the conversations that I had with the people I mentioned earlier it was helpful for my connection to God to consider how and when I had been pulled in by God.
This being Epiphany, and it being the beginning of a new year, I’m wondering of the many ways Jesus might still be a vortex. In the course of discussing this concept at a weekly clergy gathering today, someone said something like this: “Maybe it’s simply a fact of realizing that we’re in a vortex toward Jesus. That in itself might be the Epiphany.” Maybe so.
- Charis Weathers