A priest and performer considers religion, the arts, and the often thin space between sacred and secular, church and culture, pulpit and pew.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

On Not Getting "Back to the Garden" – Thoughts on the Feast of the Epiphany

Scripture is full of all kinds of stories – intimate and large-scale, joyful and tragic; stories of loss and reclamation, of sinning and redemption; of life and death and then even more abundant life – you name a situation that’s part of the human condition, and you can probably find it somewhere in the Bible. But ultimately the narrative of scripture is story of returning: of finding our way back to God. Ever since Adam and Eve lost their way and found themselves on this side of Eden’s gate; ever since disobedience fractured the creatures’ relationship to the Creator, we have all been on a journey: a long, long journey home by another road.

Most of us like to think we have our life all mapped out - we are IN CONTROL. Then something unforeseen happens: we get the pink slip – or maybe the job promotion - and with either one, life changes for us and for our family. We have retirement all figured out, where we’ll go, what we’ll do - and then the market takes a downturn and we lose money; or a troubling diagnosis comes and rather than traveling, we are forced to spend our time healing - or not – and grieving. We get halfway through a degree program and realize that the career we have had in mind is not how we want to spend our future. The spouse leaves, the grown child moves back home; the list goes on and on. “Best laid plans.” We have all experienced what it’s like to have to take a detour – most of us more than once. The spiritual journey can be like that, too, of course, because for people of faith our spiritual journey is our life journey, encompassing all those twists and turns and detours of career and health and family and financial well-being and relationship. In all of that we trust God to show us the way as we navigate both the rough patches and the good times.

 Matthew tells us that a group of “wise men” – kings, magi, astrologers, whatever they were – saw a moving star in the sky and followed it west toward Jerusalem. Did they come with the intention of worshipping Jesus, or were they simply paying their respects to a future monarch? Did they have a conversion experience when they presented the gifts? Whatever their original intentions, the wise men play a brief yet critical role in the story of Jesus’ infancy. They arrive at their destination, do what they have come to do and once done, prepare to return home - gifts presented, homage paid – with just one quick stop on the way to give that great manipulator King Herod the information he seeks.

And then comes the dream, the angelic vision that arrives in sleep. And it is at that point – where their plan falls apart and reforms itself, where they lose control–that their true journey begins. All their best laid plans could not happen the way they wanted or assumed. And in one phrase, the evangelist encapsulates the whole of the human faith story: they left for their own country by another road.

It’s been pointed out that the Bible begins in a garden and ends in a city. That means that no matter how hard we try we cannot, in the words of Joni Mitchell, “get ourselves back to the garden.” That path is closed and the gate barred. Humanity will never again achieve that perfection, that peace, that particular communion with God. We lost it, our disobedience caused us to give it up, and we can never get it back. I’m not sure we were ever meant even to try, and it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because God has shown us another way home. Eden is gone. The journey home is ongoing. Another destination, our true and final home, beckons us forward where the holy city and the heavenly banquet await us.

Like the magi, we ultimately are not in control of our journey. But the place where we lose control is often the place where we gain the most grace. The Incarnation, the holy and miraculous event, promises us that new path of grace. The magi, those wise men, had seen and experienced that grace in the person of the young child Jesus. As strange as it may sound, the road back to God, the true road home, can only be the way forward. Like the magi, we cannot retrace our steps, but must travel by another road; back home to our own true country, our own true home in God. 

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