Merry Epiphany, You Beautiful, Beloved Human!

Not too long ago, I was speaking with a new friend who was grieving the consecutive deaths of his father, mother and grandfather over the previous two years. He felt adrift. All of the rocks in his life were now gone. It was like he didn’t have a foundation, and he didn’t know what to do.

I was honored to listen to him as tears welled in his eyes. I said to myself, “This is a beautiful man trying to stay soft in a very hard world and a very hard life.” One of the most beautiful things he relayed to me was his description of his girlfriend, who was by his side through the most recent deaths; his mother and grandfather had died only a month before our time together. He said of his girlfriend, “With her I don’t have to be anything other than who I am. I can just be myself.”

Isn’t that what we are all looking for? I hope you know what it is like to be with someone with whom you can be yourself. Not your expectations of yourself, or who you think you’re supposed to be, but who you really are. That feeling is marvelous, isn’t it? It’s not only with lovers that we find it, either. We find it with friends, and with family, occasionally with strangers, and most profoundly, I hope you know, with God.

Your Name is Beloved

God’s project for you is that you be who you really are. This is the most powerful meaning of the incarnation which we celebrate today, Epiphany, Dia de los Reyes Magos.

God became like us so we would know who we are; so we could be deeply comfortable with how we were made and who we were made to be. Can you believe that!? It is truly marvelous.

And who we are is shaped not just by our DNA or some preeminent destiny, but also by the ways of the world and the ways we have taken through it.

It’s hard to distinguish between
what was meant to be from the beginning
what has come to pass.

Isn’t it true that the most difficult things we have been through have shaped us the most? These things, too, make us who we are, and Jesus comes alongside us most it seems in those times. He is God-with-us, Emmanuel, and shows us by His presence who we are in the midst of all the mess, all the hardship, all the grief. He loves us as we are, where we are, whenever we are. With him we can surely say, “With him I don’t have to be anything than who I am. I can just be myself.”

I pray that you find your deepest comfort in the love of Jesus, and your deepest identity. May you remember today and in every painful valley that your truest name is “Beloved.”

Who were those magic men, the Magi?

The Magi, the Wisemen, los Reyes Magos, traveled a long way through the desert because they saw a new star in the night sky. They had invested years of study, probably including ancient Hebrew prophecy, and astronomy. They had to have plenty of means, because they were able to make such an expensive journey and presented such luxurious gifts. Thats why they are called kings because only kings could have had so much wealth thought later interpreters.

Imagine if our kings, those who are in power today, invested their wealth in knowledge and worship — in naming the stars and knowing somehow that something incredible had happened in a distant land — and then went there to name the thing they thought they knew? They did not come to destroy or take power. They came to know, to learn, and, ultimately, to worship.  Our rulers are not so benevolent, and relatively few have ever been in history.

The Magi are an exception. They find Jesus via the imperial court of Herod the Great, who was murderous and insecure to the core. We know because of the extra-biblical historical record and the story in Matthew 2 where Herod orders the murder of all the boys in Bethlehem under the age of two. One scholar puts this into context speculating that at that time, Bethlehem was a village of about 1,500 residents. It’s likely that Bethlehem at the time wouldn’t have had more than about two dozen babies two years old and under — half of them female. One reason this event does not go down in history outside of the Bible was that it was relatively small scale and one among many heinous acts that Herod perpetrated. (source)

The Magi show up in Herod’s court and ask where the Special-Star-King is, which freaks Herod out because he knows nothing about this and cares little for anything but his own preservation of power. Herod consults the scholars asking where the Messiah was to be born. They answer “In Bethlehem in Judea.” So, the Magi leave the court with instructions from Herod to return once they have located the New-Star-King, “So that I too may go and worship him.”

But Los Reyes Magos do not go back to Herod as he requested, they take another route because their worship of Jesus has changed them. They are not just interested in knowing the facts. They do not consume the experience of this strange baby who brought about a new star. They name him for who he is. This experience opens them up to heavenly dreams and changes their actual plans. Finding Jesus brings them joy, that joy leads them to worship, and that experience makes them participants and even co-conspirators in a plot to save the baby. They make safe the life of Jesus, so that many can know what they were the first to reveal. Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God is the epiphany, the manifestation of God’s love in the world, the appearance of God in human flesh.

Freedom to be truly human

We too are participants in this story because Jesus chose us to reveal the Good News of his life today. The Magi participated in saving Jesus’ life so he could die in a way that shamed the powers that be and defeated death once and for all. God vindicated Jesus by raising him from the dead and the power of the Resurrection now empowers us to participate in the world’s story in a different way — a way that creates space for people to have that feeling my friend was sharing with me — the freedom to be who we are, freedom to be soft and undefended even when the world is terrible, and death still looms over every story. Jesus was born into the world of violence, and right at the beginning there is this radical inclusion that changes things — it changes kings — changes routes and outcomes — changes us — shows us who we are — shows us how humanity can be.

Madeline L’Engle, per usual, is very helpful

These magic men, the Magi, made me think of A Wind in the Door, a book by Madeline L’Engle. There is a character in the book who is a cherubim named  Proginoskes, Progo for short. L’Engle imagines him as Ezekiel describes cherubim in Ezekiel 10:12. “Their entire bodies, including their backs, their hands and their wings, were completely full of eyes. Cherubim covered with eyes.” Before Progo is sent to the protagonist Murry children to help them defeat a dark force in the universe marshalled by creatures called Echthroi (which in Greek means “the enemies”), Progo was given the assignment of naming all the stars in the universe. Meg Murry, the oldest child, asks him how many stars there are in the universe.

‘How many? Great heavens, earthling. I haven’t the faintest idea.’

‘But you said your last assignment was to memorize the names of all of them.’

‘I did. All the stars in all the galaxies. And that’s a great many.’

‘But how many?’

What difference does it make? I know their names. I don’t know how many there are. It’s their names that matter.’

You see what I am getting at? Does that help you feel it? There is something about naming that is so different than information. There is a deeper connection than the sounds afford. There is such power! [SPOILERS] In the end, Meg learns the power of naming in order to defeat the antagonists of the story called Echthroi whose main power is in nothingness. They make things not. The make things into nothing. They threaten to convince people they are nothing. They are the Un-namers. Progo tells Meg, “When everyone is really and truly Named, then the Echthroi will be vanquished.”

This is our calling, to be who we truly are so we can help everyone know who they are. We are namers.

Epiphany Continues with Us

This is the ongoing story of Epiphany, to help everyone know their name and to become namers. How many beautiful things happen in the world unnoticed and unnamed? How many beautiful people are in the world? How many might not know who they are, really?

Could we be serious about the project for a second? Professors at Fresno Pacific University have done the work to define it so well:

  • Naming is discovering and valuing God’s designed purposefulness in a person, establishing that core identity of a person in reality.” “A person who names is grounded in love and comes alongside of and calls a person out of a limited or false existence into a fully authentic and dynamic existence.”
  • “The redemptive act of recognizing and expressing who a person is, and was created to be, through: words, active listening, actions, and loving.”
  • “Naming is a loving process of liberation for both the sender and receiver, for by recognizing and affirming another both people can embark upon and continue upon the process of discovering God’s design for them.”
  • “Naming has to do with helping others know who they really are, beyond their attempts at posturing or belittling themselves. It has to do with helping people exist and act more authentically as the people they are in their core, rather than as the people that the destructive ‘powers’ in their lives keep encouraging them to be.” (Source)

The more we are able to be ourselves–named–the more we will find ourselves loving others, freely and not begrudgingly out of some external obligation — not because we are trying to prove ourselves as super Christians–which gets in the way of true love — but because we have been changed and naming is who we are.

Ideas for Naming

Try this, next time you are having a good time with your friends, it doesn’t matter what you are doing, see if you can name it in the moment. Just pause for a moment and look at your friends sincerely to say,

“It’s good that we are here”
or “I’m glad we are together right now.”

It’s a weird thing to do, but I think you will recognize its power. Or try this: be so presumptuous as to tell someone what you see in them. Just say the truth you know. It doesn’t even have to be super insightful, but it can be.

“You are working so hard to be the kind of dad you want to be.”
“You give a lot of love to those kids you work with.”
“You are very kind to your neighbors.”
“You have been through a lot and I’m proud to know you because you are so resilient.”
“You are really fun to be around.”
“You make the best meatballs and I appreciate your hospitality to me.”

Be a namer.

The Namer’s Song

At the end of A Wind in the Door another character, Calvin starts this beautiful poem that spills out of Meg Murry as she saves the day. He names her, simply by saying her name, and then she responds with this:

I Name you Calvin.
I Name you Mr. Jenkins.
I Name you Proginoskes.
I fill you with Naming.

Be, butterfly and behemoth,
be galaxy and grasshopper,
star and sparrow,
you matter,
you are,

Be caterpillar and comet,
Be porcupine and planet,
sea sand and solar system,
sing with us,
dance with us,
rejoice with us,
for the glory of creation,
seagulls and seraphim
angle worms and angel host,
chrysanthemum and cherubim.
(O cherubim.)

Sing for the glory
of the living and the loving
the flaming of creation
sing with us
dance with us
be with us.

– Madeleine L’Engle, A Wind in the Door

On Epiphany, when Jesus is revealed, the whole world is present. These Magi are stand ins for all of creation. The stars and evil kings and their own interests conspired to bring them to Bethlehem to see the newborn king. How amazing! How marvelous! They did not belong there. They were unexpected. And yet, there they are. Let us, in our naming, include others, as Jesus did from the beginning of his life here on Earth. From our known-ness as Beloved our love expands, even to the whole world. As namers we become like Jesus, and we are already like him.

Merry Epiphany, You Beautiful, Beloved Human!

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