Right before Christmas I got into a conversation with some folks in a Facebook group of which I am a part. Someone raised the question about belief in God and a lively debate ensued. The consensus was that nothing should be believed that cannot be scientifically proven. I suggested that faith and science were not opposites but friends. The moderator for the day immediately shut down the conversation and went so far as to remove the thread from the list.
One person messaged me privately and said she would so like to have faith. She could see how it could be helpful in her situation and she was sure it brought great comfort to me, but couldn’t I offer just a little proof.
I don’t have proof, I said. I only have my experience. She didn’t reply.
In many ways what we celebrate in this time we call “Epiphany” is the mystery of our experience of God. One of the fundamentals for us is that this experience is open to everyone. That is what the prophet Isaiah was pointing toward as the people were re-building Jerusalem after returning from the exile in Babylon. It is what Paul is talking about in the reading from Ephesians today. And the Gospel story of the visit of the magi to the child Jesus is a story meant to show us, among other things, this great truth. The encounter with God is open to everyone.
I happened on the word “encounter” to describe our experience of God in a collection of the written and spoken words of Pope Francis during the first year of his time as pope. He speaks in a homily of our calling to “promote the culture of encounter.” It seems to me he is speaking of the value of “epiphany.”
Francis speaks of the “culture of encounter” as being in opposition to the dominant “culture of exclusion or rejection,” which is fueled by the social values of “efficiency and pragmatism.” By this I think he means that in our world we have a tendency to throw away anything that is not a clear means to an end. We live in a culture of disposable things, and inevitably this clouds are thinking about one another. In the 1980’s we began talking about the “me generation.”
It turns out it was not a generation, but an increasingly deeply held social value. If you cannot be of use to me, I have no need of you. Francis says,
Be courageous!...Have the courage to go against the tide of this culture of efficiency, this culture of waste. Encountering and welcoming everyone, [building] solidarity…a word that is being hidden by this culture, as if it were a bad word—solidarity and fraternity: these are what make our society truly human.
This is exactly what is going on in the story of the magi, not only in the visit of these strange, foreign people to Bethlehem, but perhaps even more important, their choosing to leave “for their own country by another road.” Going back to Herod was a choice they could have made. They would not only have been received well, but rewarded handsomely.
Yet their encounter with the child and his mother encouraged them (literally “gave them the courage”) to choose a different road, a different journey. What was it about this encounter that gave them this courage?
The story does not say. It only says they gave the child gifts and paid him homage. In other translations, they “worshipped him.” The gifts they brought were true gifts, in that they seemed to have expected nothing in return. And yet they did receive something, the thing that caused them to go home by another road.
To “worship” someone or something is to give them worth. Indeed the English word was originally “worthship,” the bestowing of worth. I believe what happened in the magi’s encounter is what happens for us every Sunday. We come to worship God and, if we allow ourselves the epiphany, we discover that God returns the favor. We give worth to God and God gives worth to us. And we only truly experience this when we recognize and set aside our tendency to make it about me, and discover that our true worth is in our solidarity with one another, a solidarity that must grow, unceasingly breaking down barriers set up when we act as if some people are worth more than others.
That would have been the road back to Jerusalem and to Herod. But the magi had come to do homage to a king and experienced in doing so that he returned the favor, and that experience gave them the courage to choose a different way home.
Pope Francis, it seems, is trying to change the culture of the church, from a culture of exclusion to a culture of inclusion. We Episcopalians have also been experiencing that change and it is a painful one. We have experienced that walking the path with God is as challenging as it is comforting.
The church as a whole has acted like an exclusive club for so long that my Facebook acquaintances, and much of the world around us, only have that lens to understand what it is we are about. I despair sometimes that the radical solidarity that is the true Gospel, will ever be able to be heard above the noise of the culture of exclusion alive and well in both the church and the world.