The Great Annexation

Epiphany was always a huge deal for my family growing up. In Spanish, we knew it as el Dia de los Reyes Magos, or Three Kings Day, a feast day in the Catholic tradition, and very important to both Catholics and Protestants in Latin American countries. Older Christian tradition names the three kings: Melchior, Caspar, and Balthasar. Each wears an outfit specific to them, riding on camels bearing the three gifts, which is probably why we have three of them despite their names, number, and regal status not being mentioned in Scripture. 

Some Latin American traditions even have them replacing the role of Santa Claus, bringing gifts to kids around the world just before Epiphany. My family didn’t observe that tradition, or the names, but we did get gifts. I called it second Christmas, because we’d get these bags of candy and fruit. Guess which of those never got eaten. I mean, an orange might as well be a lump of coal with how much space it takes up in those little bags!  

Sunday’s observance of Epiphany consisted of even more carbohydrate laden fare, like the rosca de reyes, and like all the other kids in worship we hoped one of us would find the baby Jesus that had been put in the bread somewhere. I can’t remember ever finding the baby. I think my brother did one time. 

Like any traditions, this one had its start somewhere that felt meaningful to someone. Tradition tries to capture the spirit of something in a nostalgic manner. Over the years, time gilds the tradition, and with enough time, it becomes practically holy, perhaps even as holy as what it means to commemorate, if we’re talking religion, despite being a mere invention once upon a time. 

We live in a time where traditions are being created by segments of the world who have chosen to react to changes in culture with anger, resentment, and violence. Diplomacy, the common good, collaboration; these are relics of a bygone era where the idea of progressivism was once considered a goal, not an opponent. It was believed by many people that as time went on, humanity would improve in virtually every aspect, becoming more moral, more compassionate, but it sure doesn’t feel that way, does it? Each year that passes seems to continue one tradition that humanity simply can’t seem to break: that life should resemble our deepest preferences, and when it doesn’t, we often attempt to bring our desired reality into being through force. 

That’s why I believe that the story of Epiphany is so alien to the modern world. A group of “wise men”, likely Persian Zoroastrians or practitioners of any number of ancient sects that trusted the stars for revelations about the world choose to engage in a pilgrimage, traveling to an entirely foreign context, to pay homage to a ruler that looks nothing like the rulers of the age. Think of all it would take to get someone like you to do such a thing! All the considerations; food, language, alien cultural customs… 

This notion of appreciating something foreign but interesting is the exact opposite of what is happening in most of the world right now. War on multiple fronts betrays the sense that entire nations are less interested in accepting their neighbors and would prefer to simply kill them to annex their land. Annexation is so common now; we wring our hands a bit but for the most part just accept it. We’re desensitized. We don’t wish to be troubled by these problems, with all our daily striving and discomfort. 

But like so many inconveniences the Bible presents to our preferences, there’s this story, of these foreigners who came to see the baby and acknowledge what it meant for their world. Even theirs. 

Melchior, Caspar, and Balthasar help Christians to see their faces and nationalities represented by at least one of the characters, complete with different skin tones and racial features. It’s a natural reaction to the spirit they sense in the story, this idea that Jesus was for them, too, not just the Judean people. 

But in commemorating the story in this way, I think we twist the story in a way that was not intended. All this time, we’ve chosen to believe that Christ is for us, even if we aren’t mentioned explicitly in the story. What would it mean for our faith if we decided to stop trying to VIP ourselves into the story and simply accepted that Christ has beckoned all peoples to His side? In all their variety and splendor? 

Would it be so hard to accept that the God desires a relationship with Israelis and Palestinians, Ukrainians and Russians, Uyghurs and Chinese, Darfurians and Sudanese, Serbians and Bosnians, Hutu and Tutsi, Muslim, Jew, and Christian, Black, White, immigrant and native born, whatever that means, Republican, Democrat, LGBTQIA+ and heterosexual, trans, cisgender, non-binary, Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, Zionist, Orthodox, Sunni and Shiite…just to name a few? Isn’t that the point of the story? Isn’t that its appeal? That God came to them, too? 

It’s clear from the story that the arrival of the wise men was confusing for them. They arrived expecting to greet the king’s heir but found a king on the throne that was of a completely different bloodline. Herod is confused by the arrival, too; he asks the wise men to help him locate the child. Imagine their further confusion when, upon following the star to the baby’s side, they are warned in a dream not to return to Herod. Something was going on with this kid, and it wasn’t something everyone would agree with, especially people with power. Yet these Magi left their extravagant gifts behind with the family. I often wonder what became of these travelers. They’re never mentioned again, but the reason for that isn’t hard to tease out of Scripture; Herod chooses violence and slaughters every child in the region 2 years of age and younger in the massacre of the innocents. Talk about annexation. 

It’s not clear from history whether the massacre ever occurred, but its place in the story tells us that from the beginning, the current and future reign of God is disruptive. This did not change because Jesus was born. God’s reign does not square with the preferred reality of those who enjoy human power. God’s reign demands too much and expects us to be transformed by it, not the other way around. And yet for those who believe, it is life itself. 

Remember the old Shaker song Simple Gifts? I love that one. 

“When true simplicity is gained, 

To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed, 

To turn, turn will be our delight, 

Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.” 

It is in turning that we find our God. We accept that we are who we are and that God loves us so much that what we know as difference but what others might call flaws are turned to strengths in God’s marvelous light, all due to the transforming power of that love. All that we are is useful to God. Isn’t that beautiful? To be known through and through and thought useful. For others to be known in the same way, and thought useful, too. That some good can be brought into the world through any one of us, even if we have wrought great darkness. Some may ever understand this truth about God, but church, it happens all the time. I don’t like who I was before I met my wife and children. I felt incomplete without knowing why. I’m better now because I want to be more than who I started as for them. I love them. They love me. And I am transformed. 

May our Sovereign bless us all with strength and great trepidation when we dare to entertain the notion that the world around us must change to suit our desires. If that moment ever comes, may God remind us of three (or more) wise people who came to visit a baby born in a manger, to present gifts suitable for a king. Praise be to God. Amen. 

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