It’s a familiar scene for me. I’m walking down the hallway, schlepping a backpack and an armful of books, when I feel the horrible stab of panic. Heart racing, I look around the empty halls and realize the awful truth: I’ve gone the entire semester without attending a single session of my college course, and the final exam is today.
I usually don’t wake up until I’m racing down the hallway, frantically trying to open locked doors in a futile attempt to find the classroom where I should have been sitting and do what I should have been doing.
For many former students, this is a common dream. The terror may seem amusing in the light of day, but even after waking, I can feel the blood pounding a little too quickly through my veins. I feel unsettled, out of sorts, plagued by a gnawing feeling that I’m not where I’m supposed to be. Whatever else the psychoanalysts may tell us about our subconscious traumas, it seems that the human psyche has a deep-seated fear of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Maybe you experienced this feeling during December. For many of us, Advent has historically been a time of gathering. We’re used to special church services, school programs, family events, and parties to keep us busy, distracted, and comfortably fed. We’re used to joining together with friends and embracing every bit of the magical season. But this year was different. “It just doesn’t feel like Christmas,” a friend told me recently. Without the anchors of family and tradition, we feel adrift in a long winter of discontent, no longer wishing for snowy evenings bundled at home but instead longing for the community and adventures of years past.
No matter where we are this season, maybe you, like me, can feel like we’re in the wrong place. This often results in us doing anything it takes to make us feel at home. Some of us cram nearly every inch of our houses with Christmas decorations and take up the dangerous habit of watching Hallmark movies (that isn’t just me, right?). Some redouble their efforts to be cheerful while others can’t find two shards of happiness to rub together. Some bury themselves in work or food or any number of things to try to fill the emptiness we feel. In a time when so many of us are spending more time in our houses, many of us feel as if we have never felt less at home.
That’s why this year, I’m more excited for Epiphany than I am for Christmas.
Don’t get me wrong, I love celebrating the birth of our Savior. I look forward to the quiet anticipation of Christmas Eve, the carols, the pensive meditation on what it means that God himself took on flesh. Memories of candlelight services and echoes of hymns swaddle my heart in a sense of awe, and I’m once again amazed that the eternal God chose to become fully human in order to save me. The soft glow of Christmas lights seems especially lovely on December 24th, as if even the electric bulbs want to reflect the gentle radiance of this holy day.
The thing is, the beauty doesn’t stop on Christmas Day. After we have sung our fill of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and closed the book of Luke, after the radios stop playing “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” and the twinkling lights come down, there’s yet one more account that the Spirit saw fit to ensure was recorded in our Scriptures.
If he has already restored the bridge between man and God, how much more will he bridge our earthly gulfs of loneliness, guilt, fear, and doubt?
We may think we know the story of the magi’s visit to Christ pretty well. Three guys in flowing robes ride in on camels from some unknown land and visit Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus. They leave gifts and go back home, and thank goodness they came because now we have three additional roles for our kids to play in the annual Christmas plays. Our nativity scenes just wouldn’t be the same without them.
Yet we often forget the depth of revelation God pours out on us through Epiphany.
Matthew 2 records the account of the magi and with it some surprising details. For example, the magi didn’t appear on Christmas, but somewhere around two years after. The Bible never specifies how many wise men came, only that they came “from the East.” All we know is that they had seen “his star when it rose” (Matthew 2:2) and were coming to worship the newborn King. That same star that had appeared when Christ was born served as a visual GPS beacon, guiding them to where the Child lay—but not before they stopped to ask King Herod for directions, who in turn consulted with the religious elite of the day. These theologians helpfully supply the birthplace of Bethlehem, then appear to have exhausted their supply of energy since they send the magi on their merry way without bothering to check out the sign for themselves.
The miracle of Epiphany is the length to which God went to reveal himself to foreigners who should’ve been considered to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Non-Israelites? Sorry, Jesus was born King of the Jews. On the other side of the world? Sorry, public transportation hasn’t been perfected yet. Going to an earthly figure for confirmation instead of following the supernatural revelation? Oof, three strikes, and you’re out of the kingdom.
But that isn’t what we read in Matthew at all.
Instead, we see God for who he is: the Savior of all nations for all time. The same God who perfectly orchestrated Israel’s history so that he was born of the line of David created a specific heavenly object so that he could draw these wise-men to himself: the source of all true Wisdom. We see a Savior who loved the world so much that he chose to become one of us for all of us: Jews and Gentiles alike. No circumstance can deny the will of God. There is no distance that God cannot bridge: if he has already restored the bridge between man and God, how much more will he bridge our earthly gulfs of loneliness, guilt, fear, and doubt?
Our fears are more than just nightmares, and the final exam isn’t today or even tomorrow. It happened about 2,000 years ago on Calvary when the Father demanded full satisfaction for all of the evil things we have done—and I’m not just talking about cutting classes. Every wrong thought, word, or action we have ever had has taken us farther and farther from our God and closer and closer to our eternal death. We should have been exiled from the Father’s house forever; eternal foreigners cut off from any hope of Heaven.
After Christmas comes Epiphany, the glorious revelation of how far God will go to bring you home.
But that isn’t how the story ends. On the cross, we see the fulfillment of God’s promise to save us. Here is the end of the star’s guiding as we watch our own sun stop shining, and the Son of God stop breathing. Here we see the length to which God will go to bring you home eternally, the unrelenting love and justice of God. What we could not pay—a perfect life—Christ Jesus paid on our behalf. His blood sealed the deed of our eternal home, his descent into hell canceled our reservations with Satan, and his resurrection and ascension assure us that we will be going home to live with him forever.
This Christmas, it’s okay to feel out of place. It’s okay to grieve the sorrows of this world and to miss the traditional celebrations. For we know that after Christmas comes Epiphany, the glorious revelation of how far God will go to bring you home. Thank God that he specifically called the magi to himself, scorning all earthly limitations and that the message he extended to them is the same message he extends to you and me: Christ himself is for you, forgives your sins, and will lead you to everlasting life and your eternal home. Happy Epiphany, dear brothers, and sisters.