Quick, before I write next month’s pastor’s letter: the January letter (the newsletter itself went out on time, okay?)

Merry Christmas and a happy… Epiphany? According to tradition, the season of Christmas continues until January 6, when we would celebrate the visit of the “wise men” on Epiphany. (As it happens, we’ll be celebrating it in worship on January 1 this year.) Each year, we read the account of astrologers from a distant country coming to worship the young Jesus, and we reflect on how God’s good news can reach out to include those who don’t picture God’s work in quite the same way we do. If we read Mark’s gospel alongside the Epiphany story from Matthew (2:1-12), we may even find that we need to listen especially to those who don’t see God as we do.

One big thing Matthew communicates with his story is that Jesus reveals God’s love to the whole world, not just to those who traditionally considered themselves as God’s people. Nature itself was involved in making a special star shine (and let’s not get hung up on just what the star was, or when). Foreigners – astrologers, philosophers, pagan priests – saw the sign, and they responded to it more faithfully than did the nominally Jewish king of Judea. Matthew portrays Jesus as profoundly Jewish, but at the same time very obviously the Savior of all nations. The “Epiphany” is the revealing of this salvation to all.

Mark’s gospel, by contrast, tells the story of a “Messianic secret.” It’s no wonder that even in a year when most of the suggested gospel readings come from Mark, we have to turn to Matthew for a brightly shining star. Jesus spends most of the story in Mark warning people not to talk about him; even at the end, after the resurrection, the disciples wander off without telling anybody. The most telling aspect of this pattern is that the religious insiders have the hardest time coming to the conclusion that God is working in Jesus. Foreigners and demons, on the other hand, tend to recognize Jesus as the Messiah right away.

Perhaps Mark actually has an Epiphany after all. Not a story of magi bearing gifts, but a repeated hint that “the truth is out there” if only we look in the most unlikely of places. Look at the sick, the disabled, the outsiders, at what they yearn after. Look even at the darkness and violence, at what they oppose. Mark looks at those who have no other place in the religious world of Jesus’ upbringing, and he sees people and forces that can point, in remarkable ways, to the saving power of God.

Could it be that Mark is inviting us into a transformative spiritual practice? The whole New Testament (and much of the Old) gets at the idea that God can’t be contained within our standard ways of recognizing and understanding things. This gospel, perhaps, takes that truth one step further: we can see God more clearly in the places we otherwise wouldn’t dare to look. We don’t have to wait for earth-shaking events or signs in the night sky. God doesn’t answer to the most authoritative voices in theology, philosophy, or science. In fact, our very language about God might get in the way of actually grasping what this creative Power is up to. It may be better to look elsewhere, to entertain the very hardest questions, to visit the places we can’t imagine encountering God, and see what is revealed there.

That approach may not ring true to everyone. It certainly doesn’t ring true all the time. There are those conflicts, challenges, or relationships where even asking for God’s presence seems false. There’s no simple way to talk about a God who is with us even in the places where we’re sure God is absent. It’s hard to turn around during an argument and hear the truth in our “opponent’s” viewpoint. Walking through life is challenging enough without the unsettling possibility that truth and love may upend our whole perception of things.

However, that may be just the way to make sense of God. The divine Mystery may come to us in our darkness, in our conflicts, and even in the times when we’re unable to imagine anything new. The Love that opened a space for all existence still insists on renewing our relationships. It calls us into unexplored areas of wholeness. It pours out the gifts and strength we need for lives of faithful service.

So, happy Epiphany indeed. May God’s gracious power be revealed, to you and in you, this year.

In Christ’s peace,