My first Epiphany here at Christ Church, I took home the paper instructions and blue chalk and while I don’t remember if it was me or Father Steve who preached that night, I do remember how the chalk crumbled slightly as I with every bit of prayerful intention I could marked C + M + B with the year 2018 surrounding the letters that signified the three wise men who visited the Christ child with gifts. For those who were part of the congregation five years ago, you’ll remember that my first six months as your Associate Rector were eventful to say the least; I had a medical event that I still refer to as Not Cancer and was out recovering from major surgery for nearly two months only for it to be followed by an emergency surgery on the last day of 2017. Six years ago, as we prayed over blessings and chalk in a service very similar to tonight’s, I was mere days out from that second surgery and was less than two weeks away from my priestly ordination, plans in full effect.
That night, when I took the blessing home and marked over my door frame, I remember thinking, “I need all the blessings I can get this year,” with full confidence that the year to come would not be as challenging as the one before. 2018 had its own joys, like being ordained into God’s holy priesthood, and challenges, like shattering my right fibula one year after Not Cancer. At the Epiphany service of 2019, I had been barely able to walk on both legs for a few weeks, and I took home the blessing and the chalk, and I wrote the same blessing with a new year, this time with pink chalk. And even though I didn’t know what was to come, I held intentions that the year to come would be better than the last. But in 2019, my father fell ill, and it was spent in and out of hospitals, then hospice, and then the funeral home.
So again, at Epiphany in 2020, I held so much hope, that after three especially difficult Epiphanies, that ease would come; that the chalk, this time green, would remind me that blessing does not equate ease, but still with a bit of hope and intention that maybe 2020 would be a year where things didn’t explode. And we all know how much collective fear, worry, and change that year would bring for the whole world, much less my little two-bedroom duplex off Morgantown Road. At Epiphany 2021, vaccines for COVID were on the horizon, there was a level of hope weaving through the constant and overwhelming concern for all of humanity, and at Epiphany 2022, I think we all thought the pandemic was nearly over.
But here we are at Epiphany 2023, the pandemic isn’t really over, though the way we navigate it has changed again and again and again. Each Epiphany to me marks a reset: we have waited expectantly for Christ’s birth, celebrated it and have been joyfully found by the reality of Immanuel, as the wise men bring their well-known gifts. The swags of pine and sparkly lights have been taken down, and Epiphany always feels to me like the time when we actually begin the work of integrating the truth that we experience at Christmas—that God truly is with us. That we are changed by the embodiment of God, and that when we take our faith seriously, it challenges us to never remain where we are. We are always becoming something new.
This is my sixth Epiphany with Christ Church, and as I reflect on the last five, I feel called to remind us all that the blessing that we pray over our homes, just as the blessings brought by Caspar, Melchior, and Baltshair do not guarantee any sort of deflection from the pains and struggles of this life. The frankincense, gold, and myrrh brought by them to the holy family do not stop 7-year-old Jesus from being lost in the temple for three days or from the plots to kill him as an adult. These gifts of blessing do not guard Mary from the pain of seeing her first child die brutally on the cross. The gifts of Epiphany were never supposed to be blessings in the way in which our culture tends to think of them.
Blessings in our society tend to be thought of as moments or opportunities where one is rewarded for goodness and protected from trouble; in the theology world, we call this sort of thinking the prosperity gospel. It’s the false belief that if one is good enough, God’s blessings will reign down, both finically and socially—but this is not the story of the gospel, and it’s certainly not the story of Epiphany.
This night we mark the day that these three men were summoned by King Harrod so that he could rope them into a plot to kill the Christ, and we celebrate how they received a dream, brought their gifts, and went home by a different route, directly defying the orders of the King providing blessing over the home of the holy family. The Epiphany story is about these men, whose blessings marked not a defense from pain, but rather that they changed their plans, saving the Christ child. The Epiphany blessing that we invite into our homes this evening is not one that paves the way of ease, but rather one that no matter how much our life changes, we can remember that God is with us in the challenges and in the joy. Because the Epiphany blessing is not that Mary will never know heartache or that Joseph will never fear for Jesus’ life, but rather the Epiphany blessing is that God with us, Immanuel, changes everything, even and sometimes especially, our plans.
A sermon delivered to the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, KY for Epiphany on January 6, 2023.