When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.Matthew 2:10-12
Today, we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany. While we remember the visit of the Magi, I am struck by the very end of our Gospel reading: “And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.” The Magi have an encounter with God Incarnate—and then leave. I wonder what encountering the divine means for those of us who cannot leave our circumstances. I think of my family in Hong Kong who have been living in a state of heightened social unrest for the past seven months. Friends and strangers alike have asked me, repeatedly, “What happens next? How does this end?” The short answer is that we have no model for “next.” We continue to live in this liminal place, shaped by a history of imperialism and the trappings of capital.
This time of year, it’s easy for me to look around and see signs of death: There are precious few hours of sunlight, the trees lay bare, the air chilled. And I have lost count of the number of arrests, of rubber bullets, bean bag rounds, and tear gas canisters fired by the police force into crowds of protestors and civilians. I spend my nights watching familiar streets of old neighborhoods transform into front lines, terrified of the aftermath I wake up to in the morning.
Most days, I struggle to hold in tension the grief and fears of this present reality with the signs and hope of the world to come. The prophet Isaiah reminds us today to “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you” (60:1). The Magi recognized this light of the world in the Christ Child, bringing gifts that honor the fullness of Jesus’ sovereignty, divinity, and humanity. But these images of light are the culmination of long-held expectations in the context of empire and exile. They are answers to a people returning from captivity in Babylon, making pilgrimage from Persia, and fleeing to Egypt. Across time, we are shown that this light does not replace our experiences of pain, fear, or death. When we call upon Emmanuel, we are naming God’s presence with us and with our ongoing struggles against the rulers and authorities of this world. God reveals to us in the person of Jesus that our liberation is formed and birthed endlessly from what we know to be darkness.
This incarnation continues to be made tangible to us today. In nature itself, days have started to grow steadily longer again. Even dead trees are teeming with life, becoming richly biodiverse ecosystems after death. And over these past months in Hong Kong, people have been forming new networks of mutual aid and accountability: Doctors, nurses, and first-aid volunteers run underground clinics. Social workers and psychologists provide counseling for a collectively traumatized people. Newly-formed labor unions are mobilizing strikes across the workforce. In the wake of police violence and state exploitation, Hongkongers are creating active, alternative models of care and community. Those of us in the diaspora are also finding renewed ways of organizing in both local and transnational contexts. Our shared refusal to accept the status quo is fueled by our yearning for justice, for love in action and life in full dignity.
The hope we have in the world to come compels us not to detach ourselves from the material conditions of this present reality. We are called, rather, to step more fully into this time: to do our part in co-creating a more just world today. In late November, arrested protesters wrote in an open letter, “Even though we do not know what lies ahead …. Hold fast to hope.” Day by day, we create and live into what comes next. I think of the nights protesters spent singing hymns, singing nothing less than Alleluia, “praise be to God” even in the face of escalating police brutality. I think of today’s psalm, which promises us that “From oppression and violence [God] redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight” (72:14). I believe in regenerative darkness, in God who does not look away from our suffering but who bears it with us, and in the light which the darkness does not—and cannot—overcome.
The Magi encountered God who subverts our conceptions of darkness, kingship, and incarnation. In this season between Christmas and Lent, between Christ’s birth and Christ’s suffering and death, may we notice the continual in-breaking of the Holy Spirit into our lives. What are the moments when we both glimpse and are called to participate in the Kingdom of God?