Reflections on January 6 (and mixing politics and religion)

Some might call me a church nerd, but when I hear the date, January 6, my first thought is Epiphany and the 12th day of Christmas. In our nation, however, this date has come to signify something very different. Today, as we open our newsfeeds or turn on the TV, we are not likely to hear much about epiphany or the magi and their gifts.  

With last year’s events on January 6th as a backdrop, the traditional gospel lesson for this day can be shocking.  It is highly political.  King Herod is a main character, and we know some things about him from history.  His top priority was to maintain power at all costs.  He expected complete loyalty and got rid of anyone seen as a threat. According to the story in Matthew 2, the magi or wise ones came to Herod looking for “the child who has been born king…” With all his power, Herod’s response is fear. “He was frightened.” As the story progresses this fear manifests in extreme violence, seen in the massacre of all children in and around Bethlehem. 

Interestingly, whether this massacre actually occurred is still debated.  History would suggest that this is a literary device to make a larger point.  At the same time, some also think that this part of the story may have been inspired by known accounts of Herod’s willingness to eliminate those who threatened his reign, including his own children.  Either way, it is worth reflecting on the way fear often leads to violence.  We are told that this fear pervaded “all Jerusalem.” We can imagine how this fear took different forms, with some buying into Herod’s desire to maintain power and others who feared the consequences of this desire.  It is also interesting how seeds of fear, when planted by skilled manipulators, can so easily lead many to believe lies and buy into the demonizing of others that then justifies our participation in violence – or at least the acceptance of it.  Is there another way?   

The wise ones went home by another way.  This is key to the story.  They did not get drawn into Herod’s deceptions.  Their encounter with Christ led them to follow a different light, a light that reveals God’s eternal and steadfast love for all. That can happen to us as well. Along this new way we learn how to live in this love, with patience, kindness, and humility, working together the bond of peace, a way beyond all partisan politics (Eph 4:1-3). Along this way, a higher understanding of power is revealed, and in this light our misguided fears are redeemed into hopes that are life-giving.  The key is to be willing to live by another way.

Every year we are all invited to take this yearly pilgrimage in worship through Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost.  Being immersed in this liturgical journey has something to do with my first thought about this date, January 6.  I count it as a blessing to be able to frame all that surrounds this day through this lens. On this day of epiphany, I commend this yearly pilgrimage to you, where you will have the opportunity to view every day through the light of God’s love as revealed to us in Jesus Christ our Lord.  It is never too late to join the journey. May your Epiphany be blessed!

Author: Michael Roberts

I am the senior pastor at First United Methodist Church in Conway, Arkansas. I love this work! I am also a delegate to General Conference. Playing guitar, reading/writing, and theological conversation are among my favorite pastimes. My wife, Deidre is also an ordained United Methodist minister, and we have three wonderful children, all adults, and two grandchildren. I hold degrees from the University of Central Arkansas (BA), Duke University Divinity School (M.Div), and Southern Methodist University (D.Min).

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