Empire and Epiphany


Even though I grew up Christian, I didn’t even know the meaning of the word Epiphany until seminary, so like 20 years ago. It wasn’t something our denomination celebrated. I knew the story of the Wise Men from the book of Matthew, but it was mashed up with the rest of the nativity story from Luke—the one with the manger and no room at the inn. The account in Mathew of three Magi visiting the “house” where Jesus is born (it’s a house in Matthew, not a stable)—comes in the liturgical year as a kind of superhero origin story, which are all the rage these days. Except this most ancient of prequels begs the question: Why revisit the story? Christmas is over, right? So what did we miss? What’s the meaning of Epiphany, which comes from the Greek word epiphaneia, meaning “appearance”?

Beyond the literal meaning of Epiphany is to ask what the Magi asked themselves after a miraculous manifestation from God: what we will take home with us, and by what road? We have traveled across the desert following a star. We have endured danger and hardship. We have bent a knee before a child king.

And now we go home—by a different road.

Well, I would hope so. I hope after witnessing this miracle we live different lives. The world hasn’t changed since we were away, or at least not for the better. The danger of imminent war still looms, in 30 B.C.E. and today. Consumerism and materialism still threatens to distract us from the real purpose of our lives–in 30 B.C.E. and today.

What has changed, except for us? Which is to say, it’s up to us to take the change we encountered back to the world. It’s up to us, now that we witnessed God’s Love, to share it with others.


Consider what it means to follow a star. What it is about the night sky that so captures our imaginations? Our respective space agencies are spending billions of Yen and dollars to send humanity back into outer space. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency—even though it doesn’t have a spacecraft of its own—has 10 trained astronauts. NASA has pledged humans will land on the Moon’s South Pole by next year and is under presidential orders to land humans on Mars within the decade. It’s more than dust and rock that inspires us to the stars, and the Moon and Mars are both lifeless rocky places. We believe that reaching for that next faraway place will lead us somewhere better.

I am a huge science fiction guy, and what pulls me into stories about the stars is the possibility that we might escape not only our Earthly confines but all the sins of humanity. Global warming. War. Conflict and violence. Ravages of empire. My favorite sci fi stories are about this tension between human aspiration and our instinct to conquer. History and empire are why we SOFA-status Americans are here on Okinawa. In fact, unless you’re one of the 1.4 million Ryukyuans living on Okinawa, it is the idea of empire that put us all here. History and empire are also the background of Jesus’ birth and ministry.

I love science fiction and I love movies, and last year during Advent I came across a film that finally brought home for me the meaning of Advent. I finally understood these tensions between following a star, hoping for a Savior and better world, and the danger of living within an oppressive empire while finding a safe way home. No, I’m not talking Star Wars, but a film set in our own time called Ad Astra, which is from the Latin phrase, Per aspera ad astra, or “through hardship to the stars.”

So let’s take a literal trip to the stars and find our way home to meaning of Epiphany.

In the film, there’s an astronaut named Roy, and like the Magi, Roy has been called to the stars. Every day he says a mantra: “I’m calm… ready to go… focused only on the essentials to the exclusion of all else…. I will not rely on anyone or anything. I will not be vulnerable.”

How many of us have been in that place at some time or another? Focused on work, our goals, our own life, to the exclusion of all else? We protect ourselves from being vulnerable. We struggle to feel much of anything.

We and Roy live in the 21st century. Like in Roman times, it is an oppressive age of empire. Empires by their very nature crush everything in their way: Armies, economies, the human spirit. Empire warp our idea of what’s essential. Greed and expansion replace human connection and vulnerability.

Early in the film, Roy is told that humanity is doomed unless he flies to the edge of our solar system to investigate a mysterious artificial star pulsing in the night sky. I imagined, as I watched this story, that Roy was a Magi: collected and accomplished but broken. Like the Magi, hungry for hope and searching not only for Salvation but to be part of a story itself. Magi who are satisfied and happy don’t venture into a desert full of danger. It the broken ones who venture into the dark of night following stars.

Jump to the end of Roy’s epic journey. Along the way he battled crazed lab monkeys. He defeated space pirates. He saved humanity. But the real journey doesn’t end there. At the end of Roy’s odyssey he realizes the emptiness of how he has lived. It’s like Christmas happened, you got everything you wanted, and you still feel empty. //

He realizes how he has been shaped by a world of violence and disconnection. He regrets the shell he created to protect him from his role in the ravages of Empire, its isolation, fear, and necessary complacency. He realizes his real journey wasn’t out to a star. That part’s done. Even though he’s stranded, now he has to get home where he can practice the love he has discovered.

As Roy leaps toward a spacecraft that might get him home, he says: The strange distant worlds “were beautiful, magnificent, full of awe and wonder. But beneath their sublime surfaces there was nothing. No love or hate. No light or dark…. I am looking for the day,” he says, “when my solitude ends, and I am home.”


This is why we return to the same Gospel stories year after year, as we have in this morning’s lectionary reading from Matthew (2:1-12). We get to relive the journey into night and re-commit to a new way home. I thought of the Magi as I watched the film. Their world in chaos, and ours. Their hard journey into night, and ours. Their hunger to feel something real and divine, and ours. As we do every year we traveled with the Magi into the liminal space of Advent, between “a here” and “a there,” right through Christmas, and now back home to start the liturgical cycle again.

The Magi must have experienced internal turmoil through the journey. Why would you follow a star if you weren’t searching for something?

The decision to go back home, by another way, is a choice to live another way now that we have seen the miracle of Love. Like the Magi. Like our astronaut. Like us.

But we have to choose to take that alternate path of Love home.

And so we celebrate three discontented Magi who venture through the dark of night, following what may have been a comet, to bring the baby Jesus gifts of gold, incense, and precious oils, none of which a baby really needs.

Unlike Luke’s focus on Jesus’ birth, Matthew’s focus is on the relationship between Herod, representing empire, and Jesus, who represents resistance to empire. It is through such resistance to human will, greed and materialism that Jesus offers us hope. //

Herod, historically, was a tyrant. He oppressed his own people with taxes to fund grandiose building projects, including a rebuilt temple that exceeded Solomon’s. He instituted what today would be called a police-state with loyalty oaths, surveillance, informers, secret police. He imprisoned and tortured dissenters. Matthew 2 comes to life when we imagine what Herod might say to us today:

But I did it all for you!

To rebuild the temple.

To keep us safe.

To prevent Russia, I mean Rome, from killing us all.

(or are we Rome?)

I did it for you! Says Herod.

To bring jobs home

To help the economy grow.

To Make Israel Great Again!


The story of Epiphany is the story of today. It is the age old story repeated again and again, of resistance in the context of fear, of hope in an atmosphere of oppression, of love winning against hate. In our lives this resistance takes the form of remembering who we are and to where our Christian vows point.

As Howard Thurman writes in “Now the work of Christmas begins,” this is the story of Epiphany that repeats every year:

The angels have simmered down.

The star is gone.

The magi have done the right thing and headed home.

It is the season of Epiphany, in which it is up to us

to find the lost and heal the broken,
to feed the hungry and free the prisoner,
to rebuild this nation and bring peace to this world.

It is the story, repeated year after year, in which we can choose to return the same as we left or to go home by another route.

At the end of Ad Astra we see Roy back on Earth. He has gone home by another way. He allowed himself to be changed by his journey to the star. He repeats his mantra affirming he is “steady and calm, active and engaged,” except now, he also realizes that the vulnerabilities he once sought to avoid as distractions are the very point of the journey:

“I’m steady, calm,” he says. “I am active and engaged. I’m aware of my surroundings and those in my immediate sphere. I’m attentive. I’m focused on the essentials, to the exclusion of all else. I’m unsure of the future, but I’m not concerned. I will rely on those closest to me, and I will share their burdens, as they share mine. I will live and love.”

Let us pray:

Let us never forget to be amazed by stars.

We gather on the brink of a new year

Letting go of what has been

Open and hopeful for what may come

Renewed, restored, ready

To live Life fully anew

Let us be amazed.

Let us search for new life and hope in our midst.

Let us nurture creativity in every form.

Let us be reminded that new insights of the universe are always being made.

In this New Year, let us be amazed.

Delivered at All Souls Church, Okinawa, Japan

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