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At Epiphany, new ways of being

As I laid out my nativity scene collection this year, I was struck by the odd gathering of poor Galileans, shepherds, magi and maybe a few animals. There’s no earthly reason for this group to be together, except that they each experienced an encounter with the divine that they could not deny.

In the young adult, biblical fan fiction graphic novel that exists only in my mind, I like to imagine that this divine encounter bonds them in a kind of friendship that lasts for a lifetime. Every year, they write one another Christmas cards, fondly remembering the hilarious things that happened when Jesus was born, and they conspire to meet in Bethlehem the next time the magi are passing through. I imagine the shepherds and their families some 30 years later hustling to Jerusalem to make sure Mary is eating when Jesus is imprisoned.

This sort of enduring friendship is a rare gift, but truthfully, any kind of friendship has become difficult for us.

The pandemic and accompanying social tumult has changed the ways we relate and congregate. During the past three years, many of us experienced profound change in our social and intimate relationships. We stopped attending worship services and large social gatherings; family estrangement increased; the friendly barista at our favorite shop lost her job and moved away before we had a chance to say goodbye. Our close ties and our loose ties all came untied.

Some of us were experiencing isolation before the pandemic began. In early, pre-pandemic conversations with pastors, many Thriving in Ministry project directors discovered that pastors were experiencing deep loneliness in ministry. Some researchers of adolescent social behavior argued that the declines in iGen (born in the mid-1990s to mid-2000s) teen pregnancy had less to do with access to information and mature decision making and more to do with less time spent in the physical company of peers as socialization moved online.

The social isolation of the pandemic exacerbated these trends. In 2021, Americans age 15 and older spent less than three hours a week with friends, a 58% decline since 2013. These lost hours were not replaced by time with partners, families or even co-workers; they were replaced by time alone.

Our aloneness is a social and cultural phenomenon, not any one person’s doing. The loneliness many of us experience is a physical, mental and spiritual public health crisis.

Christmas and Advent can be particularly difficult seasons for prioritizing our well-being. Family and cultural expectations crowd out opportunities to reflect upon the meaning of a virgin mother, an incarnate and infant Christ child, an angel chorus, a star in the night. I find it incredibly difficult to slow down enough to join the shepherds in the field or the magi in their journeys and to experience the awe of an incarnate God.

Thankfully, Epiphany is one of the few Christian feasts celebrated in the United States with a meaning that has been spared the vampiric effects of capitalism. It remains a refuge of spiritual care.

The church quietly celebrates the appearance of the star of Bethlehem that beckoned Gentile magi to go and seek out the King of the Jews. The star, much like the infant Jesus, miraculously manifests and changes those who encounter it, drawing them closer to one another as they dream of the new ways of being this child is bringing to the world: sight for the blind, rest for the weary, freedom for the enslaved, hope for all.

The shining star of Epiphany beckons us to gather with others whose lives have been forever changed by an encounter with the divine. We cannot dream these dreams alone. We cannot become these new ways of being on our own. We need friends and community, with all their unlikeliness and messiness.

We don’t always feel like being with friends, or we may find it complicated to do so. After fulfilling all the obligations of the Christmas season, many of us engage in a kind of emotional hibernation, cocooned in our homes, recovering from a month of overstimulation. Many in our community are not well enough to bear the risk of exposure to illness. Others among us find the vulnerability and trust required of friendship incredibly difficult.

Back in the fan fic nativity scene, I imagine that the original Epiphany crew, too, had seasons when staying in touch became difficult, when their feelings of connection and love suffered. But the brilliance of the stars in the winter night sky pulled them back to the wonder of Jesus’ birth and the miracle of enduring love and friendship. Those stars reminded them to keep dreaming, to keep believing in the promised new ways of being, to keep creating transformative and healing community and friendship.

I plan to keep my nativity scenes out a little longer this year as my own kind of Epiphany reminder that spending time with friends is sacred and divine work. It can be challenging; it is countercultural and can counter my own intuition. But it is in our being with others that we encounter the Spirit and our dreams of full freedom and healing come alive.

Our aloneness is a social and cultural phenomenon, not any one person’s doing. The loneliness many of us experience is a physical, mental and spiritual public health crisis.