Epiphany: Celebrating the Imperfect Journey

“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’” Matthew 2:1


Tomorrow we celebrate the feast of Epiphany—the beginning of a season in which we look for the “showing forth” or “the revelation” of Christ in the world. We begin by commemorating the journey of the wise men to seek the Christ child, and celebrate their arrival at the manger with longing in their hearts and gifts appropriate for the One who would be our king, our priest, and our Savior.

In yet another strange twist to the Christmas story, these pagan astrologers were among the first and most venerated visitors to the manger. Theirs was an occupation that was expressly forbidden in Jewish law—the modern-day equivalent of those who read and interpret horoscopes—and yet they were welcomed and their gifts received.

So Epiphany is a season of revelation—the manifestation of God’s presence in earthly form—showing up in ordinary and unexpected places to ordinary and unexpected people.

Intimate Imperfections

Nothing about the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth was ideal. Mary was pregnant out of wedlock. When it was time for Jesus to be born, Mary and Joseph were on the road due to political forces that were beyond their control. There was no good place to have the baby and so they ended up in a humble stable for this blessed event. It is doubtful the conditions were sanitary by any standard!

Beyond these intimate imperfections, the larger landscape was very bleak. Jesus was born into a time of political and religious upheaval. Herod, an insecure and power-hungry man, was king at the time, creating a very dangerous environment for anyone who threatened him. His violent actions and reactions showed little regard for human life.

The wise men, for all of their wisdom, were actually more of a hindrance than a help: they tipped off Herod to the fact that there was a potential usurper being born in Bethlehem. This knowledge sent Herod into a jealous rage which caused him to order what is now known as “the massacre of the innocents”—the murder of all children two years and under. From a human standpoint it was not a good moment for ushering in a new spiritual reality in the guise of a vulnerable baby. It was not a safe environment for spiritual seeking. But Jesus came anyway. And the wise men left their home country to seek this One who offered them hope.

Seeking and Finding

We are all seekers and none of us does our seeking perfectly. The wise men show us this. But for all of their bumbling, the story of the wise men is about our longing for more of God than we have right now (no matter who we think we are) … and our curiosity and questioning about whether there might be more for us. Whatever the wise men had going for them back at home, they had bumped up against the limits of human wisdom to truly satisfy. This part of the story helps those of us who think we know something to acknowledge that even with all of our human wisdom, there is a poverty of spirit that can only be satisfied through a fresh encounter with Christ. This longing compels us to move beyond the borders of life as we know it in order to discover a deeper spiritual reality.

The story of the wise men is a story of pilgrimage. It is about being willing to leave the familiar in search of our deeper spiritual home. It is about seeking and not even knowing what we are seeking until we stumble upon it where we least expect it. A good journey begins with knowing where we are and being willing to go somewhere else, as Richard Rohr reminds us.

Seeking can be a dangerous venture. And the truth is, everyone in this story was in danger. None were immune to the imperfections and the vulnerability of the human condition. And the only way to make it safely through such dangerous territory was to follow the guidance that was given—whether it came from a star or an angel appearing in a dream or an inexplicable longing in the gut.

Those who fared best were those who responded immediately to whatever guidance they received.

A Spirituality of Imperfection

Perhaps one of the reasons I am so attuned to the imperfections and dangers in the Christmas story is that I am so attuned to imperfection in my own life. For all the gifts that come to us at Christmas—and there are many—there is always the pain of imperfection as well. There are old wounds that get reopened so often I wonder if they will ever heal. There are places of darkness in my own soul where I cry out to God with such deep longing for light and a way ahead that sometimes I wonder if God gets tired of listening to me.

It takes courage to name the questions at the same time as I am celebrating the ways in which Christ is being born in my life. It takes an almost desperate faith to keep crying out to God, asking for an epiphany—a showing forth of Christ’s presence—in the places where it seems least possible.

But it is in the courage to seek and to question that a deeper kind of faith is forged. Here we learn that we can prepare the way for the coming of Christ, to the best of our ability, but in the end we cannot fix everything that needs to be fixed. We can’t make everything perfect, but Jesus comes anyway. He shows himself in the least likely places to the least likely people—including us!

The Scandal of Christmas

The Christmas story does not end with cattle lowing, angels singing, and wise men worshipping.  No, it actually ends the way it begins—with imperfection and senseless violence.  The presence of evil is real, crouching outside the door to the stable.

King Herod is so infuriated at having been tricked by the wise men that it is not safe for them to return home. He is so threatened by the spiritual reality that has been birthed and now recognized that Mary and Joseph are forced to take Jesus and hide out in Egypt. Thousands of young children are murdered and only briefly mentioned as a side story in this unfolding drama.

It’s tempting to wonder how anything good can come from a scenario like this; I rail against it because I am an idealist. A perfectionist. I confess it freely. I spend my days dreaming big dreams, seeing great visions, trying to be perfect and trying to manage everything and everyone around me so that they are perfect. I take it far too personally when the world is not perfect and carry its imperfection as a weight on my very own shoulders.

Your Light Has Come!

But the scandal of the Christmas story is to see, really see, that Christ came into a situation that was imperfect in every single way. But the imperfection did not keep him from coming and it did not keep the wise men from striking out on their own journey in response to the light they saw. The light that is Jesus could not be snuffed out by the darkness all around.

That light shone in the sky and over the manger giving guidance to those humble enough to follow—no matter how that guidance came. In this most imperfect situation the prophecy of Isaiah was fulfilled with perfect precision:

Arise! Shine! For your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory shall appear over you.
Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
Lift up your eyes and look around…
then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and rejoice…
they shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.

Prayers for the Journey

And so we pray, Lord, help us to journey with you even in imperfection. Help us to recognize the light of your star, rising to give us guidance. As we come to the end of Christmas and enter into this season of revelation, help us to do so with eyes lifted up, looking for your presence in all the places where we expect you and all the places we don’t. Make our faces a radiant reflection of your light even in the darkest places. Give us courage to take the perilous journey that is ours to take.

Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer. Amen.

©Ruth Haley Barton, 2007, updated 2019.


Where is God showing himself to you on your own journey of imperfection?

Leave a comment below.


Guidance on using the lectionary.

Ruth Haley Barton

(Doctor of Divinity, Northern Seminary) is Founder and Chief Essence Officer of the Transforming Center. A teacher, seasoned spiritual director (Shalem Institute), and retreat leader, she is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Life Together in Christ, Pursuing God’s Will Together, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, and Invitation to Solitude and Silence.

39 Comments

  1. Al on January 19, 2019 at 7:47 am

    “We can’t make everything perfect,
    but Jesus comes anyway.”

    What a wonderful life giving thot. My heart started playing this as a litany,

    We(I) can’t be patient, kind enough to my wife, giving … but Jesus comes anyway.

    Thank you

    He shows himself in the least likely places to the least likely people—including us!

  2. Jessie Ray on January 15, 2019 at 12:11 pm

    “It’s tempting to wonder how anything good can come from a scenario like this; I rail against it because I am an idealist. A perfectionist. I confess it freely. I spend my days dreaming big dreams, seeing great visions, trying to be perfect and trying to manage everything and everyone around me so that they are perfect. I take it far too personally when the world is not perfect and carry its imperfection as a weight on my very own shoulders.”
    Tears. And yet a deep sign of relief that I am not the only one! Thank you for articulating so well some of the struggles in my soul, for the guidance in prayer, and encouragement for the continued journey.

  3. Mitsie McKellick on January 9, 2019 at 8:20 am

    I am encouraged by this as it brings confirmation to my heart for what I learned last year during my research of the magi for a lesson I was preparing. In the midst of some very interesting discoveries (how they interpreted the night sky and the actual constellation patterns during that time) it dawned on me that these wise men were the first Gentiles to bend the knee to Jesus. God is always about “widening the circle”. He was always about including those we deem “too far away.” The other piece I realized, is that these men were most likely descendants or from the same school of magi as those mentioned in Nebuchadnezzar’s court. When Nebuchadnezzar invaded Jerusalem, he ransacked the temple taking all the gold and spices and oils, which most likely included frankincense and myrrh. As these wise men, magi, bow their knees, not only are they paying homage to Jesus as king, they are giving him his gold back. Restoration! So good! Thank you for your spirit-infused words. They are life-giving.

  4. Susan Faye Ness on January 7, 2019 at 11:31 am

    I had been pondering Epiphany–more than in previous years–and the beautiful participation of the Magi in God’s story. Then I read your thoughts on this, and God brought even more, personal encouragement. We are in the transition of a cross-country move which is huge and bittersweet on many levels. The image of setting my eyes on the Star is resonating in deep ways. Like the Magi, I do not have the complete picture of what I will find when the star settles over our new place–but I do know I will follow. I do know I will worship. God also sweetly brought to my mind this morning the hymn “I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light”: “The Star of my life is Jesus”! My desire is to not run ahead of that star, but rest in its light along our journey. Thank you.

    • Ruth Barton on January 14, 2019 at 11:25 am

      Love hearing how this intersects so practically and specifically with your story!

  5. linnea spicer on January 7, 2019 at 9:30 am

    I love that God was so vibrantly at work in the “outsiders” – and I enjoyed thinking about their search for capital T truth. To set out on a risky search to a foreign land is no small feat. It encourages me as I confess my deep desire to belong and to fight against the message that I don’t. I DO belong to Christ and every yes of his is a yes of mine. Even in the midst of all of my lack and my mess, my good intentions and misguided ones, too. Thank you, Ruth.

  6. Dan Coffey on January 6, 2019 at 9:05 pm

    What am I seeking?
    I found myself saying I want to be relevant. Relevant to clients, colleagues, family and God.
    God’s whisper was “I do my wonders through the ordinary.”
    I am finding hope in my ordinary-ness.
    Thank you Holy Spirit and Ruth for this speaking into the silence and into my searching.

    • Ruth Barton on January 8, 2019 at 7:57 am

      That question–What am I seeking?–helps us drop down into a place of deeper reflection, doesn’t it? Grateful for your courage and clarity, Dan!

  7. jenny illingworth on January 6, 2019 at 6:56 pm

    I so relate to your questionings and wonderings that you bring before God again and again. I so often feel there is such a familiarity with the sameness of these questions and like you, question whether God may indeed be tired of the similar strains! So wanting the big bold and grand lifechanging adventure, and yet walking or perhaps plowing through the mundane and familiar. The commencement of another new year always makes me question the sameness of so much of my walk, and yet reading this story again of the ordinary and extraordinary working together encourages me so much. Thank you, you have been such a blessing to me personally with your insight and very real wisdom. I am blessed indeed!

  8. Sande Rajcic on January 6, 2019 at 4:09 pm

    Thank you, as always, for the crack in the walls that your writing almost always produces, especially the observation that we do not always mentally “know” what we are searching for. Mentally, I would have said I am searching and longing for more times of experiencing my recent deep baptism in the Holy Spirit. However, at the conclusion of your reflection, my heart whispered, “I’m searching for He who is searching for me.” It is, after all, HE who plants the hope, ache, or longing which propels us to leave home-base.

    Blessings on your seasons of being and sharing salt and light.

  9. Sue Alvera on January 6, 2019 at 6:34 am

    What am I seeking? Such a powerful thought and question.

    Truth known…I doubt I would set out seeking imperfect paths, spaces, or places or results for that matter. But your devotional confirmed something I have perhaps always known deep within…love…is most always worked out and lived in the imperfect moments.

    Ruth thank you for being a voice that draws the inner to reveal itself for reminders, inspiration, and needed heartwork.

  10. Mary Arritola on January 5, 2019 at 9:13 pm

    Thank you Ruth for your obedience to quiet time away and listening which gives us the gift of your rich writing that is always so accessible to all at our very depths no matter where we are in our journey this day..

  11. Pam Chun on January 5, 2019 at 5:08 pm

    Ruth –

    This very morning, I found myself thinking that “finding” is a lot easier than “following.”

    Finding is somewhat of a one-time thing, a single action, a task that knows completion. Done! we say. But following, and following Jesus, is a continuous life time movement of ins and outs, ups and down, over and under and through. And oft the going is slow, it’s hard to see, the landscape looks very unfamiliar, and I have to keep checking myself that I am indeed still following Jesus.

    Your post was the perfect follow up to my morning thought. Thank you for sharing your journey so honestly. You remind me that imperfection is who we are and why Jesus came. Somehow the Spirit leads us in our wanderings – evidence that I’m not as lost as I think my wanderings and wonderings have taken me. Blessings – and aloha from Hawaii.

  12. Angelie Ryah on January 5, 2019 at 3:31 pm

    I lost count of the times while reading this that a phrase or sentence was so spot-on that I had a mental gasp, stopped, read it again, paused to ponder… Such a timely reflection as I press deeper into my own pilgrimage of accepting imperfection and how it slows God down not even one tiny bit from showing up, revealing, guiding, using dark matter as the path forward. Thank you Ruth.

  13. Debra on January 5, 2019 at 1:56 pm

    Thank you so much Ruth, for this amazing reflection. I so needed that this morning. Once again God has “Arisen” in my heart and reminded me that He is with me in my imperfection. I too am a perfectionist and am always striving ….. I need to be still and receive Him again!!

  14. Mary on January 5, 2019 at 1:50 pm

    Dear Ruth, You always know how to articulately express the deep things we all sense, enabling us to be comforted in knowing we all share part in His imperfectly perfect story of life. Isn’t it amazing how we must come back to the place of having simple faith of a child – leaving our analyzing and rationalization behind – to simply believe and trust in Him? The Light of the world will lighten our every path and situation – no matter what forms the darkness around us take. Happy Twelfth Day of Christmas and Happy Epiphany Eve – you are much loved and appreciated, Ruth!

  15. Betty on January 5, 2019 at 12:06 pm

    Thank you Ruth! Our perspective of the Christ Light changes our lives in the areas where we struggle in darkness.

  16. len sunukjian on January 5, 2019 at 11:22 am

    A wonderful way to start my day. I will share with family members and my spiritual companions

    Perfection is overrated but Grace is not – for our imperfection

  17. len sunukjian on January 5, 2019 at 11:19 am

    A most wonderful reflection to start my day. I will pass on to my spiritual companions and family members.

  18. Kim Roberts on January 5, 2019 at 9:53 am

    I have been wrestling this morning with feelings of failure, the need for forgiveness, longing for direction, and joy in the midst of it all. Your message was timely and hit home in so many ways. I was especially impacted by your description of the terrible circumstances surrounding the birth of Jesus. God chose to be among us even when we are at our worst because he knows how much we need him. I need him afresh this morning to make me new. I praise God that because of Jesus and by the power of his Spirit I am free. There is now no condemnation!

    • Ruth Barton on January 5, 2019 at 2:08 pm

      Amen!

  19. patrice on January 5, 2019 at 9:14 am

    Thank you for sharing this insight with such clarity. This helped me to sharpen my awareness to moments when I get confused by the imperfections of my own ‘walk’ and environment. Increases my Hope and Belief that ‘all is well’ in the midst of the imperfections and surprises.

  20. Maris on January 5, 2019 at 8:53 am

    I enjoyed reading and being reminded of these things. Thank you.

  21. Steve on January 5, 2019 at 8:52 am

    Analysis paralysis & procrastination because I think I can’t make something perfect. These hound me daily. Jesus, you were into born into the mess of a scandalous birth, the mess of a manger & the mess of a political madman. You also came into the mess of my life. Jesus, help me drop my idols & live more open handedly, trusting in you for everything. Thank you Ruth, I am affected your words.

    • Ruth Barton on January 5, 2019 at 9:20 am

      I join you in your prayer.

  22. Darlene on January 5, 2019 at 8:52 am

    I am in a season in my journey that I know that all I have is God’s guidance to lead me into where he wants me to live out my days with him in community in a new geographic place. This reflection on Epilhany gives me hope that because of me not knowing all the answers of my present journey that God’s light is no less bright and guiding me to where He desires me to experience life with Him. I will continue to seek Him in the ordinary places and hope to be surprised by His Presence.

  23. Lillian Jardon on January 5, 2019 at 8:43 am

    Perfect imperfection. 😉

  24. Jeannie on January 5, 2019 at 8:02 am

    God is showing up faithfully and consistently in the midst of life’s imperfections in all areas personally and at work, a steady presence regardless of mood or circumstance. I am ever so grateful!

  25. Liz Fike on January 5, 2019 at 7:45 am

    “Those who fared best were those who responded immediately to whatever guidance they received.” I fear that my tendency is to overthink rather than act.

    Thank-you for your words. They always challenge and bring comfort at the same time.

    • Ruth Barton on January 5, 2019 at 2:11 pm

      I think a lot of us over-think things and miss the guidance God is so faithfully trying to give us. Maybe this year we can get beyond this!

  26. Peni Johnson on January 5, 2019 at 7:39 am

    Such beautiful spiritual insight into a familiar text, ancient yet ever new.

  27. Tom on January 5, 2019 at 7:29 am

    Yes and Amen. The arrival of Jesus set off a wave in the spiritual realm that is still reverberating. So thankful that along the way His Light penetrated my darkness and confusion!

  28. DDF on January 5, 2019 at 7:19 am

    We move ahead, in faith, with the knowledge we have, however imperfect, even as we continue seeking for more wisdom and understanding with all our heart. Very touching thoughts, Ruth. Thank you so much. This encourages me to press on!

  29. Nancy Alley on January 5, 2019 at 6:57 am

    One of the most powerful points made ( to me)
    was the importance of responding to whatever guidance one receives….and that Godly guidance can come in such a variety of ways. It has been true in my journey and is often not discussed by theologians.

    • Ruth Barton on January 5, 2019 at 8:42 am

      That is the truth! This story has many mystical elements, which can be very challenging to the part of us that relies too much on cognitive knowing.

  30. Kim Nielsen on January 5, 2019 at 6:55 am

    This was so helpful today!! A much needed reminder! Thanks Ruth!

    • Ruth Barton on January 5, 2019 at 8:56 am

      So glad. You’re welcome, Kim!

  31. Kevin Conklin on January 5, 2019 at 6:42 am

    Thanks much fo cthis thought provoking and transparent post. Much to consider for me personally.

  32. Michael Fox on January 5, 2019 at 6:07 am

    This is beautiful of insight and expression, Ruth. Thank you.

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