It’s almost too on-the-nose to talk about Matthew 2 in our present moment. Read the Epiphany story for yourself, and think about it: A narcissistic puppet learns that his power is not absolute, and then, motivated by his own insecurity, he tries to bully others to take out his alleged competition. When he doesn’t get what his way, he throws a tantrum that turns deadly. There are a thousand correlations available for sarcastic fodder – ie. wise(r) men from the east knowing more about what was happening in Judah than Herod – and yet, on this day post-epiphany, there is no place for such cynicism.
I’m not speaking out against humor. Certainly, in the last three years especially, humor feels more needed than ever. I am, however, ready to speak out against cynicism. I confess – I have engaged in it. I have outwitted MAGA’s with snide self-satisfaction. And I have framed political queries in a way that weaponizes my position. Such cynicism is its own reward; because it reinforces the idea that not only am I right. I am smarter. (Ugly to see in words, I know.)
Certainly, many soft-hearted people have, for good reason, condemned such cynicism. But I often hear this condemnation with an invitation to return to some earlier time of more “civil discourse”, as if courtesy were the one true path of resistance against racism and xenophobia and as if politeness were the ultimate way for each of us to claim our full humanity. If there ever was a time for such naivety, it is not now.
Nor is it the time for cynicism. Because cynicism isn’t just unseemly, it’s dangerous. I have watched countless intelligent people get dragged into petty fights about (or with!) our current US president. I understand how it happens. Often, it feels like the only way way to face off against such madness. And for all of the hours spent spouting off, I have never witnessed pithy asides change anyone’s mind. Moreover, such back-and-forth only serves to distract us from what’s really going on. As we while away mocking presidential tweet after presidential tweet, the world is on fire.
It’s we ever could afford to , we certainly can’t now. Because when we descend into such ways of discourse, we give up any hope that the other person will be able to hear us. It doesn’t matter if that’s how the childish tyrant behaves. We need the truth to be heard. Lives depend on it.
The text from Matthew 2 is not a story about wise(r) men getting the upper hand. It is about the discipline of deeply religious seekers. About people who are so committed to following the light that even after an arduous journey, they do not succumb to temptations of a tyrant. I like to imagine that the magi have the intelligence, power, and tactical skill to go back to Herod and rip him a new one. But they don’t. Because they didn’t come to pay attention to a childish tyrant. They came to pay homage to Christ child – to the one who would be called “the truth”.
I am praying for a true epiphany. I am praying that we will forsake the cynicism of the old road, and embrace our identity as serious people who were made for these serious times. And that post-epiphany we would go back to our work by a different route. We would continue to do the work of resistance, justice, and compassion. And we would continue to do the work of truth-telling. But instead of baiting the other for a fight, we would look eye and name the reality of our national moment with all the gravity that is due. Instead of muttering a snide comment after they speak something outlandish, we would ask a real question that, perhaps, in some small way, testifies to the truth.
I pray that no matter how many times we’ve tried before, we would be brave enough to hope that perhaps this time, if we come to such conversations with less cynical hearts, the outcome could be different. That, in fact, we might be able to find our way, if only we take a different route.