It has been some weeks since the Church celebrated The Feast of Epiphany (January 6th). This is the day in the church calendar when the Three Wise Men get extra “air time” in the church and when the Gospel as light to all the world is celebrated. In Eastern Orthodoxy the baptism of Jesus is also recognized on this day.
I spent Epiphany this year teaching my history of world Christianity course in Philadelphia, a course we call “The Church in Mission through History.” After teaching that one week “intensive” I travelled to New Haven, Connecticut for another week of research at the wonderful Day Missions Library at Yale Divinity School. During my week of research I stayed at the Overseas Ministries Study Center (OMSC) across the street.
At OMSC I was struck by a number of the pieces of art on display which were done by previous “artists in residence” whom OMSC sponsors. I had seen these pictures before in books which the Center has published over the years, but in the days after Epiphany the following painting was most striking to me as I encountered it walking up the steps to my room after a day in the archives. It was the delight and surprise of the encounter the artist portrays between Egyptian princess and Hebrew infant that jumped out at me in the painting as I trudged up the steps tired from a tedious day of research with few epiphanies. The colors, brightness, and joy of this story from Exodus 2:1-10 have not been something I have reflected upon before. The text even says that Moses cried, but can that be understood as a cry of laughter as the artist, Sawai Chinnawong, portrays it? Sure!
This story is not typically considered as one appropriate for Epiphany, but it could be. The encounter surely occurred in the midst of a great deal of darkness – the enslavement of Hebrews by the Egyptians and the deaths of many infants of similar age to Moses to mention just two dark realities surrounding the story. This brief encounter portrayed by the artist is filled with light in contrast to that darkness but not separate from it at all. The symbol of empire in the princess’s crown and the reality of an infant slave escaping persecution by that same empire is here.
The joy of the cross-cultural encounter portayed here is also striking. In my teaching I try very hard to teach about the challenge and hard work of cross-cultural communication. I implicitly teach about the joy of cross-cultural relationships as well through the laughter inevitably produced in the intercultural communication games I play with my classes.
Finally, the painting is also a reminder for me to always strive to learn the stories of people whom we are too often quick to categorize as the enemy, the oppressed, the poor, the oppressor, the weak, or the rich. The future Queen of an Empire and a Hebrew infant slave seem to meet one another in this painting in a way that their true selves are recognized. The artist chooses to not portray Moses as suffering – even if he and his people were – but rather as joyful. The ripe wheat in the background also brings to mind for me the abundance and grace of God’s provision – an abundance squandered by the Egyptians in future years as the story of Moses unfolds.
Epiphany is usually considered a New Testament sort of holiday. I still love the story of (possibly) Zoastrian Wise Men on a crazy journey through Iraq and Jordan to follow a star. It is even a holiday that expresses hope for mission professors on a somewhat less treacherous voyage through an archive! This painting that I saw in the days after Epiphany was a reminder that epiphanies can come in many different ways. May we have eyes to see them when they come and hearts open enough to receive them with joy.