For centuries, Christians have observed January 6 as the Feast of the Epiphany. As told in Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 2:1-12). God sent a star to guide wise men from the East to the place where Jesus had been born, who, for the three travelers, was a newborn king. Throughout the season of Epiphany (which lasts until the beginning of Lent), there are numerous stories in scripture of God breaking through what is expected, what is considered to be normal and understandable, in order to manifest God’s glory. These manifestations were disorienting to those who beheld them, in that they were not able to unsee what they had seen — and in most cases, and certainly for the Magi, their lives were unalterably changed as a result. In all cases, then as now, we need to choose to see God breaking through; it can’t be forced on us. We choose to see God breaking through —in the dramatic and in the mundane, and then try and make sense of it all.
On January 6, 2021, a mob of Americans, calling themselves patriots, broke through security barriers, windows and locked doors to invade the US Capitol Building, which for over two hundred years has been the citadel of American Democracy. The images of the break-in have been disorienting to the millions who witnessed it as it was happening. It was beyond what was expected, even though it was clear that they had been riled up and goaded — by many forces and voices, to break through decorum and civility and threaten not only the lives of the congresspeople who were at work there, but democracy itself.
A year later the January 6 incident is still disorienting, and as a country we are trying to make sense of it all.
There are some obvious differences between God breaking through the veil between heaven and earth in order to manifest divine glory, and a group of insurgents breaking through the US Capitol. The former invokes blessing; the latter resorts to revenge. God breaking through is a peaceful vision; the rioters were surging with violence. For me, the most important difference between the two ‘break-throughs’ is that the insurrectionists were infected with the virus of certainty. Many were carrying or wearing Christian slogans, scripture passages or symbols — all of which reinforced their mission of certainty. They were convinced they were right, and that inflated sense of rightness, which was fed by certainty, served to justify whatever they did.
Which is more than troubling. Somewhere along the line, most of us have been taught that the opposite of faith is doubt. It isn’t. The opposite of faith is certainty. Certainty leads to rigidity, and certainty fuels the temptation to thwart, dismiss or even destroy those who don’t share the same certainty. Listening gets lost, any notion of reconciliation is dismissed as abject weakness — and certainty leads people to seeing only what they want to see.
The rioters on January 6 were agents of certainty. Their presence in the Capitol was scary then, and the ongoing debate about what to do about it all is scary now.
And yet, if we are truly honest with ourselves, at some level we want certainty. We all carry that virus. Maybe not to the degree that we storm the Capitol, but we desire to have the certainty to know what we should do next and how to do it. To have the certainty to break down complex issues to reveal what is absolutely right, and incontrovertibly wrong.
And God breaks through our desire for certainty — and invites us to listen more deeply, to see more broadly and to live more vulnerably. We arrive at faith not through deduction, but daring to see God breaking through — a vision that can’t be proven by calculus or physics, an aspiration for a hope that is beyond our reach. Faith can be fierce, but it is also fragile. We always need to be opening ourselves up to it. Certainty shuts it down.
More than two centuries ago, John Newton was a wealthy English ship owner. He made his wealth by transporting “cargo” from one continent to another on one of his many ocean-going vessels. One night, as he was looking out over the sea on one of his ships, he had a vision — an epiphany, which he wrote down:
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
God broke through to John Newton. He could have dismissed his epiphany as an hallucination, but he didn’t. From the moment of that vision, of seeing God breaking through, his eyes were opened to the evil of his participating in the slave trade, and he shut down his business and became an ardent abolitionist. Visions, which are manifestations of God breaking through, can lead us to commitment and away from certainty. God breaking through guides us to faith, and away from ideology. There is something ephemeral about all of this, which is exactly the point. We have to choose to see it, and risk to embrace it as real — as a vaccination of hope and love from the destructive and disturbing virus of certainty.
And if we miss seeing God breaking through, not to worry. It will happen again.