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Searching for Epiphany on holy and hellish nights

R. Shea Watts reflects on modern iconographer Kelly Latimore’s “Christ in the Rubble” image. In Epiphany, where do we find God’s revelation in a world full of violence?

All people, churches, organizations, etc. are warmly welcomed and encouraged to share the digital version of Kelly Latimore’s “Christ in the Rubble” on social media and on their website, particularly during the Christmas season. You can find it here:

“Christ in the Rubble” is an image that circulated on social media over the past few weeks depicting the Holy Family taking shelter under debris and destruction. In the background, buildings are filled with smoke and fire as others crumble around Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus. It is a contemporary icon by illustrator Kelly Lattimore in partnership with Red Letter Christians and Munther Isaac, pastor of Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem.

The social media post introducing the icon wrote: “No matter how lovely it is to sing carols, to gather with family and friends, and to “don we now our gay apparel,” I am confronted by “Christ in the Rubble” to remember the ongoing suffering of innocents and the most vulnerable in this war. As a follower of Jesus, this image convicts me: I must not look away.

This year, Christmas festivities were canceled in Bethlehem to mourn the over 20,000 Palestinians, most of whom women and children killed in the ongoing war in Gaza. Instead, Isaac hosted “Christ in the Rubble: A Liturgy of Lament” online. The service was in solidarity with Gazans who are being bombed. At the front of the church, a nativity scene was set up with baby Jesus in a manger surrounded by rubble.

Photo by Munther Isaac @MuntherIsaac on X.

Given the months-long onslaught in Gaza by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), Christmastide this year was marked with dissonance –– a glaring juxtaposition of a promise of peace and the reality of war. And yet, the Christmas story continues, leading us into Epiphany. In this new season, we explore God’s revelation in the world, from the wise men to Christ’s baptism to his early days of ministry. Epiphany marks the beginning of a story and journey of hope arising from the rubble of imperial domination and destruction.

In the Revised Common Lectionary, churches read Matthew 2:1-12 this year on January 6, the day the church celebrates the arrival of the Magi. It tells of a state-sponsored infanticide order by King Herod that would snuff out the Christ child, the promised deliverer of a people. The story chronicles how the Magi travel to pay homage to this infantile hope. The Gospel also reveals that the holy family become refugees and must flee to Egypt to escape Herod’s deathly decree.

Reflecting on this text, I think of the families fleeing the bombing in Gaza or mourning the thousands upon thousands of children buried under the rubble in refugee camps and overcrowded cities. I take comfort that Herod ultimately fails, and his failure to locate and exterminate Jesus reminds me that no empire, then or now, can extinguish the light of love nor control the ever-kindling fires of peace, hope and justice.

How can a weary, war-stricken world rejoice? This is the question to guide our journey, like the Magi and Holy Family, between Christmas and Lent.

How can a weary, war-stricken world rejoice? This is the question to guide our journey, like the Magi and Holy Family, between Christmas and Lent. As I start this journey, I wonder what it might look like to accompany those who suffer — those who are desperate to see God’s salvific promise come to pass. The earth continues to cry out for those who would be willing wombs for God to birth God’s peace, love, joy and justice into the world. How would my sense of self change if I were to answer God’s call like Mary saying, “May it be with me according to your word”? What good could I accomplish if I model the Magi and defy the power of empire to offer my gift to Christ?

As I ponder Epiphany this year, I find myself turning to the work of Anäis Mitchell to consider what is being revealed in our world. Her song, “Song of the Magi,” welcomes the Christ child into the present conflict: “Welcome home, my child. Your home is a checkpoint now. Your home is a border town. Welcome to the brawl,” Mitchell writes.

Just as the Christ child was born into a conflict zone under Roman occupation, we are still a part of God’s story in a world filled with war. God is not absent in our pain or the world’s trouble, but comes to us, reaching low to help us. Behold Emmanuel, God with us. In this season of Epiphany, I believe if we look for God’s revelation, we will find it, even in unexpected ways.

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