Three days before Thanksgiving, our family piled into our dirty minivan and headed north from Mississippi to Virginia, where we would be celebrating the holiday with my parents. One of our many pit stops took us to a nice convenience store somewhere in rural Alabama. It was a perfect place for our preschooler and toddler to stretch their legs and run off a bit of their abundant energy.
Much to our children’s delight, this convenience store had its own claw game (you know, the machines that allow you to wager a dollar that you can pick up and retain a stuffed animal with a mechanical claw), which is one of their favorite ways to spend (and lose) our money.Mercifully, we didn’t have any cash on us, so we couldn’t lose any money this time around.
Virginia (the preschooler) quickly found something else to hold her attention, but Oliver (the toddler) was still fascinated by the claw game, and chose to linger in its general vicinity. Several people walked past Oliver on their way to the restrooms, and many looked at him and smiled. Ever the outgoing, friendly PK, he smiled in return, and usually said hello.
One gentleman, after watching a couple of these exchanges, walked past Oliver, looked at him, smiled, and said, “He’s a winner! That boy there is a winner!”
As Oliver’s mother, I have had similar thoughts about him every day of his life. Doting of this magnitude makes sense coming from a proud and grateful parent.
But what was it about our son that evoked such high praise from a stranger in a convenience store? Was it his delicious chubby cheeks, big brown eyes, and strawberry-blonde hair? Was it his fun personality? Or was it, quite possibly, some sort of hunch that our boy is destined for something extraordinary?
We celebrated Oliver’s second birthday on December 26. As wonderful as he is, I don’t ever compare him to the Christ child whose birthday we celebrate the day before.
But this year, on this Epiphany Tuesday, I can’t help but think back on the exchange between our son and an Alabama stranger and wonder if Jesus’ encounter with the Magi might have had some similarities. If some New Testament scholars are right, Jesus could’ve actually been a toddler by the time the wise men reached him.
When I consider this possibility, my imagination runs wild. What was the Christ-toddler like during this unusual visit? Did he hurl gold, frankincense, and myrrh across the room just for fun? Did he demand snacks and juice mid-morning? Did he insist on snuggling with his mother (and pulling her hair, and wiping his runny nose on her clean robe) as they entertained their guests?
Aside from the grand star that hovered over his house and a dream about King Herod’s nefarious plans for him, what was it about this little boy that compelled the Magi to “[leave] for their own country by another road” (Mt. 2:12)? How did they know that he was the Holy One, and why did they care? How could they know that this little boy would be THE Winner, who would give the world its salvation as his most gracious prize?
We know the Epiphany story; we tell it every year. We know the Christ whose coming has made all the difference for us. Even so, I believe we have to discover him again, and again, and again—year after year, and even day after day.
Can we believe—this day and every day—that he has, in fact, won for us abundant life? Can we place “the hopes and fears of all the years” at the feet of the holy child of Bethlehem, trusting that God’s plans are perfect and God’s grace is sufficient?
In these early days of a new year, it is difficult to know what our life of Christian discipleship will look like. What will surprise us? What will empower us? What will challenge us? What will frighten us? What will cause us to question our vocations, our choices, or our very selves?
My hope and prayer is that in the midst of all that comes our way this year, we will discover our Winner. I hope and pray that we discover the Christ who has won the battle against all that might otherwise keep us from doing and being all that we have been called to do and be.
After all, He is born. He is risen. He is here. Hallelujah indeed.
Anna Kate Shurley has been a youth minister, campus minister, and hospital chaplain. She hopes add “author” to her list of vocational identities this year as she transforms her doctoral dissertation into a book. Anna Kate currently serves a congregation of two (her children, Virginia and Oliver), in Gulfport, Mississippi, where she lives with them and her husband, Will.