When I was a child, I didn’t know very much about Epiphany – as either a religious feast or a spiritual resource – all I knew was the old Christmas carol, “We Three Kings.” Like most of suburban America, my family took down our Christmas tree sometime before New Year’s Day, we put the decorations away, too because for us the holiday was over. We may have sung “The 12 Days of Christmas” together as a family in the car going to visit my grandparents, but we had no idea what it meant or why it mattered.
· Today we do things differently: our Christmas tree and all the decorations are still up as we honor and celebrate the full 12 days of Christmas; now I know that Epiphany literally means manifestation or a living encounter with God’s light; and because of that light these days I want to know more about the spiritual wisdom of this season.
· Don’t get me wrong – I love all the decorations and feasting – and I don’t think that our old way of doing Christmas was bad or wrong. It’s just that this moment in my life I also want to go deeper: beyond the obvious – to ponder what the real nature of the Christ Child means for our lives today – and try to understand how the unique festivals and celebrations of this season can help me better live into the life of Jesus.
Sr. Joan Chittister said it best for me when she wrote that there are deeper meanings to all the celebrations we encounter at this time of year – from Christmas and the Feast of the Holy Family to Epiphany and the Baptism of Jesus Sunday – if we are open to their mystical truths.
Each of the feasts of Christmastide is another star on the horizon of the soul, confirming what our hearts already know: God is with us… (If we are paying attention) we discover that we are not left wondering like John the Baptist, whether Christ is the one who is to come (and bring us God’s blessings.) Now we can watch the Lord Jesus grow in God’s grace... (And) never need to fear the darkness again nor live like a people who walk in darkness…
… Because now we have seen, experienced and encountered God’s light in Christ Jesus our Lord.
· Do you hear what I’m saying? If we tenderly and playfully enter into the wisdom of each of our celebrations in the days after Christmas, we too can be strengthened by faith to face every darkness that life might bring to us: in our tradition Christ is clearly the light God has promised to illuminate, warm and renew each and all of us.
· But this blessing – this assurance – this Epiphany doesn’t come by accident or all at once; it takes a life time of walking in the way. It takes a commitment to nourishing an alternative to the status quo. For if we just “do” Christmas – pop up the tree for a bit, put on a few carols and then tear everything down after the gifts are opened – nothing changes.
So let me offer you three insights from the Epiphany story that might give you another way to celebrate and honor this time after Christmas – a way to go deeper into the sacred story – so that this becomes a season that nourishes the faith of both children and adults. And let me start with a word of prayer:
Precious Lord, you bring together people of different nations and languages, different races, classes and cultures in your grace: may our hearts be opened now that by faith we might become one with all. For we pray in the Spirit and Presence of Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
The first insight about Epiphany has to do with the Three Wise Men – or Kings – or Magi: what do you know about them? Who were these strangers who travelled from what is now Iran and Iraq to worship the Christ Child? In our tradition the Magi tell us some interesting truths about the journey of faith – ideas that sometimes clash with what we think we know about being faithful – and certainly bump into one another when we hold them all together.
For example these visitors were not really kings – we get that idea from the poetry of Isaiah 60 that speaks of gold, frankincense and myrrh – but in fact the Magi were both respected spiritual scientists from their world – people who studied astrology and dream interpretation in Persia – and simultaneously so-called pagan barbarians who were hated within the realm of Judaism.
· We get the word magician from the Magi and the Jews of Christ’s time believed that those who dabbled in magic were not to be trusted – they were not only superstitious – they were dangerous and opposed to the love of God. Did you know that? They were loved in their world and hated and feared in the land of Jesus.
· What’s more, the Magi came from the East – each week we’ve been having our Three Kings make their journey through our Sanctuary to the Christmas Crèche from the East – so why was that a problem for the Hebrew people? Kate Matthews Huey puts it like this:
They come from "the East" – the same direction from which most of Israel's conquerors approached, including Assyria, Babylon, and Persia… East of Judea is the Tigris and the Euphrates – the Garden of Eden – Ur of the Chaldees – and Babylon, where Jews lived in Exile after the destruction of the first Temple. East of Judea is the Jewish community who stayed behind in Babylon when other Jews returned to rebuild their Temple and Jerusalem. (So) these Magi… were probably among the Gentiles who had been influenced by the Jews who remained beyond in Babylon after the rest of their community returned home to Israel…
Strangers from the East were not trusted – they were not loved or revered – but feared and hated and held in profound suspicion. And yet OUR story tells us that these same strangers not only saw some-thing of the Living God in the heavens that attracted them to Jesus, but acted in such a way that is we can learn about living in faith from them. So what do you make of that?
· What does this story say to you about strangers who are simultaneously hated and wise beyond our comprehension?
· Have you ever met strangers who have surprised you with their insights? Or kindness? Or generosity? Have you ever bumped up against your own prejudice or fear in the company of strangers? What’s that like – what have you learned from your suspicions?
One truth the story of the Magi offers us is that God is at work beyond the obvious – beyond both our fears and comprehension – beyond the limits of our experience and imagination. Here are strangers acting by faith, breaking down barriers of suspicion, race and culture, reminding us that God’s grace is bigger than all our divisions. So this is an invitation to humility – and trust – to watching and waiting more in silence than in judgment. Because let’s be honest: most of the time our knowledge about most of life is incomplete – at best.
· We don’t know what’s in another’s heart, right? We barely understand ourselves let alone those who are strangers and outwardly different from us. How does the poet Isaiah put it: Lift up your eyes and look around… get over yourselves and your hearts shall rejoice... because God’s light is coming to you in the most unexpected way.
· And in an era like our own – when so many (myself included) are often too quick to speak and judge rather than watch and learn – the wisdom of the Magi matters: Lift up your head – take a look around – and you will discover God coming into the world in ways you could never imagine.
And there are two other important insights to glean from the story of the Magi, too. One has to do with the fact that they needed both the testimony of nature AND the wisdom of Scripture to comprehend the light of God in Christ. If you pay attention to the story it tells us that while the Magi saw the start – and followed it on a journey of faith – they needed help interpreting its meaning. And where did they go but to the Bible? I know that a lot of people these days discount the Bible: some say it is filled with religious bigotry that disqualifies it for use in the 21st century while others believe it is only mildly valuable in a world filled with competing truth claims and spiritual diversity.
I don’t disagree – I’ve seen the Scriptures used in horrible and mean-spirited ways, too – and I don’t want to have any part of that. And at the same time, I have come to believe that we need to be grounded in a spiritual tradition that is bigger, wiser and older than ourselves if we’re going to live as people of compassion in the world.
· Let me put it like this: none of us is smart enough – or consistently good and loving enough – to be the sole judge of our own ethics or morality. “All of us have sinned and fallen short of grace,” as the Apostle Paul reminds us. All of us – the good, the bad and the ugly – the wise and the foolish, men, women and children.
· And while we can all discern and discover something of God’s loving light in the world like the Magi, we need help turning this insight into something that advances healing and hope in the world. We need help learning how to worship – we need help practicing compassion – we need help in accepting and sharing forgiveness – we need help in trusting God’s presence is with us even in the darkness.
Preacher Thomas Long said:
The world is full of 'stars in the East' – events in nature, personal experience and history that point toward the mystery of God…" but we the Bible to help us to "recognize these holy moments for what they are…to see God's face clearly in them." Without scripture, we would be like the wise men, trying to figure out the deeper meaning of what they had experienced and then what to do about it.
First the story speaks to us about the enormity of God’s love that comes to us and the world in the most unexpected ways – in strangers and babies and stars and mystical experiences and nature and the arts and so much more. Second we’re reminded that we all need help in discerning what these experiences mean – and what we might do with them – which is where tradition, Scripture and community comes into the picture. To grow and mature in the light, we need direction, training and guidance.
And the third insight from the Epiphany story is this, I think: not only is God honored and discovered by the Magi in the Christ Child and the Scriptures, but the whole world and its people are honored, too. “This is not a Christian child only,” you see,” this Child belongs to the whole world.” (Chittister) This Child recognizes and loves ALL the people of the world – Jews and Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, rich and poor, women and men and children, gay and straight, sinners and faithful, soldiers and pacifists.
· In the stable there are shepherds and animals, Mary and Joseph, heaven and earth and now favored and feared strangers from the East – the Magi.
· And just as they recognize the heavenly in this child, so too does the Child “recognize the whole people of God in them.” (Chittister)
For far too long most of Christianity has been a winner vs. loser - or us vs. them - affair rather than a spiritual partner with all people of compassion. The time has come for the faith communities of Christ to claim the same vision of the world as the Child looking up at the Magi while surrounded by his parents and all creation. The whole world cries, "Holy" and we can do no less.
ConclusionEpiphany has become for me the culmination of the Advent/Christmas arc. It is a quiet light leading me through my worst fears and prejudices, beyond my traditional understandings of the sacred and away from my time tested habits of worship towards the grace of God. It asks that I shut my mouth more than I speak words of judgment, that I let God’s love guide my thinking and that I learn what love looks like through the life of Jesus Christ. It is how the blessing of the Christ Child ripens within my life.
May God’s love be a guiding star before you – a glorious song in the heavens above you – a gentle path on the road below you – a galvanizing voice deep within you – and loving presence wherever the journey may lead you. Amen.