The following contemplation is a talk I gave as a sermon at Rockway Mennonite Church in Kitchener, Ontario, on January 2, 2011. I've been attending this church for the past two years and enjoyed in particular the heart-and soul-filled music of this community. Especially because I'm not Mennonite, I feel deeply honoured and delighted to have been given the opportunity to speak on the topic of 'Epiphany." Now it's time to share my ideas with all of you.
Good Morning and a Wonder-filled New Year to you all. Let me begin with a trivia question: What do the following people have in common? The Beachboys, Sarah McLachlin, O’Henry, Ella Fitzgerald, The Barenaked Ladies, T.S. Eliot, Blondie, John Rutter, W. H. Auden, Percy Faith, and many others? – Anyone? – They all created their versions of the story of the Wise Men, either in form of music, poetry or narratives.
Although we tend to associate the Wise Men mainly with the Christmas story, their feast day, Epiphany here in North America, occurs January 6. This day actually marks the end of Christmastide (the end of the 12 days of Christmas) with the first manifestation of Christ to the world, the entire world. Megan McKenna evokes the following image, “Advent, Christmastide and Epiphany tell the story of light that is afar off, light that interrupts and explodes into night’s darkest hour, and light that is loose in the world.” (Advent, Christmas and Epiphany, 2008, p. 218).
An epiphany, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is a “usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential meaning of something; an intuitive grasp of reality through something usually simple and striking; and an illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure.”
Epiphany in the Christian context is understood as the brief insight into and revelation of the whole of the mystery of God’s Incarnation. Perhaps we can imagine Epiphany as a realization made by our entire beingness, where head, heart and soul connect and align with Spirit, just as our sending hymn “Move in our Midst” describes.
Can we create such an experience? Highly unlikely. C.S. Lewis renders his perception in this manner: “By ceasing for a moment to consider my own wants I have begun to learn better what I really wanted.” ("The Weight of Glory," http://www.verber.com/mark/xian/weight-of-glory.pdf). And the Franciscan friar Richard Rohr suggests, “An epiphany is not an experience from within, but one that we can only be open to and receive from another. Epiphanies leave us totally out of control, and they always demand that we change.” ("Epiphany: You Can't Go Home Again," Htttp://www.americancatholic.org/messenger/jan2001/feature3.asp )
Why are we so fascinated by the story of the Wise Men that comes to us only through the Gospel According to Matthew? Why has this story become so mythologized? Just think of the city of Cologne in Germany, that has become a Mecca for pilgrims revering the Magi because allegedly their remains are buried there in the cathedral.
Perhaps you appreciate J.R.R. Tolkien’s explanation, “We have come from God, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God.”
Let’s begin by taking a closer look at the actual 12 verses that you heard this morning from the Gospel According to Matthew (2:1-12). What are we really told?
The Wise Men are called Magi, which most likely describes astrologers of the Zoroastrian tradition from Persia. We have no idea how many arrived in Bethlehem. We know they came from the East, which leaves their ethnic and geographic origins wide open to our imagination.
We can presume the Magi arrived from various locations and did not travel together most of the long trek, estimated between 500 and 1000 miles, or 800-1600 km in length. Imagine that! How and when might they have met up, I wonder?
They were definitely learned men, although not Kings, and therefore calling them ‘wise men’ seems fitting. We don’t know their names. The commonly used names in Germanic cultures, Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar, are not derived from our biblical account, nor is the attribution of age and skin colour.
Here are some questions for you: Where did the Magi offer their gifts to Jesus? When did this incident occur?
Well, we are told in the story that the Magi detour via Jerusalem to Bethlehem. So the Christmas carols depict that correctly. But what about the beautiful nativity scene where the Magi join the shepherds at the stable? Not according to the story in Matthew. We are told that the star stopped over the place (or house) where the child was, not the stable or the baby. This information supports the continuation of the story, in which King Herod ordered all children under the age of two to be murdered. The visit by the Magi, therefore, most likely occurred months, if not up to two years after the birth of Jesus. Isn’t it fascinating how many embellishments we’ve added over the centuries?
Why would Matthew tell us this story? He wanted to ensure that his primary audience, the Jews, were convinced that the prophecies of the Old Testament were indeed fulfilled. Remember, we heard some earlier from Isaiah 60–and you surely recognize them from Handel’s Messiah. (Just a few lines as a refresher!):
“Arise, shine; for your light has come,
And the glory of the Lord has risen upon you…..
Nations shall come to your light...
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
And shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.”
Yet, there’s much more to the story of the Wise Men. Imagine this:
Living far from Bethlehem, the Magi had to cross foreign lands and adversarial desert and climates. Did they know the exact reasons for their trip or the specifics of their destination? Most likely, NO. And yet, they ventured on this journey that possibly took them one to two years in the end–and that’s one way only; no return ticket booked or promised.
What else? The Magi presumably traveled at night to follow the light/the star. I cannot even begin to imagine how much they sacrificed, possibly their health and wealth and their families, at the very least their comfort. They had no guarantees they would get wherever they were going nor that they’d make it back alive.
What was it that inspired and drove them to undertake such a hazardous adventure? Well, we can assume that as astrologers they recognized the extraordinary constellation in the skies that indicated something extremely special happening (I’m referring to the Jupiter/Saturn constellation in Pisces; or, as the BBC made popular a few years ago, the possibility of an exploding supernova of nuclear proportions).
However, would that suffice? The Magi likely had some knowledge of the prophecies recorded in the Old Testament, as they share this information later on with King Herod. But why would it impel them to assume all these risks? After all, they were not Jewish. This was not their story.
So, let’s go on an experiential journey for the next few minutes to explore what happened.
Picture this. The Magi decide to follow what I’d call a ‘learned insight.’ They have good evidence, based on their professional knowledge, experience and wisdom, to ascertain the emergence of an incredibly remarkable event. Still, above and beyond that, another power, a deep knowing of and trust in something outside of and greater than their scope of knowledge and wisdom must have gripped their hearts and souls.
Ponder this: What moments of wonder and intrigue, of knowing and curious fascination, can you recall that have led you to enter into the depths of the unknown or mystery?
Let's continue: The Magi follow the light constellation for months on end, at night, through desert and rough terrain, without the modern day conveniences of Blackberries or i-Phones, a car, let alone a GPS; probably riding on camelback or walking hundreds of miles. For days on end, they follow and trust the light, their visions and insights.
Let me ask you: What has made you persevere when you found yourself off the beaten path, perhaps fighting adversities, without receiving validation that you’re on the right track?
Moving on: The Magi finally make it to the East. What happens next? Despite their alleged wisdom, they call on King Herod and give away the birth of Jesus, which leads to hardship for many. What causes them to make such an error in judgment?
Let’s see. Instead of continuing to trust their insights and wisdom and staying connected with their knowing, they become trapped in thinking and interpreting. They lose sight of the star–meaning light–while they discard their knowing and follow assumptions that are shaped by social and political conventions–meaning darkness: The Magi are seeking the King of the Jews. So they reason he must be located in a palace in Jerusalem. Granted, this makes sense, but promises tragic consequences.
Here's another question for you: What moments in your life come to mind where you allowed yourself to be sidetracked? How did the ensuing darkness, if that’s what happened, manifest for you?
From what I can ascertain, King Herod manages to dupe the Magi for his own reasons of power and control that are motivated by fear and hatred.
So this gives rise to another question: In what ways, if any, have you ever lost sight of your path because you succumbed to the pressures and expectations of an authority figure or certain social or cultural conventions, dogma and institutions?
Back to the story: When the Magi follow the light again, they arrive in Bethlehem, finding themselves ‘overwhelmed with joy.’ This happens even before they enter! Once they enter, they bow in adoration and complete surrender to the Presence of love and grace.
I wonder, How do you create spaciousness and silence in your life for those deep moments of recognition so that joy and awe can overtake you? When do you bring yourself wholly and fully to be present and actively engaged?
The story further tells us that the Magi offer their precious gifts to the child Jesus, the gifts that acknowledge the Kingship (gold), Divinity (frankincense), and the Humanity of Christ (myrrh).
Consider this: We’ve just lived through the most commercially driven month of the year. So, What are you willing to offer of yourself, your entire being, your time and material possessions to that which remains illusive, hidden to the eye, yet seen and felt in your heart?
Just Imagine: All the Magi see is a child with his mother in simple surroundings. And yet, they drop their previous judgements and assumptions about ‘the King of the Jews,’ which we witnessed earlier when they visited King Herod. Instead, the Magi recognize and embrace unequivocally the power, love and grace offered through the child Jesus. They become open to discern the truth of their dreams, in which they recognize King Herod’s fearful power play. So they decide not to return to Herod, but leave by another way, transformed by their experience.
My final question here: When have you experienced a revelation, either through a dream or in another way that left you awakened, changed and transformed?
The Magi leave, trusting in the universe, in God. As George Vaillant states, “I will never be the same person as I was before I gained or regained my trust in the universe.” (Spiritual Evolution, 2008, p. 6.) And ‘trust’ signifies the original meaning of the word “faith,” which suggests a strong emotional and spiritual connection, a way of knowing and being.
The Magi truly experience Epiphany, an awakening to an experience beyond words that’s given to the entire world and made visible through them, from which they learn and through which they are transformed. This Epiphany proclaims an ever present hidden glory here on Earth, a certain radiance of light and love, peace and grace, even beneath, above and below, or through fear and doubt, horror, errors and evil.
The story of the Magi offers us three possible modes of being on our life journeys:
1) The King Herod’s Way, with which we’re perhaps better acquainted than we would like to admit: motivated by fear and power; easily offended and filled with rejection and spite; raging with emotions that disconnect us from soul and heart, and ultimately from Spirit. We may not like this dark side of ourselves, but can you honestly say you’ve never experienced it?
2) The Way of the scribes and Pharisees: locked in thinking, acting with closed minds and hearts, ignoring possibilities; endorsing assumptions and unexamined truths. How often have you found yourself passing up opportunity for change because you were stuck and not open to awakening?
3) The Way of the Magi: seeking, searching, discarding assumptions, staying open to awe and wonder; allowing body, mind, soul and heart to align with Spirit. They allow the star/light to find and guide them. How do those moments feel when you open up to that mystery of faith?
The journey of the Magi to Bethlehem was surely filled with major sacrifices and trepidations. But what about the return trip? What happened to the Magi on their way home? Have you ever wondered? The poet T.S. Eliot certainly has. In his gripping poem “Journey of the Magi,” he paints the paradoxical nature of experiencing a revelation or epiphany.
Listen to what one of the Magi tells us:
“Were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.”
The Magi prove open to another way, to allow for the great paradoxes of life. They see the light and let themselves be led. How often do we hesitate or fail to surrender to the calls of the unknown because of fear, just like King Herod, or because of indifference and ignorance as demonstrated by the scribes and Pharisees?
We often know all the right words, but disconnect our minds from our soul and heart, and therefore God’s mystery remains perfectly hidden from us. Yes, we avoid many dangers or death, as Eliot suggests, but we also miss the birth, the manifestation of wonder and light and awe.
T.S. Eliot continues in the voice of the Magi:
“We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.”
To me, Eliot suggests here that even though we might succumb to fear, the promises of power and the allure of materialism and institutionalized norms, for instance, we know, deep down, in the depths of our soul, that once we have experienced Epiphany, we cannot live the old way any more. Words may fail us, but we must take heart and open to another way. That other way, as Richard Rohr puts it, is “the most disguised place where God is both perfectly hidden and perfectly revealed.”
I’d like to leave you with a ‘Winter Blessing’ by Mary Palmer:
“When sleet blinds you, hail drowns out voices, and snow hides your path,
May you discern in each flake a star, image of the one that guided the Magi,
And find that in the pain of birth, death or change
There is a light to guide you.”
And So It Is! Amen!
You are welcome to use this text, but please give credit to the source. If you'd like a pdf file of the text, I invite you to contact me.