Well, we have lived the 12 days of Christmas that the song of the same name celebrates, and, indeed, we have even lived “Epiphany”, a marking of the end of those 12 days, which happened on Friday. Other than re-telling the story of the Magi, we don’t usually make much of a fuss over Epiphany. Christmas is the peak towards which we journey and for which we prepare for weeks, sometimes months in advance. But by the time Epiphany rolls around, we have taken down the tree and the decorations, found spaces in drawers and closets for Christmas gifts which may or may not be used again, we’ve finished up or thrown out the leftovers from the feast, and often settled into a bit of a post-Christmas funk. (Maybe I should just speak for myself on that last bit). In any case, Epiphany is not the high point of the season that its name suggests.
“Epiphany” (from the ancient Greek ἐπιφάνεια, epiphaneia, ) -In our Christian, religious context, the word epiphany refers to the manifestation of God’s presence in the baby– the person – Jesus. More generally, it can be understood as any insight into the divine… or through the Divine – a real sense of the presence or closeness of God.
At Epiphany, we read the story of the Magi, a story from Matthew’s gospel. In fact, the Magi are usually rolled right in to the Christmas pageant, arriving in Bethlehem fast on the heels of the shepherds, to pay homage to the baby in a manger. But Luke’s story of the birth, with the shepherds and the inn and the manger, is a different tale from Matthew’s. Matthew’s story tells of a journey of Magi from the east, the following of a star, and the arrival, not in Bethlehem but in Nazareth, where they found a child in whom they saw a manifestation of the Divine.
We really know very little about the ones we call “wise men”. They appear from stage right or stage left and take their places in the crèche tableau, with very little thought about who they are or how they got there. We don’t even know how many of them there were. We’re only told that there were 3 gifts, so we posit 3 magi.
We also call them kings, although they were not kings. “Magos” in Greek meant “one trained in astrology and dream interpretation”, or a “magician” or a “sorcerer”. Certainly, they were readers of the sky if they were following a star.
What message did Matthew have in mind when he included this story about these strangers, foreigners? Certainly more than the fact that they pop up in the crèche scene or on the doorstep of the house in Nazareth.
One of the messages, I would suggest, is in contemplating the journey. And what about their journey? They came from the east, Matthew says, and it is widely thought that as magi, they would probably have been followers of Zoroaster, and may have come from what is now Iran – a very long and difficult journey indeed. They have left the familiar, the comfortable contentment of the known to venture out to a foreign place, a place of different customs, religion, ethnicity to follow what they hope will bring them into the presence of the Divine.
T.S. Eliot wrote a poem called “Journey Of The Magi”, in which he tried to enter into the experience of the journey itself, and thereby into the hearts and minds of those travellers, those searchers.
‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sore-footed,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and
And running away, and wanting their
liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the
lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns
And the villages dirty and charging high
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears,
That this was all folly.
Leaving the comfort of home, of the known, of all those things that were predictable, that cushioned them against the risks associated with a journey to the unknown. What a difficult leap to take. Following a star, or the message of a dream, even if we think it may bring us closer to God’s presence, can seem like folly. It is risky, it can be arduous and uncomfortable. What kept them going?
Then at dawn (the poem continues) we came down to a
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of
With a running stream and a water-mill
beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped in
away in the meadow.
But there was no imformation, and so
And arrived at evening, not a moment
Finding the place; it was (you may say)
“Satisfactory” – not quite the adjective we might choose for an experience of epiphany. Eliot makes the arrival at the child’s side sound “ho hum”, mundane. Wouldn’t we expect the magi to express A sense of the Holy, of the Divine, of the very presence of God. In the moment, and in the reflection, it would be … amazing, awesome, transformational.
All this was a long time ago, I
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth,
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.
We returned to our places, these
But no longer at ease here, in the old
With an alien people clutching their
I should be glad of another death.
As the poet says, if we truly experience Epiphany, we cannot “be at ease in the old dispensation”, that is, we cannot go back to “business as usual” – holding on to old grudges, valuing profits over people, being content that what you are is all that you can be. Epiphany challenges our “comfortable pew”. It cannot be packed away along with the rest of the crèche scene, only to think about it again a year from now.
The significance of this recollection of “epiphany” is that it is something that lives with us throughout the year and throughout our lives. It is not a spectacular moment, so much as it is a moment that changes everything that follows.
The search for a revelation of the Divine really should happen on a regular basis. We gather together as church community, not to mindlessly follow the same routine or to settle in with the comfortably familiar, but ideally, to provide opportunities for those gathered to experience the transformative power of the Divine.
Worship is, ideally, an engagement with the sacred. We use music, prayer, words, and silence to evoke a feeling of the mystery and love that God is. Every genuine act of worship can open the possibility to feel this mystery of ultimate and unconditional love and be transformed.
Epiphanies may follow a process of significant opening, vulnerability, or meditation on the Holy. A depth of spiritual experience, whether through song, prayer, or other spiritual practice, increases the likelihood of an epiphany experience – the sense of a “thin place” where the sacred and the secular meet.
Although we need to strive for this in worship, epiphanies happen in any time and place in our lives.
Epiphany is so surprising because one cannot predict when it might happen. We can only embrace opportunities, both personal and corporate, that encourage us to open our hearts and souls to the Holy, to the transformative Christ who presents him or herself at the most unexpected times.
Prayer of Intercession
God, you beckon us to journey and to follow your star. And you meet us in the strangest ways: sometimes in the stillness at the eye of the storm or in the midnight of our lives; sometimes in the raging whirlwind or in the high noon of our responsibilities; at times in the reflections of those who have lived long lives; at other times in the moment of birth when all is potential and the future cannot be known.
Disturb our dreams of empires and dominions so that like the Magi, we may refuse to support the Herods of our day who promise status and success sanctioned by religious piety and untroubled by prophetic wisdom.
While we mourn victims of war and poverty overseas, do not let us forget the slaughter of the innocents in our own country who die physically, emotionally, spiritually and intellectually because we have not imagined and enacted ways to bring peace and wholeness to all.
Turn us into faithful dreamers who do not seek to return to our country by the same old ways, but who strike out for your country by another way.
Prayer of Thanksgiving
Now that the mad rush is over, O centre of stillness and peace, we than you that you are still God-with-us. As we face the year ahead, bring us to places of openness and love towards you, towards others and towards all of your creation.
We thank you for one another and for your grace, compassion and abiding love.
And we thank you for the opportunities to share that love, compassion and grace.
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