Feast of the Epiphany
THE EPIPHANY OF THE LORD
Isaiah 60:1-6 | Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6 | Matthew 2:1-12
Oh, God, who on this day revealed your only begotten Son to the nations by the guidance of the star, grant in your mercy that we, who know you already by faith, may be brought to behold the beauty of your sublime glory through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever. Amen.
IT’S clear that this Feast of the Epiphany is about light, and when I think about light coming into the world in the person of Jesus, I think about enlightenment, a new understanding, a new way of seeing the world, a new way of seeing ourselves and seeing God. This new insight that came with Christ, this new light, these strange characters in the gospel passage, the Zoroastrians … I find it amazing that these groups of people, who weren’t Jewish, still were so interested in enlightenment. They had no Jewish background, in a sense, and they were the kind of people who might be considered on the fringe today. The more the mystic, the more psychic. They would listen to dreams and believe that every time a person was born, a star appeared in the sky, and if a person followed their destiny, followed their own star, followed God’s plan for them, they would find fulfillment. If they didn’t, they would be separated from their star, their life would be a disaster. Interesting word, disaster, separate from your star. But the interesting thing about the Zoroastrians is they believed that something was coming, something important, some insight they hadn’t seen. It’s a wonderful way to be in this world, always seeking more understanding, greater awareness of what is true.
We talk a lot about belief, and belief is an interesting word, because it means we have something outside ourselves that we trust. Sometimes we say, “Is he a believer or not?” Well, we probably mean, “Is he a believer in God?” but you can’t exist without belief, belief in something you trust. And the frightening thing is we can believe in something that isn’t going to produce what we hoped it would. We can believe in a half-truth or a lie. What’s so interesting about the first Adam is he believed in a world of right and wrong, good and bad, and in that binary thinking, he decided: “I will decide what is good, and if I go after that, I will always be satisfied.” And you can see that over and over in the Old Testament. You see it over and over in adolescents. “I’ve decided this will make me happy, and I’ll go for it, because I believe I can trust in being the best, better than someone else, to be a nobody.” But the one thing Adam didn’t have and the Old Testament didn’t have, in a way, was the fullness of the revelation of a truth that lay hidden for so long through the Old Testament, though mentioned over and over again, prophesied it would come, this light that would come into the world, which would enter your world, your own private world, and expose what is real from what is fake or expose what is fake, I guess, from what is real, expose a lie instead of the truth. It’s an amazing experience to have this longing that — I believe — the Zoroastrians represent a part of all of us spiritual seekers, and what we’re seeing in the world today is more and more people looking for this kind of truth, this objective force out there that helps us make sense of everything and brings us something wonderful: peace.
Now let’s look at the Zoroastrians seeking the light that is coming in the person of Christ, and we know that, when Christ taught it, it was very difficult for people to understand. We know that the Zoroastrians were open to it. We know that Herod was certainly not open to it. He was a very, let’s say, insecure leader. He thought that his wife at one time wanted his throne. He had her murdered. He had three sons he thought wanted his throne. He had them murdered. Now he hears there’s a new king of the Jews, a new king of Jerusalem. No. So his response was, “You are going to take something away from me. This new light is going to destroy something I hang on to, I need, I want.” And it’s the perfect image of the illusion of power. “I want to be powerful. I want to be the best.” And so we see Herod absolutely wanting to destroy the light, and we see the Zoroastrians wanting to experience the light. The ones we need to identify with are obviously the Zoroastrians. It’s in us, that longing for the light.
Now, one of the images of this kingdom that God wanted to establish, the land of milk and honey, the promise he made to the Israelites in the very beginning when Abraham was called… he said, “I want you people to come to a place of fullness, of wholeness, and it’s a place. It’s a city.” Interesting. It’s always a place, and Jerusalem was considered to be that place. And so in the first reading, we hear about Jerusalem, and we see something about the way it was before enlightenment, before Christ came to reveal the fullness of his truth, the truth of God. But you’ll notice in that first image that Jerusalem — the word means a place of peace — as does Salem and shalom; the words come from the same root. There is this promise of a place of peace for all of us, a place of fullness and wonder and goodness, and Jerusalem is destined for that, but you’ll notice in the image, it says the people are in darkness, and they’re covered by a cloud. And God is trying to shine down upon them, and he’s eventually going to bring them to a place of fullness. But notice the image. They’re in darkness, and God is shining down on them. So what is different about what the Zoroastrians wanted and what they found there? And what are we supposed to believe about the light now? It doesn’t shine down on us. No, the mystery of the incarnation is that God is in Jesus, and now God is in us, and the light is coming into us. It’s no longer coming from outside.
Notice, belief and faith are often based on someone who has authority to tell us what to do. That’s the way I grew up, as almost everybody did. You believe in what your parents tell you, the religion you're brought up in. You believe in people of authority, and the tragedy is that some of what the people are telling you about what you should believe in are not telling you the truth. So somehow, most of us always end up with some kind of core misconception. So light shining down upon us, with another authority figure saying, “No, that’s wrong. This is right.” It doesn’t work, because it’s sort of hardwired in us, all those early beliefs. And so what do we have? We have this need for some kind of inner enlightenment, and that’s the promise. Christ comes, bringing the Spirit. The Spirit enters into us and enlightens us, and what would you say to that? “I want to bring light into your life.” You might say, “How wonderful. Yeah, I want to see.” But do we? Do you really want to see who you really are? Do you want to see the choices you’re making that aren’t really producing life for you and may be causing enormous pain for someone else? Do you really want to see that? That’s the issue.
Being enlightened, I thought initially, was just such a wonderful experience, but the more I’ve pondered, the more I’ve wondered about it. It’s clear that there’s some resistance. It’s the resistance Herod had. He didn’t want to understand that somehow he, with all his ego and all his need for power, was destroying the people around him, but it was. I believe that everyone — everyone — has something inside them. It’s a kind of dark space, a dark secret, something that they’ve bought into, something that is hard to describe. Maybe it's a way of seeing. Maybe it’s an action. Maybe it’s a habit, but it’s a thing we hide. We don’t want to look at it, and the last thing we want is someone else to look at it. But that’s kind of healthy if we know it’s there and we don’t want someone else to know, but what if it’s buried so deep that we can’t even see it? And when someone brings light in, it terrifies us, and we say, “If that light shines on this thing that I can’t handle, if I have to admit it, I will be destroyed.” My father once told me, “Son, I have something inside me. I don’t even know what it is, but I know that, if I open myself up to being seen by others, they would see this, and if they saw it, I would be destroyed.” I don't know what that was, but I think I do, because I have something like that in me. You probably have some wound in you like that.
So what is it that happens to us when the light comes into our life and we look at something inside us and we have to admit there's something that makes us feel ashamed? We might feel we’re going to be condemned, so there’s fear. We’ll be punished, because that’s the world we grew up in. If you don’t do it, if you aren’t who you’re supposed to be, you’ll be killed by God’s judgment or by the police. To be caught at being evil is a condemnation, and yet Jesus comes with this light, and he keeps saying, “No, no. Everything I see in you, everything I know about you, every sign in you that is not what you think it should be to you — I love you in spite of all that.” That’s so crucial that we see that love, that forgiveness. So when the light comes in, we have to be connected to that understanding, yet most of us have a hard time believing we’re loved that way.
So what is the enemy? Darkness, partially, but greater than the enemy of darkness is when the light comes in and exposes what is hidden, is the fear, the shame and the anger that we aren’t who we think we are, and there’s something horrible about us. And then we worry. We worry. Something terrible’s going to happen. I lived in a family where one of my family members, my mother, was constantly worried, worried, worried, and I looked it up in the dictionary. I have an Oxford English Dictionary. I looked up the word worry, and I was shocked to see what it said. The verb to worry says — the first meaning is to kill. The second is to kill by suffocation, by strangling, by choking, and the last, the terrifying one, is when one animal rips at the throat of another, like a wolf killing a sheep by going for its neck. And then I went on, and finally at the end, toward the end of the various meanings, it said, “Common usage, excessive stress, worry, anxiety.” I never thought of it before, but does that fear, anxiety and shame — I know it robs us of peace, and we’re called to live in a new Jerusalem where there is fullness of peace. I didn’t realize how devastating and dangerous worry is, if it does have that effect on us.
I don't know how familiar you are with some of the Buddhist and Hindu traditions, but they have a very ancient way of understanding centers of energy in a body, and they claim that the center of energy that is the source of our — or the way the energy of who we are flows out into the world. It's the throat, the throat chakra. Interesting. Our impact on the world can be strangled, crushed, killed by worry, worry. What is at the heart of worry? It’s excessive shame, fear, anger, but is it judgment? I guess so. I don’t even know for sure. All I know is I have things inside me that I don’t want to look at, and the last thing I want is for you to see them. And I think it’s a wound in almost all of us, but if, when the light comes and we see these things that God is telling us so clearly through Jesus, “I took care of that. I paid for that debt. I am there for you. I love you despite that wound.” If we can’t hear that, it’s as if our participation in the healing process that light brings, is cut off. It’s choked. It’s strangled. That image of the throat is a symbol of how we communicate with the world, how we influence it, how it influences us. Amazing.
So our story of the Epiphany is a story of light, but it’s also an amazing story of how the light works and how it invites us into a place of reflection, of looking at what isn’t light, what is dark and then what is our response. It must be a response of understanding, compassion, empathy, and whenever we don’t have that for ourselves, if we hold that dark place, we’ll never find ourselves able to be compassionate or empathetic to other people. Because if we refuse to forgive something in us, we will not forgive our brother or sister. So I pray for the light of Epiphany to open our hearts and our minds, but most especially to free us from shame and fear and anger, and whatever we see, we should never, ever be worried.
Father, you’ve called us to a place of peace, and we know that place is an interior space inside each of us where you dwell. Your light enters, and we’re able to be filled with wisdom. The challenge of light in the darkness is to see the darkness, and that’s your gift, to teach us there’s nothing so dark that your light of forgiveness doesn’t pierce it and destroy it, in terms of its ability to cause us to worry, to be afraid. So bless us with this incredible gift, and let us use it, surrender to it and find new life from it. And we ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.