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 a 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.
Religion, a very fascinating and interesting part of what it means to be human, to want, to need, to create a religion — the word religion means to be bound to or to be yoked with. In many ways, religion, it seems, is something we have to lean on, because we don’t have the capacity to know what to do or to do anything of ourselves. So we turn to an institution and ask the institution to take care of us, and many people see that as a great weakness in human beings, that they have to go to some institution to ask them what’s right and wrong, what to believe, what not to believe. But those kinds of understandings of religion miss the point. The Vatican Counsel that we just finished just 50 years ago had a very powerful thing to say about religion. It continued a journey that’s been going on for a long time of the church, particularly the Roman Catholic Church, moving away from a way of seeing itself as the one and only true church to realizing that all religions, if they are true to what a religion is supposed to be, are pointing to something that human beings are not seeing on their own, cannot know on their own, something that keeps them from becoming who they are, not by being told what to do but by being shown something, shown who they are, shown why they’re here, shown what even the whole notion of a God means.
The universal thing that is needed in human beings, why we’ve always had religion is we’re looking for something beyond ourselves to teach us, to show us something that is hidden. The best word I can think of for that is the truth. Every human being, every culture, every nation has always sought to understand things, to know things. We’ve always been in quest of the truth. It’s the mark of the evolution of human beings, and the more we discover it, the more it changes how we think, the more it changes how we see things. We’re able to accomplish things we could never accomplish before. We grow in knowledge when we see the truth. If you take knowledge as the basis of what a religion offers, then you begin to realize that there’s something beyond simple knowledge. That’s a thing called wisdom, and wisdom is that ability to take what you know and to make decisions based on it. And anybody that bases their decisions on what is true is considered to be a wise person. We know so much more now about the body and how it functions, and we know what’s good for it and what’s not good for it. When you see somebody disregarding that knowledge, you say, “That’s not very smart. That’s kind of foolish,” the opposite of wisdom. A person who knows things and acts upon them uses that knowledge to make good decisions, they have wisdom, but then there’s something even beyond wisdom. It’s called enlightenment. Enlightenment, obviously it focuses on the mystery of light.
So let’s look at this set of readings for this great Feast of the Epiphany, because the Epiphany means a showing, exposing, an opening up so you can see something. We talk about struggling with a problem we have no solution to, and all of a sudden the answer comes, and we call it an epiphany. I see something I didn’t see before. A light came on out of this darkness I was in. So when we look at this feast, it’s based on the realization that all religions are based on some kind of prophet, and the prophet’s claim for being an important, positive source of goodness for you, the reason you would turn to the prophet of a religion is because you believe he or she is able to share with us something that we can’t see on our own. So this Feast of the Epiphany is right before the baptism of Jesus, and it’s connected to the baptism of Jesus. It’s, in a way, the end of the whole Christmas season, the Advent season. What we’re looking at is the manifestations in the person Christ that are epiphanies to show the world that he is something special, something really different. One of the great epiphanies that we have in the early life of Jesus is his baptism. When he’s baptized by John, John claims to see, in an epiphany, the sky open, and the dove descend upon him. It’s clear that he’s saying this image, this enlightenment is that this is the Anointed One. This is the one filled with wisdom and more than just wisdom, enlightenment. He is the light that’s come into the world.
We notice in the Feast of the Epiphany that we’re focusing also on the birth of Jesus. Something about light and his birth was the three wise men, and you notice in this set of readings, not only are the wise men filled with knowledge of something and able to find it, you also see in the second reading, St. Paul going through an epiphany of his own when he’s realizing that the Christ who’s come into the world has a purpose, a goal for all of us, and it’s a hard one to determine when you decide you want to know what it is literally. But it is more about a work that we’re engaged in, something that goes beyond the actual events of our life, and the main thing, it seems, that Jesus has brought into the world is the notion of unity, oneness, and so Paul, who is filled with this wonder of this new insight that comes to the world through Jesus, he’s saying, “It’s clear to me now, as I see it,” and he knew scripture well. There’s many things in the Old Testament that refer to Jesus as the light to the Gentiles, but he knew somehow, with this Jesus who is calling us to a oneness, that the idea that there are believers, and they’re connected to God, and then they’re disconnected from Gentiles who are not worthy, and then the Gentiles are disconnected from God. Jesus comes along and said, “No, no. None of that is what is the will or the intention of God.” No, everything is connected. Everything flows into everything else. Anytime you separate yourself from someone, from some group of people, from some other religion, you’ve blocked yourself off from things that they have that we don’t have that we need to be open to. The Catholic Church feels that it is a very unique religion of all Christian religions, because it’s the oldest. It goes back to the very foundation. The first major shift would be in the eighth century when the Muslim religion was founded, but then there was also — we have the Protestant Reformation. So you see in these early years always this separation, disunity, separation, disunity, and what the call of the gospel is, what the call of Jesus is is to bring everything back into oneness. Oneness, that’s our destiny. It’s our destination, unity.
So let’s look at the story of the wise men, because it’s a really interesting one. These men were Zoroastrians. I did a little research, and Zoroastrian was a person who founded a religion 1,000 years before Judaism, before the call of Abraham. It’s an ancient, ancient religion, and one of its basic teachings is unity. There are still Zoroastrians today, and the thing about these Zoroastrians is they were open to all kinds of things. They looked at the stars. They were looking for signs from the stars. They interpreted dreams. They were always looking for anything that could be a slice of something that would add to their awareness of a oneness and a unity, and they would see something more. They would be enlightened. So they were seekers of enlightenment. So we know that knowledge is important. Wisdom is knowing how to use knowledge, and enlightenment is a kind of direction, a kind of knowing that is not really like wisdom and knowledge. It’s more like intuition, and when you think about it, the image that the Zoroastrians had was that we were following this star, this light in darkness, and there’s a tradition with stars. The most obvious tradition is that the star somehow represents the birth of every human being. It also represents their destiny, what they’re called to. That may make people think, “Well, stars, we can go to stars and find out who we are, and they can guide our every direction of life and every decision.” And I don’t think that’s what it means, but what is a star? We don’t really see the value of stars in our culture for a very simple reason, fire and electricity, but there was a time when there was no other light at night other than stars, the moon. If the moon wasn’t there, the stars never went away, but sometimes the moon wasn’t there. So the way you moved in darkness, the way you found your way home was to look at the stars. So something about stars that are a kind of light in the darkness that gives you a direction to go in, even though you can’t see, that’s the key I want you to feel with me.
Enlightenment is knowing there’s a destination, which is the same root word as destiny. There’s a destination I’m called to, and anybody that says, “Well, it’s all predetermined. Everything’s going to happen. I don’t have anything to do with it,” predetermination, all that, that’s too simple, or that it’s all preplanned for us and it’s determined so we don’t have to make any decisions at all, that’s the same kind of thing. No, that’s too simple, but what is complex and beautiful and empowering and freeing is to know that in this journey that you and I have, we have the ability to go in the direction that is ours that will bring us to something good. Let’s just call it unity, for lack of a better word, calling us always into oneness with everything, everyone, every experience, oneness. Receiving what something brings, whether it’s negative or positive, if we’re connected to it, it puts you in pain that is there to teach you. It puts you in joy that is there to enlighten you, open your eyes to what you really want, and so this whole idea of the journey that you and I have is a journey that has a truth that we need to follow, being connected to and open to everything around us. But what it is is always hidden from us. We’re in the dark. How am I going to die? When am I going to die? What has my life been for? Have I been doing something really significant? Those are questions we ask ourselves, and if you’re looking for a nice, clear answer, then you’re not interested in enlightenment. You want to go back to knowledge, and that’s really limited. And people use knowledge as the only source for making decisions. It’s usually a disaster, a separation from star, from light in the darkness. You’ve got to be able to feel that you’re called to follow a destiny, go in a direction that you don’t fully know, but if you’re open to the wisdom, the grace, the mysterious presence of God in your life, you’ll have a sense that you are going to reach the destiny that is yours. You’ll make it to that destination.
It’s fascinating to me that we long for something really deeply, and it’s in every human being. And you know that, when you’re not in that place that you’re destined for, there’s a side effect, and it’s the most beautiful thing we have, in a sense. The side effect of not being in the destination you’re called to be in, it’s not something that’s one point in the future. It’s being in the moment where you are. It’s not — if I know I’m going on a route that’s mapped out for me, and I know I’m on the route, I know I’ll get there. It’s a highway. I know. I have a map. It shows me it goes right to the city I want to go in. I’m on that thing. So in the moment that I’m in, I can feel confident that I’m on my way to the right place. On my way to the right place is enlightenment, and that ability to feel that and to know it is the gift that we know has come into the world through Christ, the Anointed One. But the thing that’s so important is the one ultimate union we’re all fixed for, made for is a union with the one who is guiding us, union with God. Union with God, when God is in me, and God is in you, and he is the one who is guiding us, he is like that star, a light in the darkness. I feel good about the direction my life is going even though I don’t have any sense of where it’s actually going to end up, but being on the way, being enlightened by the truth, being engaged in life, wow, that’s all we need. It’s everything. It’s what it means to be guided in the darkness by a bright, incredible light. Then you look at what is the greatest star in the heavens. What is it? I tend to forget that the sun is nothing but a star. So there you have the sun — s-u-n, s-o-n. You have a son coming into us. The brightest star is this incredible example of life that we have in this prophet Jesus who is God, and every religion is aiming toward him. It doesn’t maybe name him as that, but that’s what all religion is for. That’s why we can say that all religions have value that lead people to this powerful, wonderful place of enlightenment.
Father, Christmas season is about being gifted with things. We don’t always realize the greatest gift that we have is your presence within us. We don’t realize that the greatest promise you’ve made to us is we should never ever feel that we live in a place of absolute darkness. The first thing you created, the first day of your work of creating the world was to create light. So keep us enlightened by your grace, by your truth, by your love, and we ask all this in Jesus name. Amen.