I think it was Yogi Berra who said, “If you don’t know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else.” It sounds like Yogi Berra, well known for his mangled, often-contradictory quotations. But on this one, I’m with Yogi. When I go on a trip, I need to have a good map, precise directions from Google Maps or an up-to-date GPS.
On Epiphany Sunday, however, that idea gets thrown out the window. The Magi, whom we are told were very wise, didn’t have any of these on their journey from Persia to Bethlehem. As Matthew tells it, all they had for their journey to find Jesus was a mysterious star. And so, with them, we find ourselves in the uncharted waters – or I should say skies – of Epiphany.
Now Epiphany is not just a ‘church’ word. We’re probably all familiar with the word as it’s used in an everyday sense. If you tell me you’ve had an epiphany, I’d assume that you’ve had an illuminating insight or discovery or realization, an “Aha!” moment. Psychology Today defines an epiphany as “a moment of sudden or great revelation that usually changes you in some way.”
For example, Oprah Winfrey talked once about learning she had a half-sister she never knew about because her mother had kept it secret for almost 50 years. She described leaving her mother’s home after talking with her about it and said several times with tears in her eyes that she’d had an epiphany: the realization that her mother carried so much shame about getting pregnant that she could never fully embrace the child she’d given up for adoption. Describing this profound, emotional moment of revelation about her mother, Oprah used the word “epiphany” because it’s the perfect word to describe such a powerful experience or life-changing awareness. Maybe you have your own story of this kind of revelation.
In church, when we use the word “Epiphany” (with a capital E), we’re talking about a day on the Church calendar, January 6, when we celebrate the coming of the Magi (sometimes called the Wise Men or Three Kings) who journeyed to a far-off place in order to bring gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the baby Jesus. And in so doing, they symbolized the revelation (showing) of God’s extravagant love for the whole world, born in Jesus.
And when we talk about the Epiphany season, we’re thinking about all the ways that Divine Presence and Divine Love is revealed to us. It’s about undertaking our own journeys of following a star, of being open to the mystery of Divine guidance in every aspect of our lives, of recognizing the “Aha” moment when it appears.
“But wait,” as the infomercials say, “there’s more.” The challenge of Epiphany is to also be the shining star that shows others the way. We also look for the “Aha” moments when we are able to share the extravagant love of God with others.
I think I’ve told you before that this is actually my favorite holy day in the entire church year, more than Christmas. Maybe that’s because it’s so counter-cultural, at least here in the US. Even though there are 12 days of Christmas, the season pretty much ends on New Year’s Day. The festivities are over. Stores have moved on to Valentines Day merchandise. In other parts of the world, though, it’s a different story. Many other countries have very vibrant traditions around Epiphany.
Here in California, we see a lot of the “Dia de los Reyes” tradition (Three Kings Day) celebrated in Latino communities in the US. This is the day when children get presents – from the Three Kings, not Santa Claus. At bedtime, they leave hay or dried grass and a bowl of water outside for the animals that the kings ride.
Another wonderful thing about Epiphany is its sense of mystery and wonder. Who were these visitors who were guided by stars and dreams? Some say they were astronomers or astrologers, some say Zoroastrian priests, others say learned scholars from the East. And who knows even if there were only three? Matthew doesn’t say, and his gospel is the only one that tells about the visit of the Magi. They are shrouded in mystery yet have enchanted us through the ages. Many people have tried to come up with possible answers to how a star could move through the sky to guide these travelers on their way.
We could get hung up trying to figure out how all this could have happened. But then we’d miss the point of the story. Matthew has created a story, a midrash, that on the surface is enchanting – plum parts in annual Christmas pageants. But there’s a lot of meaning packed into this tale.
The Magi remind us of the wisdom of allowing Divine Presence to work within us and to step out onto an unknown path. They inspire us to give up some of our tightly held handholds and trust that the path forward will be made clear – by being led into a way of light, by listening to our dreams, by receiving the gifts that wise men and women have to offer.
As I wrote this, I was reminded of a poem by Susan Ruach that I found years ago in A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants and it has always meant a lot to me. It’s called “A New Way of Struggling” and it’s become even more meaningful in these days (years) of the pandemic.
To struggle used to be
To grab with both hands
And above all not give in,
But wrest an answer from it all
As Jacob did a blessing.
But there is another way
To struggle with an issue, a question.
Simply to jump
Into the abyss
And find ourselves
Slowly and gently
To the answers God has for us
To watch the answers unfold
Before our eyes and still to be a part of the unfolding
But, oh! The trust
Necessary for this new way!
Not to be always reaching out
For the old hand-holds.
See, while the story of the Magi and the star might seem to be out there in a mysterious, celestial realm, it’s also very down-to-earth. It lives in the real world. Matthew created his story to illustrate what the life and death of Jesus meant to him. You might remember the song We Three Kings which describe their gifts. The verse about myrrh hints at darker days to come:
Myrrh is mine: Its bitter perfume
Breaths a life of gathering gloom Sorrow, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in a stone-cold tomb.
Not the most cheerful song. But Matthew wants us to know that Jesus was often going to be in opposition to the powers-that-be, cultural, religious, and political. It, of course, started right away with King Herod, who so obsequiously asked the Magi to come back and tell him about the child so he could go and pay homage, too. If this were a movie, we’d be shouting at the screen, “Don’t believe him!”
Thankfully, they’re warned in a dream not to report back to Herod and they go home another way. As the Magi discovered, having one’s plans thwarted, changed, or even destroyed doesn’t mean it’s the end of the journey. It simply means (as my GPS often tells me) that we are “rerouting” and going a different way. I say simply, but it’s not usually that simple, is it?
We may not have a king fuming after us, but we all have situations in which the old handholds are no longer working. When you expect things to go a certain way, anticipate one outcome, but then have to let go of it and embrace a different path? Sometimes we get to choose another road, but other times not. All kinds of things can force us onto paths we would not have chosen: job loss, illness, accident, divorce, natural disaster, national upheaval, pandemic, Zoom church, hybrid church. We make our plans, but often have to go forward, not knowing where our new path will lead.
That doesn’t mean, though, that we are left with no guidance system. If the Epiphany story tells us anything, it tells us all about Divine guidance. A star in the sky leads the Magi to Jesus. A dream warns them to go home a different way. And when Joseph, too, is warned in a dream to flee to Egypt, he too, ensures that the Light will continue to shine on.
I think this is why I love Epiphany so much. It doesn’t allow the Christmas story to stop with a sweet scene in a stable on a silent night. It zooms the birth of Jesus out into the real world with a realism that we recognize all too well. Realism that doesn’t ignore the challenges that we and our world face. But a realism that also recognizes that realism (as we think we know it) isn’t the only reality there is. Angels, Magi, stars, and dreams are still part of our stories today – if we’re open to the mystery and wonder of Divine Presence.
So while many are weary from the holiday season, the fact is that the story still continues. I saw a resource from the ELCA that calls Epiphany “the Season of Aha!” I’ve often called it the season of “So what?” We’ve just come through Advent, a time of waiting for the birth of Jesus and Christmas, celebrating the birth of Jesus. Now, Epiphany asks us to ponder: so what did that all mean, what impact does it have on my life, here and now? In Advent, we asked ourselves: what is preparing to be born in us this Christmas? In Epiphany, we await the revelations, the revealing, the uncovering of that new birth in us and in our church.
That’s what this season of Epiphany is going to be: a season of revelations. We’ll hear stories from scripture of how the person, the message, the work of Jesus was revealed in his day. They will lead us into a journey of discovery of how the person, message, and work of Jesus is revealed to us today.
And of course, we don’t travel alone. The dazzling truth of Epiphany is that there is a star that guides us. Holy Wisdom, Divine Light beckons us both inwardly, into where our own heart of wisdom resides – and outwardly, into the world where we can walk unknown paths with un-rational confidence. We, too, are caught up in the wonder and mystery of it all- beyond the stories of the first Christmas as told by Matthew and Luke; beyond all the trappings that have come to surround this season – as we acknowledge our part in bringing to birth God’s extravagant love in the world.
Finally, another poem, this one by Katie Cook*:
Let us go in peace now;
For our eyes have seen God’s salvation.
We have stood, dumbstruck,
before the manger.
We have exchanged glances with the shepherds
and looked, sheepishly, out of the corners of our eyes at the wise men.
We have listened, with terror and delight,
to the messengers with their extraterrestrial song.
We, who have walked so often and so long in terrible darkness,
have been flooded with holy light.
Let us go in peace now;
We have brought our gifts to the manger-
and for some of us
it was merely our broken selves—but now, like the shepherds,
we must go back to our fields;
like the magi, we must go home another way.
Let us go in peace now;
May this Holy Child guide our steps
into the new year
And give us the courage
to give birth to God’s realm.
*From Sacred Seasons, Seeds of Hope Publishers: 602 James; Waco, TX
After the birth of Jesus—which happened in Bethlehem of Judea, during the reign of King Herod—magi from the East arrived in Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the newborn ruler of the Jews? We observed his star at its rising and have come to pay our respects.”
At this news Herod became greatly disturbed, as did all of Jerusalem. Summoning all the chief priests and religious scholars of the people, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. They said,
“In Bethlehem of Judea. Here’s what was written by the prophet: ‘You, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the leaders of Judah, because from you will come a ruler to shepherd my people Israel.’”
Herod called the magi aside to find out the exact time of the star’s appearance. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, instructing them:
“Go and get detailed information about the child. When you have found him, report back to me—so that I may go and offer homage, too.”
After their audience with Herod, they set out. The star which they had observed at its rising went ahead of them until it came to a standstill over the place where the child lay. They were overjoyed at seeing the star and, upon entering the house, found Jesus with Mary, his mother. They knelt before him and paid homage. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Then, after being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route.