Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12
The rest of the world may have moved on from Christmas, but we’re lingering in the afterglow. We’re waiting for the Magi, for January 6, twelve days after Christmas. We’re waiting for Epiphany.
Epiphany, the word – a Greek term meaning revelation or insight – does not appear in the Bible; but Epiphany, the aha! moment when the light goes on, happens over and over again in scripture.
It can be sudden, or it can take time, and it changes lives. From the rainbow appearing over Noah’s ark, to the visit to Abraham and Sarah by three strangers who turn out to be heavenly messengers, to the Apostle Paul’s conversion when struck down by a flash of light – biblical characters have their epiphanic moments – and so do we.
Sometime around the Fourth Century, when the Western Church began celebrating Christmas on December 25, the Feast of Epiphany was added to the annual cycle. It was a way for the church to stretch out the celebration of the birth of Jesus and to remember the Magi and their journey from the east to Bethlehem.
The Magi were watchers of the night. They must have thought that star they marveled at in the moonless sky was itself an epiphany. They knew something extraordinary was happening. The star was the first epiphany of their story.
“What star is this, with beams so bright,” the 18th century hymn begins,
“More lovely than the noonday light?
‘Tis sent to announce a newborn king,
Glad tidings of our God to bring.”
(What Star Is This, with Beams So Bright; hymn from the 18th century)
Their second epiphany begins to unfold when the Magi get to Jerusalem and the resident king doesn’t seem to know the amazing thing that has happened right under his nose. Herod asks them to help him so he can go and join in worshipping the one they’re seeking. But the Magi are warned in a dream of Herod’s duplicity, and suddenly see things in a whole new light. Epiphany number two.
The third epiphany for the Magi occurs when they finally locate the one who “has been born King of the Jews,” whose star they “had seen at its rising,” and had followed for many weeks. It must have been a major aha! moment when they found the child, lying in a manger in a humble stable.
“’Tis now fulfilled what God decreed,” the hymn continues,
‘From Jacob shall a star proceed’;
And lo! the ancient sages stand,
To read in heaven the Lord’s command.”
Christian faith – and any other religious experience, for that matter – depends on epiphany. On revelation. On insight into things beyond the here and now.
It may not be quite like what the Magi encounter, but at some point in our own journey of faith, if and when the light goes on, we will know it. Things will be different. Priorities will shift. The use of our time will pivot. How we see strangers and those on the margins will change, as they begin to look like Christ himself.
How we use our resources will take a turn toward generosity. How willing we are to show love, especially to those hardest to love, will be a measure of how far the light has reached into our hearts – and if it stays on or not.
For me it happened in my mid-20’s. I had grown up in the church and had lots of what might be called “mini epiphanies” along the way, on service projects and retreats, especially one high school weekend in a Benedictine monastery.
But I hit a truly rough patch at age 23. An early marriage fell apart, and I went into a shadow-time in my life. It was then that the light of God’s love reached me in ways I had never known. Something stirred deep within and led me eventually to seminary and into ministry.
“While outward signs the star displays,” the hymn goes on,
“An inward light the Lord conveys
And urges them, with tender might,
To seek the giver of the light.”
Faith comes when the light goes on. It might be rather quick, like a toggle switch, but more likely it will be a spiritual rheostat that can go either way. If it slowly turns up the brightness, it can cause us to rise up and start a new thing, turn a corner, begin again.
Arise, shine, for your light has come. Don’t just sit there – get up and move into the light.
The Meisel Scholar program is designed to help Westminster’s young people look for the light. When Don and Ellie Meisel set it up decades ago, they had in mind creating an opportunity for students to test vocational waters, to get guidance in discerning direction on their journey.
Over the years the program has helped some find their way to a career path, while others were assisted by discovering that what they had thought might be their calling in life, actually lay somewhere else. For all of them, as we heard today, the experience has brought growth and learning.
Where has the light gone on in our lives? Where might it need to go on? What epiphanies have we had, moments when we see things in new ways or perceive people in new light? Have those experiences changed us?
We don’t have to sit back passively to see if the Spirit will move. We can actively work for such moments in our lives. That’s what the Magi did. They intentionally watched the night sky, perhaps for years, tolerant of the time it took, as they waited for the light they hoped would come. Maybe our light will be slow in coming. Epiphanies can require patience.
When their epiphany finally comes, the Magi don’t assume they know it all. They need help, which is why they go to Herod in the first place. They show humility in doing that. They seek wisdom from others – even from someone who will eventually work against them. Epiphanies happen best in relationship with others, in community.
So, we watch, we wait, we listen with humility – and we actively hope.
Over my years as a pastor, I’ve seen epiphanies dawn in the lives of people caught in difficult circumstances… struggling with the loss of a life partner, a parent, or a child… learning of a terminal diagnosis… coming to grips with mental illness… dealing with addiction… accepting physical challenges… being battered by unfair systems.
Sometimes the light starts to shine when the night is deepest.
“For darkness shall cover the earth,” the prophet says, “And thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you.”
Epiphany will come.
As we embark on a new year, it’s good to pause and assess where the light has gone on in our lives, individually and together. Where have we gained insight or seen new truths revealed?
These past two years have included multiple, long, collective epiphanies for our community and nation. The devastation of Covid and the cruelties of racism and the impact of global warming – they’ve all caused a light to go on. For many, there’s new urgency in getting to work on substantive change.
Yet, we don’t all agree that these things are even real, which is an epiphany in and of itself. We now have new insight into how deeply divided we are as a people. Our politics have revealed just how fragile and weakened democracy has become by our lack of shared purpose. When the light goes on is not always cause for rejoicing.
As a nation these many epiphanies have made manifest the complex times in which we live. The world will never be exactly as we want it to be. We are all imperfect human beings.
The light that has gone on in our land has shown us that things are not as simple as we might like…
Yes, our public health system is deeply flawed and inequitable, and, at the same time, is among the best in the world.
Yes, the wounds from racial injustice run deep and continue to cause vast disparities, and, at the same time, the nation is genuinely struggling to understand historic wrongs and create a better future for all.
Yes, policing needs serious change, and, at the same time, concern about public safety is rising across the community.
Yes, global warming is threatening to wreak havoc on the planet and is already doing so, and, at the same time, new technologies and emerging public awareness and political commitment can make a difference.
The world is not as black and white as we might like it to be. Maybe the larger epiphany of these recent years is that we can hold more than one truth at the same time.
That’s what the Magi learned: a new king had come into the world, and yet, at the same time, the old system was still very much in place and in control. That’s our reality, as well. We follow the light of Christ, while living in “a land of deep darkness.”
“O Jesus, while the star of grace,” the hymn concludes,
“Impels us on to seek your face,
Let not our slothful hearts refuse
The guidance of your light to use.”
Maybe the most important thing we learn from the story of the Magi on Epiphany is to pay attention to our dreams. I don’t mean the kind that happen when we slumber – although they can help us understand our lives. I mean using our imagination about what might come to pass, what might happen in our lives and in our world, and then acting on those dreams.
That’s what the Magi did. They were not merely watching the stars in the sky; they were taking their hopes into the night and praying they would be realized.
Epiphanies happen when we’re open to them and willing to work for them.
And when the light goes on, let us be ready to change. The light will expect that of us – and the world needs that of us.
Thanks be to God.