On this Epiphany Sunday, as we remember with delight the story of the mystical journey of the Magi, let us pause for a moment to give thanks to God the Creator of all mystery and wonder:
light for all people and all places,
by the guidance of a star
you led the Magi to worship the Christ-child.
By the light of faith lead us to worship you
in unity and love,
and guide us in your way of peace.
We pray in the name of Christ,
who is the Light of our lives and our world.
(Voices United # 86, adapted)
As mentioned earlier, today is Epiphany Sunday. In the Western Church the Feast of Epiphany is a set date – January 6th – the twelfth and last day of the Christmas season. In the United Church of Canada the common practice is to celebrate Epiphany on the closest Sunday to January 6th – often the second Sunday after Christmas Eve.
The word epiphany comes from the Greek word – epipheneia – which literally means manifestation. In general terms an epiphany refers to an appearance or revelation of the divine. Specifically, in the context of the Christmas story, Epiphany refers to God’s presence made manifest in the life of Jesus Christ.
The Gospel story that is the focus of Epiphany Sunday is the memorable story from Matthew’s Gospel of the adventure of Wise Ones who travel a great distance from a foreign land in search of the “King of the Jews”.
Who were these Wise Ones we’ve come to know as Magi? Much of what we know about the Magi comes, not directly from Matthew’s Gospel, but from scholarship and Christian tradition over the centuries. Artistic representations of this story most commonly depict three Magi due in large part because of the three gifts mentioned in the Gospel account. Most scholars agree they were wealthy, well educated men from a priestly caste from either Persia or Babylonia. The term “magi” refers to the priestly caste of Zoroastrianism. As part of their religion, these priests paid particular attention to the stars and gained an international reputation for astrology which, at that time, was highly regarded as a science. In the 5th Century (BCE), the Greek historian, Herodotus, wrote that magi were a caste of priests from Persia who could interpret dreams. Certainly, they were people whose calling was to study and follow signs that led the way to important revelations. Their’s was a mysterious and awe inspiring calling that took them away from ordinary life and focussed their attention on the extraordinary occurrences found in daily life. (An interesting aside is that our English word, magic, comes from the Greek word, magi.)
The themes of journey and following signs of divine importance in an effort to discover significant revelations is a universal endeavour that has fascinated and mystisfied human beings from the beginning of time. The story of the Magi’s journey, encounter with someone of evil intent who poses as a sympathetic character, and their experience of joyful worship and then divinely inspired change of direction, contain lessons and wisdom for those who first heard the story and for those of us hearing it still.
So important is the Epiphany story that it has inspired a wide variety of customs and celebrations over the centuries in many different cultures.
The commentary, Feasting on the Word, claims that:
“In many parts of the world, Epiphany is a bigger holiday than Christmas, with rituals of gift giving tied to treasure-bearing wise men instead of a jolly fat man in a red suit. In some places, children leave shoes filled with hay outside their homes. The hay is for the camels of the wise men, who leave gifts for the children in the shoes as thanks before resuming their journey to Bethlehem.”
(Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 1, pg. 215, Westminster John Knox Press, 2009)
Last Sunday, Barbara told a story by Henry Van Dyke about the The Fourth Wise Man who was supposed to travel with the Magi but procrastinated in leaving and later tried to catch up with them.On his travels he kept running into people who needed help and so he stopped to help those along the way.
There is another story that was inspired by the Epiphany story that is found in many cultures but is most familiar to me as the story of Befana. The legend holds that on their way to visit the Christ-child the Magi stopped and invited an old woman named Befana to accompany them on their journey. Befana was busy with household tasks, sweeping and such, so she declined their offer but promised to catch up with them when her work was done. Naturally, by the time Befana finished her chores the Magi were long gone and she frantically began running after them, still carrying her broom and also gifts for the Christ-child. As she travelled she left gifts behind for children in the hopes that one of them might be the Christ-child.
Remembering this story has prompted me to ponder how often, like Befana, I am preoccupied with daily concerns and functions and miss the signs of the miraculous in life and the invitation of God’s presence / Christ’s presence in my life. I know that all of us can experience God’s presence in extraordinary ways in the midst of the mundane occurrences of our daily lives if we can attune to be attentive and receptive.
Sometimes revelations of God’s presence and wisdom are revealed in the most unlikely of places such as a mucky stable filled with animals and a new-born baby 2,000 years ago or in our time in a place such as an inner city mission. Several years ago, when the Rev. Ruth Wright was serving at First United Church in Vancouver she wrote about an experience that she had that was a significant epiphany for her. Ruth recalls that,
“Sometimes being a quiet person pays off. People somehow forget you are present and talk to each other more freely. It happened for me this week. I had stopped to talk with an old friend who was getting ready to sleep in the sanctuary. Our conversation ranged from his wet feet, to the fact that the morning soup was too salty for his taste that day, and then to what he was thinking about God that day.
In the midst of our conversation I asked him why he thought Jesus had come. One of the most theologically articulate of our regulars joined the conversation at that point and gradually I became the quiet outsider, listening. They chatted heatedly for a while until one said: ‘It’s obvious, Jesus came to bring us the gift of hope.’
‘You’re wrong’, said the other. ‘Jesus didn’t come to bring us anything. He came to wake us up to what we already are.’ ”
I believe they were both right. I think Jesus did come to wake us up to what we already are – beloved and gifted ones of God’s own creation. When we see ourselves, and others, as gifts of God we may also be filled with hope at the power and love of God within ourselves and our world.
Thinking of this, and keeping in mind Epiphany stories, prompts us to imagine for ourselves what are the God-given gifts that we have to offer and where the guiding light of God’s presence is leading us as individuals and as a community of faith.
In a little while we will be singing a hymn, written by Jim Strathdee, whose words I have always found meaningful. At this time in the season when the Christmas presents are unwrapped, the Christmas paper is in the recycling bin, the partying and family celebrations are mostly over and the Christmas stockings and ornaments are safely packed up ready for next year, it is important to keep in our hearts and minds the wonder and awe of the Christmas/Epiphany season that inspires us to live the Gospel lessons throughout the year.
I’ll close with an Epiphany poem written by Joyce Rupp:
I do not ride on camels through a wind-swept desert.
I do not carry gifts that are fit for a king.
I do not see the star that guides the stalwart riders.
Yet I, too, am seeking. I, too, am longing.
I go among the busy days yearning for the Unknown One.
In the breath of a prayer, in the care of a friend,
in the beauty of a bird, a star-like glimpse comes to me.
A flicker of hope arises, enough to stay in the fray,
to keep searching for the One who is slowly revealed
in tiny sparks of daily encounters.
Holy One, you who reveal, make manifest your presence.
Open the eyes of my heart. Awaken my unattuned spirit.
Bring me to full attention, so that I come to know,
in my every moment, your radiant star of guidance.
(The Seeker, Out of the Ordinary, page 98, Ave Maria Press, 2000)
May these words of hope be fulfilled in all our lives.