Sunday 3 January, The Epiphany of our Lord
Psalm 72.1-7, 10-14
Falling in love with solid ground ©Suzanne Grimmett
The turning of a new year can see us looking back to reflect on the one that has past and looking forward to the year that lies before us.
Yet this Feast Day of Epiphany reminds us that an encounter with God can only ever happen in the present. If we spend too much time looking back or looking forward, we can miss the harvest of the now- the learnings, the wisdom, the beauty, the new life.
Sometimes, however, we have come to the edge of ourselves. We simply cannot find the inner resources to articulate any new wisdom for our life. All of our own best self-help, our own skills and abilities, are at times not able to remove the aching dread that we are done, and nothing magical will happen for us again. This can come about when we are tired, trusting too much in the extent of our own experience and forgetting that God is always doing something new.
An epiphany is a divine manifestation in the midst of human history. It is a surprise, an in-breaking. Life is far more surprising than a recounting of our history, or a story that has already been written and just waiting to be enacted. Light breaks, and today’s readings are about the light that pierces the darkness from a source outside ourselves, yet which fans into flame the light within.
A star is a natural and beautiful phenomenon, but in this story is pointing us to an event in human history that was extraordinary. It was a numinous, transcendent sign of hope and new vision for the world. The Feast of Epiphany points to the wondrous news that God’s coming to us was for all of us- the whole world. These wise men are representative of all the Gentiles who would come to receive Jesus as Saviour of the world. I think we are so used to the stories contained in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life that we forget that the truly startling outcome was that the birth of a Jewish peasant would come to be welcomed as Good News for those outside his cultural and religious group right up to the present day. Jesus became a light to the Gentiles in a small way in his own lifetime on earth, but in an astonishingly rapid time as the experience of the crucified and risen one was shared again and again beyond Palestine to the greater Mediterranean. The writer of Matthew’s Gospel foreshadows this in the story of the Magi who recognise that light had broken into a world of sin and death, and this light would be for all peoples.
Yet the light was not unaccompanied by darkness. The shadow lurks in the dream that comes to the wise ones in the night, telling them to take another road.
The imagery of taking a new road is strong for our own lives. After encountering the light, we need to set our feet to a new way, even though it may not be clear ahead- it is a new or unknown path for us to make by walking. Going back by the same way will no longer do, particularly when that way is full of shadow and death. Herod’s fear and lust for power would set him on a course of murderous violence, and would mean that the holy family are sent out as refugees in an unknown land, fleeing Herod’s imperial might. We are reminded that God is with all those who are oppressed, abused or violated, and that our place as the Church is to stand against empire and with all such whom Christ would call the ‘little ones’ in our midst.
So it is a story to be read always in the present, as to sift for historical fact here is to read it the wrong way. The star, the proclamation of a new king for both Jew and Gentile, the humble dwelling and life struggles of the holy family all reveal an inbreaking of heaven to earth. But it is also a story for the now, of the divine which is hidden in plain sight.
I wonder, as those Magi fell to their knees before the simplicity of a baby with his parents, if they fell in love not only with the God they encountered there, but with their own humanity. The star they had followed had lit up the heavens, a transcendent revelation and yet the wonder to which it pointed was grounded in a human form as glorious as it was ordinary. But we need to have eyes to see. Epiphany is as much about receiving the gift of sight as it is about the inbreaking of something new. After all, the star shone in the heavens for everyone to see, not just the wise ones from the East. David Whyte captures this idea of sight beautifully in his poem, “The Opening of Eyes”;
That day I saw beneath dark clouds,
the passing light over the water
and I heard the voice of the world speak out,
I knew then, as I had before,
life is no passing memory of what has been
nor the remaining pages in a great book
waiting to be read.
It is the opening of eyes long closed.
It is the vision of far off things
seen for the silence they hold.
It is the heart after years
of secret conversing,
speaking out loud in the clear air.
It is Moses in the desert
fallen to his knees before the lit bush.
It is the man throwing away his shoes
as if to enter heaven
and finding himself astonished,
opened at last,
fallen in love with solid ground.
Epiphany is waking up to recognise God with us and the earth as the home of the divine. Moses discovers before that bush, not so much that he was on holy ground, but that he already always was, as we are. David Whyte tells us that the instructions God gives to Moses for taking off his shoes is actually the same word in Hebrew as for an animal shedding its skin. If we are to see the glory of God all around us, we need to shed the self-protective layers, the comfortable assurances, and be reborn each day in the vulnerability of an unguarded self. Only then can we embrace the new thing that God is doing when the light breaks.
How do we do this? Well in part, the answer is “do nothing”. The world is overfull with advice and with people playing God. But we need to hold the virtue of doing nothing even as we recognise the paradox that we are also required to cultivate the personal discipline of paying attention. No doubt the wise ones has spent long hours in practised attentiveness to the heavens before they saw the star. Prayer is the doorway to encountering and opening our hearts to life and light, and while at the heart of prayer there is a stillness, a ceasing of activity, it is anything but passive. Anyone who has tried seriously to meditate will realise the way the whole self needs to be engaged in the act of attention. Without attention that connects the outer world to an inner awareness, we can miss the light breaking, and we retreat back into our old skins that feel safe, but prevent us from living and loving wholeheartedly.
Maybe this year we could fall in love afresh with the solid ground of our lives. The incarnation reveals to us a world where the Spirit speaks from every lit bush, in the song of birds, in the affection of a friend and in the kindness of strangers. The poet Mary Oliver writes;
There is the heaven we enter through institutional grace
and there are the yellow finches bathing and singing
in the lowly puddle
So may we revive our senses, living prayerfully in a world where God is always speaking. May we have eyes to see the beauty of God all around us as much as we have ears to hear the cry of those who are struggling or in pain. May we cease from our endless distractions and learn to attend, that we may perceive the wonder of God with us and not be afraid to live and love from an open heart.