The Feast of the Epiphany
Living with longing ©Suzanne Grimmett
Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.
The turn into the new year is always haunted by the longings of who we want to be and the kind of life we want to be living. The symbol of a star can express for us that faith that is needed in the darkness, and the bright guide we may follow to find our way through, holding gently the desires of our hearts and the hopes for a brighter tomorrow.
In contrast, New Year’s goals are notoriously demanding and ungentle and almost by definition are not met. The drive to achieve such goals can leave us careless in our attitude toward our own deepest longings. We may know that pursuing happiness for its own sake will only make it recede further, and so we work on our self-denial and more achievable milestones.
But here’s the thing. Our longings are what make us human.
To long for that which will never be completely fulfilled is to share what it is to walk this earth feeling all of the joys and losses which make up any life. There is a need to practise a gentle acceptance of ourselves and the paradoxes of this existence where we live in both eternal and temporal realms, carrying stunning potentialities and unyielding finitude in every moment. This is our lot. I would suggest that when together we recognise these unresolved longings in ourselves and one another and hold them gently, then we are being most human.
There is plenty of longing in the story we have heard today of the visitation of the magi following the star. As we gather here at the beginning of this brand new year, I think there is much to offer in this story told on this Feast of the Epiphany. The word “epiphany” means a moment of great revelation or realisation. In the context of this story, it is the revealing of God in Christ to not only the people of Israel, but to the rest of the world. The birthplace of this one who would be called the prince of peace is revealed in that great symbol of mystery and longing- the star.
The sign of a star in the sky is full of symbolic longing- it is after all, a star that so many wish upon, and a star many point to when remembering ones they long to be reunited with after death. The star indicates both the need for a guide and alignment in our lives, as well as the mystery of a heavenly visitation. When we aren’t sure if something good will happen we may say, we look forward to it “if the stars are all in alignment”. It is an expression partly recognising the complex nature of our days, but also something of the cosmic mystery of life itself in which we seek a coherence of meaning and truth.
In this story we find star and the holy child aligned, bringing heaven and earth together and drawing visitors from afar who recognise the import of what has occurred and come to pay homage. These visitors recognise in the promised child under the star a fulfilment of human longing- that God and humanity are reconciled. Rejoicing, they give gifts that recognise Jesus’ identity: gold for a human king, frankincense for divinity and myrrh foreshadowing his redemptive death. But whereas the wise ones from the East come filled with joy, the star has the opposite effect on King Herod, who is filled with murderous intent. His desires seem centred on power and control, and the transcendent presence and mystery is missed, as it always is, by the primal urgency of fear. There is always the choice available to us to listen to the voice of our fear and turn away from the visitation of God.
While there is the promise of fulfilment contained here in this revelation of human and divine united in the Christ child, there is far more mystery in the nativity than answers that resolve human longing once and for all. The wise ones come to witness the one whose coming they had foretold in the heavens, longing perhaps for answers to great mysteries in the universe and the sagas of the nations. Instead, they find a baby and peasant family. There is the longings of this family and all in occupied Judea for a life liberated from their Roman overlords and the whispered anticipation of the Messiah to come who would set them free. There is the longing and silence of Joseph before what he did not know and could not understand of this baby and who he would be become. Finally there is the longings of Mary, having given birth to her first child and laid him as comfortably as she could in an animal’s feed trough. She ponders in her heart all that she has experienced, perhaps sensing both the joy and heartache he had brought to her. When we follow the star, we find not clear-cut easy answers, but new questions, greater mystery, and more wonder.
So perhaps at this dawn of the New Year we might see in the star a symbol of the holy longing we bear as humankind- a longing born of the paradox of being both temporal and eternal creatures, full of dizzying and magnificent potentialities and yet small and bounded by the limitations of time, space and materiality. If we are to move forward into greater freedom, we may need not a new and shiny list of resolutions so much as an openness to the mystery of our existence. If we are fixated on our restless yearnings, we will be stuck and lifeless. To live in freedom with the paradox of longing, is to walk a line that both accepts our life as it is, living with gratitude for the goodness in every moment and at the same time keeps moving that we may live into our holy potential as agents for the new creation of the world.
So may you make peace with the paradox of your existence and find hope in the star that points to an alignment of heaven and earth in your own heart, as much as it was once in a lowly stable. May your own longings be held gently even as you honour the longings of others. May they guide you to walk in wonder through this New Year, never giving up on the promise of freedom and the authentic power of love and goodness. And as the Christ who is gentle and humble in heart walks with you, may that same grace you have received overflow to touch all those you encounter in the year to come, lighting the world with peace and possibility.