The Feast of the Epiphany
Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72: 1-7, 10-14
Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12
A few hours from my childhood home, there is a marvelous set of caverns, named Luray. Descending deep into the limestone hills, the caverns comprise two and a half kilometers of extraordinary rock formations, cave opening into cave, each adorned with stalagmites, stalactites, and flowstone. During one visit, my father and I were at the deepest point in the cave when suddenly, all became dark. We and our group waited a bit nervously for the lights to come back on, but nothing happened. After a while, our guide turned on a flashlight and began to lead us back towards the surface. His light was the only pinprick of illumination in the subterranean dark. We followed with care, quietly, careful not to trip, careful not to fall behind. After more than hour, we emerged into a world transformed. Although it was summer, a great ice storm had passed through, and, while it had cut off the electric power, it left the landscape radiant, light streaming from every branch and bough and stem of grass. The transition from our darkness to that light was extraordinary; we blinked and stared and tried to make sense of it all.
Today we commemorate the Feast of Epiphany, when, twelve days after Christmas, the Wise Men arrive to kneel at the feet of Jesus. It is the first revelation of Christ to the Gentiles, the first sign of an incarnation which will reshape their world in ways they cannot imagine. When the Magi set out, following the star, they moved in a world of many gods; by the time they returned, the true light had broken into the world. The world had shifted around them, and it was no longer the same.
There is an extraordinary contrast in today’s Gospel reading. When the Magi arrive in Jerusalem, Herod asks the chief priests and rabbis where the Messiah is to be born. They tell him, but they do not go. It’s astonishing, really. These are scholars of the faith, men who have dedicated their lives to the study of the holy texts. They can recite every word of Torah, explain the tiniest details of each commandment. And yet, when they hear that the Messiah may have been born, they stay at home. It is the foreigners, the strangers, who leave their homes and their comfortable worlds, let go of everything they have known, and seek… something that stirs their heart, come what may. They had embarked on the longest journey of our faith: the journey from head to heart.
There comes a time in the life of each disciple when we must make that choice — between the safety of what we know, and the holy hunger that speaks in our heart. (For many of us, that choice comes more than once.) It is the choice of the immigrant, seeking a life in a new land; of the scientist, pushing beyond what is known; of the young adults who choose to have (or to adopt) a child. It is the craving for life — not just another breath, but for life and richness and color and connection and joy.
For many of us, that life has seemed almost like a mirage these last months, as our lives have become thin and pale. And yet, there seems to be no easy way back, either. Over and over, I have had the experience of looking at a movie or an ad, and thinking, “Don’t stand so close together! Where are your masks??” The old world, the one I inhabited for fifty years, no longer seems safe to me, no longer seems like home. We have been changed by this time, in ways we do not yet understand. Sometimes, it feels to me as if we are moving through a deep darkness, able only to see the next step, and then pause, and discern one more. And so I take great comfort in today’s readings, for they are counsel for times like ours.
The prophet Isaiah writes of a marvelous dawn, of new light breaking upon the world. He says, “Then you shall see, and be radiant.” Then you shall see — the clear implication being that, until then, we saw nothing. He is describing the mystic journey, the transition from hearing about God to knowing God. You see, God is the ultimate con artist. He gives us a taste of himself, allows us to learn the stories, dabble in the practices, eat, even, his body and blood. And so we enter into these things gaily, like children drawn by a shining bauble. We think, “We will learn these things, and then we will be good; we will be holy; we will belong to God.” And yet, these crumbs of holy food are meant, not to sate us, but to deepen our hunger — a hunger which will drive us from all the small gods with which we people our lives, and prompt us to seek the One True Love. The great theologian Thomas Aquinas experienced that moment, after a lifetime dedicated to prayer and study. He wrote book after book, sought to unite all knowledge into one, clear explanation of the mind and working of God. In 1273, on the Feast of St. Nicholas, Aquinas was meditating on the body and blood of Christ when he saw a great vision. When he came to himself, he laid down his pen, saying, “I can write no more. I have seen things that make my writing like straw.”
The space between the letting go and the finding is a dark and frightening place. San Juan de la Cruz called it “the dark night of the soul.” It is a time of utter disorientation, when the wells which had sustained us run suddenly dry, and we do not yet know where fresh wells are to be found. It is a long time of not seeing, not knowing, of living simply on trust. Trust that something will come, even if we have no idea what it will be. It seems like the end, but it is an invitation: to know God more fully, to taste love more deeply. It is the terrain of hope.
We tend to speak of hope cheaply, as in “I hope I get a new dress for the dance,” or “I hope I see you soon” But as we are learning during this long, arid time, hope is not cheap. Hope is not a daydream or a fantasy. Hope is the dry bread which we eat to keep from dying, when the world around us has turned to ashes. Near the end of The Lord of the Rings, Sam is rationing elven bread for himself and for Frodo, so there will be enough for the journey home. Then he admits, they are not going home. Their journey is one-way — and yet, they keep going, driven by a desire to do what they can, while they can, even if it costs them everything. That is Christian hope.
The promise of God is that on the far side of loss, there is abundance beyond our imagination. I don’t think that’s a statement about quantity, but about quality: that the good things of God are so far beyond our imagining that we literally cannot conceive them. It’s as if you came from a small town, in the time before television, and were asked to imagine Montreal. You might imagine a town with more streets, or a bigger movie theater, but you would not be able to imagine skyscrapers or concert halls or buildings from the 18th century. Your experience would limit your imagination; so it is with us and the things of God.
St. Paul calls this mystery, by which he means, things which have been hidden — hidden until we (or the world) have been prepared to see them. At the time of Jesus, there were whole mystery religions dedicated to preparing their disciples to encounter a god: people would undergo a complex series of initiation rites to prepare them for ecstatic experiences, experiences which took them out of themselves. Christianity itself was such a religion: people would spend years preparing to be baptized, learning the teachings and trying on new ways of life. Only then would they be allowed to see or participate in Communion. We needed to be made ready to receive what was holy.
This path of personal transformation is a microcosm of what God is working in the world. St. Paul writes, “this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things.” (Eph 3: 8-9) The inbreaking of God took place slowly, gradually: first, to one man, Abram, and his wife; then to their descendants; then to tribes and to a nation; then to a few gentile seekers; finally, to the whole world. The truth, of course, had not changed in all that time; the world had changed, until we were able to see it anew.
What unfolded in that mystery was our essential unity. It’s a holy contradiction. In the world of organic life, evolution generates complexity, creatures of one cell becoming salamanders and fish and even giraffes. But in the spiritual world, all that complexity is stripped away — not removed, because God made it and loves it and sustains it in being. But we learn to see that underneath, there is one God and one love, and all the rest — the differences we think are so important — are so much straw.
In the end, we see the same thing the Magi did: a baby. Human flesh and blood, revealed not to be ordinary at all, but the greatest revelation of love. I don’t know about you, but in this long time of separation from one another’s presence, that irreplaceable beauty has become more clear to me. It has become an experience of deep joy to stand six feet from someone and talk to them through a mask, to remember the softness of a baby’s skin, or to see the laugh-lines on someone’s face through a Zoom screen. It is as if, at the end of a long journey, we are finally brought to our knees by the sight of one another’s humanity, the same flesh and blood which clothed our Lord and Savior.
Last week, I discovered a piece of music by Scott Ordway, called “Twenty/Twenty.” He asked one hundred university students to complete the sentence, “One year ago today, I did not know that…” and set their answers to music. At the close, over and over, one phrase: “I should have held you closer.” Yes.
I don’t know what the Magi felt, kneeling at the feet of Jesus, but I suspect it may have been that: all the people they had known, all the days of their lives, in all their colors and languages and mystery. The people they had used, or discarded, or taken for granted — but now, at the end of the journey, they knew: Those people were the greatest treasure of all. This Epiphany, this year, let us go forth in that knowledge, and hold one another close, any way we can.