January 6, 2019
Isaiah 60:1-6, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12
This past December I took a ten day silent retreat at St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado.
At breakfast on the next to the last day this was written on the message board:
“Stay until you leave.”
I stopped in my tracks, took a deep breath and realized I had an attitude adjustment to make.
Even at breakfast I wasn’t fully present.
My thoughts were turning towards the journey home and re-entering life here. I had been away from Madison for two weeks.
“Stay until you leave.”
I would have missed out on so much if mentally I had left prematurely.
That last day was rich in insights and experiences.
It bore the fruit of the previous eight days of silence.
Today it is tempting to leave rather than stay.
It is the last day of the holidays.
Maybe you have already put the Christmas ornaments away and swept up the pine needles.
Maybe you are thinking of the “normal” tomorrow will bring.
Please stay. Don’t leave yet!
It is still the Christmas season. Today is January 6, Epiphany, the twelfth day of Christmas.
In the Eastern Orthodox faith, Epiphany is the high point of the Advent and Christmas season.
The season of Advent is a time of waiting for the light that will first shine forth at Christmas. It reaches its peak on Epiphany, the feast of lights.
the magi follow the star,
they stop in Jerusalem for clarifying directions,
then they find the baby Jesus in Bethlehem,
worship him and finally return home another way.
The word “epiphany” implies a perception that is out of the ordinary.
It is an illuminating discovery, an intuitive grasp that goes beyond the naked eye.
It can be a divine revelation.
The magi knew that the star was not just another star.
They knew that this baby was not just another newborn child.
They acted on their interior knowing, traveling far and not stopping until they had arrived.
The Christmas story is replete with epiphanies:
Zechariah is told that his elderly and barren wife, Elizabeth, will bear a son. Because he is a skeptic, the father-to-be is rendered mute.
Mary also receives news of a pregnancy, her own! But unlike Zechariah, she embraces it, “let it be according to your word”.
When Mary and Elizabeth meet, another epiphany occurs. Both women gain a deeper understanding of the sacredness of their pregnancies.
The shepherds in the field , looking up to the night sky, realize that something out of the ordinary has occurred.
The magi follow the star.
One epiphany, one ah ha moment, after another.
Epiphanies continue today.
They are all over the place, if only we have the eyes to see them.
We experience them if we are present, open and aware.
Epiphanies may reveal themselves in the highest heavens or in our sleep dream. Or anywhere in between.
How is this possible?
the Divine permeates all of creation.
Psalm 139 reminds us:
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to the heaven, you are there,
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
And settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
Even there your hand shall lead me,
And your right hand shall hold me fast.
In our reading from Third Isaiah we are given an invitation,
“Lift up your eyes and look around”
See with the eyes of your heart and soul.
Look with your spiritual eyes.
See beyond what appears obvious.
Logion 17 of the Gospel of Thomas puts it this way:
What your own eyes cannot see
Your human ears do not hear,
Your physical hands cannot touch,
And what is inconceivable to the human mind—
That I will give to you.
Truth is received from reality beyond sensory perception and rational knowing.
It is more real than what we can see, hear and touch.
(Bauman, The Gospel of Thomas: Wisdom of the Twin, p. 40)
Perhaps this was Paul’s experience.
He writes of what was hidden, the mystery. made known to him by revelation.
This mystery wasn’t something to be figured out in his rabbinic head!
A poet who knows how to lift up her eyes and look around is Mary Oliver. Each of her poems is an epiphany.
Listen to the opening line of poem of “Invitation”:
Do you have time
for just a little while
out of your busy
and very important day
for the goldfinches
that have gathered
in a field of thistles
for a musical battle
to see who can sing
the highest note
or the lowest,
or the most expressive of mirth,
or the most tender?
(“Invitation”, Devotions, 2017, p. 107)
Do we have time to linger??
Another person who knew how to look up and see was Joseph Boyle, the Abbot at St. Benedict’s Snowmass.
Joseph died October 21. Thomas Keating, also a monk at Snowmass, died four days later.
The monastery is at 8,000 ft., the night sky is breathtaking.
In this setting Abbot Joseph became a modern day magi.
In the homily at Joseph’s funeral mass, a fellow monk remembered:
If you were ever out after dark with Joseph, you were in for a treat. You would get a view of the universe like no other…one couldn’t help getting a feeling that Joe was very connected to the nearness and vastness of the universe we live in. He was at home at Snowmass and he was at home in the Cosmos beyond, way beyond…
Both the Isaiah passage and the Christmas story are grounded in times of deep discouragement and danger.
The captives have been set free and are back in home in Jerusalem. Their beloved city is in ruins. The community has known searing hardship and loss.
In the midst of their despair Isaiah proclaims:
Night’s shadow shall cover the earth and thick darkness the peoples;
But God will arise upon you and God’s glory will appear over you.
Herod the Great, one of the best known figures of ancient history, is on the throne when Jesus is born:
He was politically astute with many military successes.
Herod was also cynical, devious and cruel.
As he grew older, his jealousy increased. He killed three of his ten wives and three of his sons.
It is into this brew that the Christ child is born and magi appear.
There is the juxtaposition of the sages’ joy and Herod’s fury.
Light and darkness are intertwined.
Frances Bacon observed, “In order for the light to shine so brightly, the darkness must be present”
We don’t know who the magi are, there are lots of theories. What matters is that they were awake and aware.
They beheld the vastness of the night sky as well as paid attention to their dreams.
They acted on what they perceived.
They submitted to a higher authority, risking the wrath of King Herod. They went home another way.
Epiphanies are gifts. With them comes responsibility.
They may invite us to go another way.
Perhaps literally, perhaps in the way we think about or perceive reality.
And we cannot keep them to ourselves. We must bear witness to them.
I close with a stanza from Mary Oliver’s “Sometimes”. Listen:
Instructions for living a life:
Tell about it.
(Devotions, p. 105)