Epiphany; Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2:1-12
This morning we celebrate Epiphany. Epiphanies (with a lower case “e”), as opposed to slow, plodding, deliberate work, have been touted as the movers and shakers of big ideas. If we stay, for the moment, outside the religious realm, Archimedes provides one of the most famous examples. Archimedes was a Greek mathematician, inventor, engineer and physicist who lived a couple hundred years before Jesus was born. Archimedes was placed in the awkward position of figuring out whether a gift to a king, a crown, was real gold or something cheaper and less dense. This happened a couple thousand years before mass spectrometry came around, and in those days, an object needed to be a nice regular shape to figure out its volume and thereby calculate its density. Archimedes was in a bad spot though, because it was considered very bad form to melt down the king’s crown to see if it was made on the cheap. Archimedes struggled with the issue, and struggled with it, and finally went off to take a bath, without solving the question. When he got in the bath, he happened to notice the water rose as he sat down, and suddenly realized that the volume of the water moved would be the same as the volume of the thing put in the water. His problem was solved. Legend has it, he was so excited he jumped out of the bath and ran down the streets stark naked, yelling “Eureka!”
Isaac Newton is famously said to have experienced a similar dramatic experience of an unexpected truth suddenly becoming obvious when he got conked on the noggin by an apple and suddenly put the whole radical gravity idea together. As far as I have heard tell, at least Newton managed to keep his clothes on in the process.
Epiphany (from the ancient Greek, “showing” or “manifestation”) is the sudden realization or comprehension of the (larger) essence or meaning of something. We kind of like the idea of epiphanies, because they seem to suggest that nothing more is required of us than to take a nice relaxing bath, or sit under an apple tree and truth in all its glory will be revealed. But it turns out that Archimedes and Newton did a great deal of thinking and work and study before that inspiring bath, and before the fateful apple – head bonking.
Our Holy Day “Epiphany” (Epiphany with a capital “E”) is another sort of “showing”. In this case it is the manifestation of the babe Jesus to the Gentiles, in the form of the wise men, as the King, the Son of God.
We know very little about the wise men, the Magi, not even how many there were (all the songs and stories notwithstanding). The Gospel makes it clear there were more than one, but never gives a number. They were probably followers of Zoroastrianism, well known and, in their day, respected astrologers. They were looking for something. They were diligent and disciplined and they looked in the only way that they knew, by watching the stars. Eventually their discipline and dedication led them on a long, uncomfortable journey. After an awkward encounter with the powerful, ambitious and brutal Herod, they followed their beacon in the darkness to something they never expected, an ordinary infant resting in the arms of a teenage mother in an ordinary stable. This combination does not sound like a recipe for success in the world of royalty, but clearly the wise men recognized the truth of Jesus’ kingship immediately: “They were overwhelmed with joy… they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
(The gifts, incidentally, have developed their own symbolism in relation to Jesus’ life: gold for kingship, frankincense, a type of incense for deity, and myrrh, an ointment used for preparation for burial, symbolizes sorrow and death. But I digress)
“Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.” This sounds like such a gift, and indeed it is. But this is not the sort of gift that you sit and wait for, where the only work required is to unwrap it when it arrives under the tree.
Like Archimedes before them and Newton many centuries later, the magi studied, worked, observed. When there was action to be taken, the magi took it, traveling at least 300 hot, dusty miles west to follow the light. When they experienced truth, they were open enough to recognize it and cherish it, although it could not have been in the form they were expecting.
The magi’s journey was not the same as that of Mary and Joseph, or of Matthew’s jewish listeners. The magi could not have found God incarnate by studying the Torah or listening to angels in a dream. Those things would not have made sense to them. They did their spiritual work in another way.
My journey is not your journey, and I cannot tell you what work needs to be done in your journey, only that there is work. Prayer, study, deliberate mindfulness, a helping hand to a neighbor, extending welcome to a stranger. You must discover what furthers your journey. Not what is easy, but what brings you closer to Emmanuel, to God with us.
Understand that in your journey you may need to cross uncomfortable spiritual deserts. Understand that you may need to ask directions along the way. Understand that when the epiphanies come (not “if”, “when”), they may not be in the form that you expect, or resemble what you might want. Understand that, like the magi, who “left by another road” after paying homage to the infant king, your course will be forever changed. One does not meet God and remain unchanged. Nonetheless, let us heed the voice of the prophet Isaiah, “Lift up your eyes and look around…Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice.”