Epiphany, as you know, means a showing forth, a manifestation, especially of a spiritual truth or reality making itself felt or visible in the real world. It is a beam of light in the darkness, like the star the Wise Men saw. It’s the experience we have that makes something clear, like the cartoon character with the lightbulb over his head. It’s that click we hear in our heads when we suddenly see the whole picture – when we finally “get it.”
On Epiphany, 2007, I described the hardships of the journey the Wise Men made to seek out the baby born in Bethlehem. They believed the ancient predictions and saw the new star; they were sure enough of it’s meaning to leave home to find out. I suggested that their journey to seek the Holy Child could be seen as a metaphor for our spiritual journey.
On this Epiphany, 2014, I want you to think about the Wise Men after they found Jesus. Think of the relief they must have felt at having found what they were seeking, at realizing they had been right, both about the star and about its meaning, and that they had been the first Gentiles or maybe the first people in all the earth to greet the new child with a clear understanding of what his birth meant. They had traveled long and hard to find the holy, to find a glimpse of God, and they had succeeded.
Suffused with joy and contentment they camp for the night just outside Bethlehem on a hillside overlooking an olive grove. Now they have time to consider their experience, to talk of their hurried glimpse of Jerusalem, and to make plans. “I can’t wait to return to Jerusalem,” exclaims one. “Just think, hot meals, hot baths, clean clothes and a chance to talk to their scholars.”
“Their scholars of the Holy Book must certainly be able to teach us many things. For one, I can’t wait to see that stunning Temple up close and stroll along the ramparts of the city. I did not expect Jerusalem to be so beautiful.”
“And don’t forget,” replied the first, “that the great inland sea is only a few days journey to the west. Surely we must see it too before returning home.” Nodding their assent they settle once more on the hard ground to sleep.
Then imagine being awakened – once more in the dark—and told they have to get up and leave, NOW! One of them had a dream that it was not safe to return and report to Herod. That means it isn’t safe to return to Jerusalem or Jericho at all. They must leave the country by another route and do so immediately.
So, without a hot meal, a hot bath, clean clothes or even fresh supplies, the three Wise Men rise before dawn and head south, around the Dead Sea towards the Kingdom of the Nabeteans. Did they have to cross the Arabian Desert to Babylon to escape Herod? No matter, they had to return to the hard life of travel – this time with no star to guide them, and with the joy of their discovery in Bethlehem fading in the face of their disappointments and the hardships of travel.
Once again they faced the blistering dry heat of the desert and the snow and cold in the mountain passes – and now perhaps even the green valleys were just something to be crossed, to get past, especially as the images of home replaced the star. The yearning for home now drove them on, not just for hot meals, hot baths, and good beds, but also the warmth and comfort of loved ones, the desire to return to their studies, to cast off their traveling clothes, burn them even, perhaps vowing never to travel again. Home, normalcy, an end to struggle and maybe an end to questioning.
Were they old men – these Wise Men from the East? Perhaps upon their return home they felt a bit like Simeon felt when he took Jesus in his arms in the Temple for the rites of purification after his birth. Simeon had been promised he would see the Messiah before he died and he was very old. When he saw Jesus he became the first Jew to recognize Jesus as the Messiah. He said: “Lord, now you have set your servant free to go in peace as you have promised; For these eyes of mine have seen the savior, whom you have prepared for all the world to see: A light to enlighten the nations, and the glory of your people Israel.”
Consider the Wise Men returning home and think of it as a metaphor for the last part of our spiritual journey. We have experienced epiphanies, small and large in our lives. Do we remember them or do we forget them in the stress and disappointments of daily life? Can we carry the joy of Christmas Eve through to the end?
I suspect the Wise Men were able to do so – that after the hard journey home, they had time enough to consider their experience and reflect on its meaning. We can do the same. Pay attention. See the holy as it is manifested or displayed in our daily lives and reflect on that experience.
Give thanks to God for showing himself to us – in the birth and life of Jesus, in the return of the sun to this white world, in the shrieks of children at play, in the colors and smells of our summer gardens, in the sound of waves shaping the granite shore of Rainy Lake, in the soaring of a bald eagle overhead, and in the love of our families and the kindness of strangers.
This is how I put it in poetic form many years ago:
Son, Savior, I sing this song of thanksgiving
For the gift of night and peaceful sleep,
For the vision of dreams,
For the wisdom of old age,
For the stars that guide me,
For the glory of the northern lights.
I sing thanks for the winds of the white world
That blow about my body and
Feelingly persuade me what I am;
For the creatures of the air,
For Eagle, Hawk, Dove, and Sparrow,
Who teach me grace and freedom.
Grant to those who are old the respect of their children
And a noble death;
To those who are oppressed or in prison
Give light in the darkness
And the promise of another dawn.
Grant me the joy of homecoming at journey’s end,
That I may end where I began
And know it for the first time.
Only at journey’s end will we find our true home, and the gift we give will be ourselves, laid at the manger each Christmas, offered at the altar every Sunday, and returned to the Spirit when we die.
The spiritual journey of our lives is determined by how we experience the holy in the world around us and how we respond to that experience. We can ignore it. We can poo-poo it, or we can thank God for it.
Thanks, thanks, thanks be to God.