Today we are celebrating Epiphany, the day when the Wise Men from the east arrived in Bethlehem to honor the Christ Child. We are so used to Christmas pageants that show the wise men as part of the Christmas scene that we may forget that the shepherds, the angel choirs, and the bright light from heaven were all gone by the time they arrived. Why is that, I wonder.
Well, there’s the issue that the Gospels tell different stories, or even no story about the birth of Jesus. Matthew is the only one to tell of the wise men and the flight into Egypt. His gospel presumes Joseph lived in Bethlehem, while the others presume he lived in Nazareth. And John, which we heard last week, doesn’t have anything to say about the family or the birth itself. Luke gives us the shepherds and the angel choristers, and Mark gives us no story at all.
In previous sermons on this day, I have asked you to imagine the difficult journey of the wise men to find the holy child, and have suggested that their journey is a metaphor for the spiritual journey each of us takes through life, whether we want to or not. I have also asked you to think about how we respond to those epiphanies, those experiences with the holy, we have experienced in life. Do we know them when we see them? Do we accept them and rise to the challenge of change they usually require? Or do we put them aside and go back to our life as it is?
We have also looked at the darker side of such experiences; namely that if we accept the challenge to change, nothing is ever quite the same again. We can’t go back to how it was before our eyes were opened. This sort of experience can alienate us from friends and family. It can lead us to new and distant places. It may well lead us into dangerous situations.
What struck me this year was the tandem nature of Christmas and Epiphany. The child is born; the heavens celebrate, but we don’t get the deeper meaning until the wise men show up. They “get it!” They have seen the star rise in the east and followed it to Jerusalem and Nazareth. They understand in some way that God has come among us.
I think we are meant to re-evaluate the Christmas experience in the light of their experience.
Think how easy it is to celebrate Christmas with joy and maybe even with thanksgiving. But if we fail to plumb the deeper depths – what does it mean that God took human form or that God chose to live among us? – then Christmas is just another fun festival.
Who doesn’t love the gifts, both giving and receiving, the parties, the tree, the decorations of Christmas season? But do those things change anything? Without the experience of Epiphany, we have no reason to change. Like the shepherds, we can experience Christmas, but miss the meaning of it.
The wise men understood that this was an earth-shaking event and we’re meant to grasp that more fully through their eyes. Certainly other people got it as time went by. Simeon “gets it.” John the Baptist got it, at least in part. Think of the many other people who were changed by their experience of Jesus: the woman at the well, the Gerasene demoniac, the woman with the hemmorage, Nicodemus, Bartemaeus, and Paul.
Meeting Jesus often induced epiphanies. How else can we explain that simple fishermen left their nets, their boats, their parents, wives and children to follow him? Think also of those who chose not to change anything, like the rich young man. But also remember how Jesus reacted to that choice; he did not condemn them, he did not cease to love them, it just made him sad.
So what’s the point? Well, in my mind this is NOT about salvation. For one thing you can lead a decent life, being kind to people, being loving, and never acknowledge or struggle with the implications of a spiritual experience. We do have a great deal of choice in how we travel through life. You can go to church or not. You can live life the way your parents did or not. Even if you choose the dark side, God loves you, just as we love our children even when they make terrible decisions.
It seems to me that the end point of our life, which for some is the end of suffering and privation, for some is the end of a wonderful life, and for some is the end of seeking, whether seeking the holy or seeking thrills or seeking fame, that end point is bodily death, and what happens after that no one knows. I believe it will be the same for everyone, in the sense that we will all return to the creator, in some way or another.
I know, that doesn’t seem fair. We grew up with heaven and hell preached to us – mostly, I think, in an effort to control our behavior. We were to seek salvation and avoid damnation. And certainly there are passages in the Gospels that suggest this. But my reading of the Jesus story leads me to believe that God loves us all, unconditionally. And I can’t believe that God doesn’t have the power to reconcile all sorts and conditions of human beings to himself.
This has led me to the conclusion that those who engage in a spiritual journey during their lifetime end up with a more abundant life, not in the next life, but in this one. The reward of seeking, struggling to make sense of our experiences, seeking the holy in the every day events of life and allowing God’s spirit to bring about change in us – the rewards for this come to us in this life.
At the end I believe we simply return to the place from which we came, however you like to think of that. But do not ask, as Nicodemus did, how we can crawl back into the womb of our mothers. We can’t. Ask yourself where did life come from? Where did the miracle of birth originate? Who gave us breath and soul?
As T.S. Eliot says, near the end of The Four Quartets:
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
In a poem I wrote I stole Eliot’s concept in this way:
“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 poo-poo the very possibility of spiritual experiences. We can ignore them when we have them. Or we can thank God for them.
Thanks, thanks, thanks be to God. AMEN