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The Feast of the Epiphany: “Arise, Shine”
Is there any part of the story of the Magi that still fills you with wonder? I mean “wonder” in both senses. That still amazes you . . . or that makes you curious? It may be that you’ve seen just too many star logos on every kind of merchandise in December—or you’ve attended just too many Christmas pageants—for this story to even engage your imagination. But believe me, there’s still active debate going on about this narrative, told only in the Gospel of Matthew.
Most questions concern historical or scientific accuracy. Who were these travelers: kings or priests of Zoroaster; sorcerers or astronomers? From what parts of the East did they come: Arabia, Persia, India, or Babylon? How many were on this journey? We assume three from the number of their gifts, but Matthew never says so.
And what was the meaning and symbolism of those gifts? Gold would be a welcome offering for a king of any age, to be sure. Frankincense would be appropriate as a royal perfume, or maybe it was meant to be a symbol of prayer. Myrrh could have been intended to anoint the king, although this oil was also used to embalm—perhaps a symbol of suffering to come.
And don’t forget the star. There are plenty of theories circulating about it. Remember, conventional stars don’t move across the sky. And they certainly don’t settle over one particular rooftop. So, was the Star of Bethlehem a nova or supernova? A comet? Some scholars have proposed it was the triple conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter—or maybe Jupiter itself, considered the royal star. Research about these astronomical events has in turn raised questions about the year of the travelers’ journey, the age of Jesus when they arrived, and the date of Herod’s death.
But I’m not going to turn this morning’s reflection into an episode of the History Channel called “We Three Kings.” Because frankly, none of these questions of history, astronomy, or symbolism—although diverting—promises to shed any light on my life in 2013. Nor do they spark my deepest sense of wonder. So, in the spirit of our children’s Godly Play program, let me share what intrigues me about this ancient story and ask you to wonder along with me.
What motivates a spiritual quest? What is it like to see the mystery of God, face to face, in this life? And where do we go after such an astonishing experience? I ask these questions because I believe epiphanies are still lighting up our lives today.
The seekers in our story began their journey because they were curious and alert to life—looking beyond the usual boundaries of their daily lives for inspiration, beyond their known paths. They were looking up from their books or jobs, traditions or pressing obligations, to notice a new phenomenon rising—one they half understood from study or experience, but still a mystery. Some slight stirring within them said this unusual presence of light is connected to me; it signals an opportunity in my life. And this is how many spiritual quests begin.
It’s clear from the story these seekers did not know precisely their destination; they had to ask Herod, of all men. And they did not know who or what they would find when they arrived. But they came prepared to give their treasures in exchange for discovery, in respect for the journey itself, in honor of a potential new power in their lives.
What motivated their quest? I invite you to look to your own life for an answer. What has inspired you in your life course, to take risks beyond the known and familiar, risks of love or ambition or curiosity? Risks that changed your journey? Pause to remember. Beyond chance or circumstance, I suspect that there were special people who channeled an unusual light into your life—together forming your own, unique moving star. People who stirred your sense of possibility, your sense of Self. Who, without any collective knowledge of where you would end up or the person you would become, nevertheless put light on your path toward something greater.
For me, the unusual light these special guides channeled toward you is the Star of Bethlehem. It is the real, immediate presence of God in this world—called in the Hebrew tradition Shekhinah. “A spiritual essence of indescribable beauty and exalting effect,” a “brilliant light or radiance,” an abiding, but changing, presence that keeps drawing us toward a stronger connection between our Selves and the mystery of God.
And what is it like to see the mystery of God, face to face, in this life? The spiritual seekers Matthew describes were “overwhelmed with joy.” Brought to their knees, stunned by joy, filled with wonder in the presence of the holy child and Mary his mother. And again I invite you: pause to remember those moments in your own journey when you were lighted up by a surge of joy: A mountaintop experience. The birth of a child. A soaring lift of music. A laugh so big that you could not stop it. A reunion with a dear friend. A return to health. A spontaneous act of compassion. A community table, or a Communion table, full of bread and wine.
In these moments, we are in the presence of God as surely as the Magi were, an epiphany of the Divine, a time when we experience directly and deeply within a “generosity of spirit, kindness, and clear seeing.” In the Buddhist tradition, this experience is part of what is called “bright faith”: in the words of the great American meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg, a state “of love-filled delight in possibilities and eager joy.”
As she says, “The enthusiasm, energy, and courage we need in order to leave the safe path, to stop aligning ourselves with the familiar or the convenient, arises with bright faith. It enables us to step out, step away, and see what we can make of our lives. With bright faith, we act on our potential to transform our suffering and live in a new way.”
So where do we go after such an enlightening experience? This question stirs my greatest wonder about the Magi’s story: “Having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.” And then, what did they do with the rest of their lives? How did they find their way onward? How did they assimilate their astonishing experience of the baby king into their own cultural and religious practice? Or, as Salzberg says in describing her own spiritual journey, how did they “channel the erratic, brilliant fire of bright faith into a steady, illuminating glow . . . an inner faith not dependent on externals,” something they could carry within them?
It’s a central question in this story and in ours. On the spiritual path, we need to have not only the openness to receive the Divine presence, but also the stamina to bring it onward into our daily experience—to sustain an abiding faith, not just a bright one. To then be part of the moving star of God’s presence for others.
How is this done? The answer is not on the History Channel: we are finding out right now, here, together. However many Magi there were, I am comforted to know there were more than one. Because I believe we sustain abiding faith only in community. When we share the small pieces of spiritual truth we have found on the road; when we show up when someone else is in a dark place; when we humble ourselves to reveal when we ourselves are lost; when we give our gifts to God and each other, even when we are unsure of their worth.
How is this done? We will show each other in this new year. As in our last Adult Forum, when we openly shared what we had discovered about God over the last twelve months. Our own epiphanies of experiencing God's presence in silence; accepting God's mercy over our shortcomings; entrusting our dying loved ones into God's care. I invite you to continue pondering and sharing your own personal revelations of the Divine during this Epiphany season. Each one moves us closer to abiding faith, especially when we encourage each other forward—never alone.
We hear clear encouragement from Isaiah on this path: “Arise, shine; for your light has come/and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you./For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples;/but the Lord will arise upon you,/and his glory will appear over you.” As John O’Donohue says so poetically, only when we have the courage to step into the darkness, will the light that will guide us to the next step reveal itself. Amen.
~ Rev. Clare C. Novak
Associate for Interfaith Ministry, St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church
Incline Village, Nevada
January 6, 2013
 Sharon Salzberg, Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience (New York: Riverhead Books), pp. 22, 28, 29.
 Ibid., p. 43.
 As quoted in ibid., p. 13.