Isaiah 42:1-4 (NRSV)
Last Sunday, during this Epiphany time, as is the custom in the Western Church, we remembered the Wise Ones and their long journey. We remembered the star that led them. We remembered the revelation that awaited them. And we pondered “What would it be like for us too to be led God’s light? What would we find awaiting us?”
This week, I’d like to stay in this Epiphany time, but instead of returning to the Wise One, I’d like to explore what is the more ancient and actually, the original, understanding of Epiphany. One that has been lost to us in Western Christianity, but one continues to be observed by our brothers and sisters in the Eastern Christian church tradition.
But before I do, Let us pray. Holy One, in this time of revelation, we ask that your word for us would illuminate our minds, we ask that your love for us would illuminate our hearts, and that your will for us would illuminate our every action. And may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts, be acceptable to you, O God, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
We, in the Western Christian tradition, tend to think of Epiphany as a bit of an afterthought. Christmas for us is the main attraction. Epiphany seem a bit like icing on the cake. Great, to be sure. But not really essential.
But did you know, the opposite was true for the early church? In fact, it took a while for Christmas to even be put on the liturgical calendar. Long before there was the celebration of Christmas, there was Epiphany.
The celebration of Epiphany, is the third oldest Holy Day in the Christian tradition. The first was – Easter. The second was – Pentecost. And then there was Epiphany.
The word Epiphany comes from the Greek and means “manifestation” or “revelation.” In this season, as it was celebrated in the early church and as it continues to be celebrated by the Eastern Christian Church, followers recalled three key events in the early life and ministry of Jesus that were considered to be revelatory, where something of the eternal nature of God entered into and was revealed in our finite world of time and place.
The first event was Jesus’ birth where God’s love was revealed in human form. The second event was what we read about in the Scripture today, — Jesus’ baptism, where God blesses and claims Jesus as God’s own thereby revealing the divinity of Jesus and the trinity of God. And the third event was Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding of Cana, a story that appears in John’s Gospel where Jesus turned water into wine, an act that revealed God’s grace, mercy and forgiveness pouring into our lives through Jesus.
Epiphany remembers not just that God entered the world in flesh and blood, but that the eternal nature of God’s power and presence entered into our world as well and was dynamically alive and moving through Jesus. This is what was remembered by the early church on Epiphany.
I love Epiphany but lately, I have tired of remembering. I have tired and grown restless of remembering something that was, because I find myself longing that Now. I long for Epiphany to break forth, break into our world again — right now. I tire of remembering, because I long for revelation, manifestation. I long for love incarnate. I long for skies to open with words of blessing. I long for the flow of new wine and the unmistakable grace of God’s abundant mercy and forgiveness. I don’t just want to remember an Epiphany of long ago. I long for one now.
I understand that back then things were in crisis. I understand that the Roman Empire was ruthless and people were suffering. I understand that the religious establishment had lost its way and the people did not know where to turn. I understand that over 2000 years ago it was a good time for Epiphany, for God’s revelation.
But couldn’t the same be said for us today as well? Couldn’t we make a pretty compelling case that right about now would be a great time for Epiphany as well?
For we seem to be in a place of crisis in our country and in our world where there are a lot of “Strong men” on the scene but not a lot of prophets. There are a lot of people scrambling for power but not a lot of leaders lifting up the powerless, the hopeless, the hurting and the lost. The earth is groaning but who is listening?
Wouldn’t this be a perfect time for God again to make manifest God’s presence in our midst to lead us and teach us? It is hard for many of us amidst the challenges we face both as a people and also in our personal lives, to continue to take it all on faith. It is hard for many of us to remember what was and to have that be enough.
For many of us, we don’t necessarily need proof positive that God does truly exist, but we do need some degree of encounter. We don’t necessarily need certainty but we do need to touch mystery now and again, right? Surely there is nothing wrong with that.
So why does it seem that God is hiding God’s self? Why doesn’t God step out again boldly into the landscape of our time? Why this hiddenness? Why not Epiphany now? Why not the in-breaking, the manifestation of love in an unmistakable, undeniable way –now?
I do not know why God seems so hidden now, but what I do know is that, last Wednesday, I was out walking and pondering these questions. I was circling the pond in Jamaica Plain muttering under my breath, “Why God? Why are you so hidden?” when I heard and then I felt and then I saw, an enormous red tail hawk with a wing span of at least three feet swoop around me from the back to my left side, almost clipping my left elbow with its wing tip before landing up in a tree 30 feet or so in front of me only to hold me fast in its unblinking gaze.
Then on Thursday afternoon I was out walking again. I was passing by Spring Park, pondering these questions and muttering “Why God? Why are you so hidden?” when a large coyote stepped out of the woods about 10 feet in front of me and upon seeing me sat down and looked at me intently. It was only when one of the construction vehicles at the Zervus project roared by did the coyote stand and trot slowly into the cover of the woods. But then it sat again just within the cover to the tree line and again held again my gaze. If I did not have a meeting at church that I needed to get back for I may very well still be there so intent was its look, so captivated was I by its presence.
I do not know why God does not break into our world again in the way God did so long ago. But what I suspect and what I am coming to know is that far from being distant, far from having retreated to some far off corner of the cosmos, God remains very much present. God may be quiet, watching and waiting, but God, I believe is as close to us as our own breath. I believe God’s presence saturates our reality just waiting, waiting to be revealed.
So what makes for Epiphany now? What makes for the revelation of God now? I believe it has a lot to do with our own longing for it. God is patient and waiting for our own longing to throw open the door to our hearts so that the outpouring of God’s presence fills our lives.
For God is not a thing or an entity out there, but a relationship. I believe, God is not a noun, but a verb. God does not come for us to observe from a far, but comes into being in our relationship with God.
I remember when I was in ministerial training, I accompanied a mentor of mine on a pastoral visit. We were visiting a woman who was in the hospital. This woman was quite ill and she was very upset. When my mentor friend asked what was troubling her she said that she wanted to know God but did not know how to do so. She did not know where God was or what God wanted of her. All she knew was that she wanted to know God but did not know how or where to find God. I will never forget what my mentor friend said next. He said, “My dear. Don’t struggle, your longing for God need be your only prayer. Your longing is the doorway to your heart and an open heart is all God needs. Be assured, God is already on the move is meeting you right now in your desiring.”
In a few minutes we will gather at this communion table. We will gather with millions and millions of God’s people, all across the globe, who time and time again have brought their hearts’ longings to God as bread is broken and the cup poured out. In doing so, this table has become what in Celtic spirituality is called “a thin place” a place of epiphany. A place of permeability where the longings of our hearts reach out to God and where God’s presence meets us. And as we do, do let us not be surprised if a rush of a wing brushes against our hand as we lift bread to mouth, or if we find ourselves caught in the gaze of love as we too drink of the great outpouring mercy and forgiveness. For be assured, we remember today God’s great Epiphany of so long ago, but we also participate in today and every day the epiphanies of God’s presence breaking into our lives most poignantly, most preciously through the doorways of our deepest longings.
Let me end with some instruction from Bonaventure of Bagnoregio, a Franciscan mystic and follower of St. Francis who lived in the 12th century. He wrote:
“Seek grace not instruction, desire not understanding,
Seek the groaning of prayer over diligent reading,
Seek the spouse more than the teacher,
Seek God not man, darkness not clarity,
Not light but the fire itself.”
May our hearts true longings, and our deepest desirings lead us into this New Year, and may God meet us again and again along the way. Thanks be to God, Amen.