Friday, January 03, 2014

Feast of the Epiphany

In Monty Python's famous and funny movie, The Life of Brian, a group of intrepid Oriental explorers follow a moving star across the deserts of Central Asia all the way to Bethlehem.  Unfortunately, they have a bit of trouble working out the point that's directly underneath the star when it comes to a stop and turn up at the wrong stable door at the exact moment when Brian's mum has just welcomed him into the world.  After worshipping Brian and giving his bewildered mum gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh (she tells them they can keep that one), the astrologers leave – only to come back a minute later and demand the presents back again because they'd got the wrong stable.  Brian's life turns out a bit confusing after that, because he keeps getting mistaken for the kid next door at the most inconvenient moments.
Well, every year we celebrate – just a bit after Christmas – the visit to the infant Jesus by a group of foreigners that the Bible calls magi – this is a word that means astrologers, or sorcerers – not kings, not even necessarily wise men as some Bibles translate it – in fact, not even necessarily men! - but the sort of people who elsewhere in the Bible get a pretty bad rap for following a false spirituality and dabbling in occult powers that – at best – might seem to be seriously misguided.  But today we recognise the astrologers getting it right.  Not only that, but we call our celebration the feast of the epiphany – in regular secular language 'epiphany' means something like an 'aha!' moment – a sudden realisation that seems to come almost from nowhere - a glimpse of what's really going on.  Like all of a sudden the fog clears and we get to see clearly, just for a moment, what life's really about.
Literally, the word 'epiphany' simply means 'showing' or 'shining forth.' As Christians we get the meaning of this – in Jesus, God's light shines out into the world. But maybe we should understand it not so much as the appearance of God but more as the transparence of God. The 'see through' God.  Because the light that shines through Jesus is not something never seen before, not something foreign to creation but simply the Light at the heart of all life. It is the Light from which all things come. If somehow this Light were extracted from the universe, everything would cease to exist. So this is a story about the Light at the heart of everything, the Light at the heart of you, the Light at the heart of me.
I read recently a Jewish rabbi talking about the story in the Book of Exodus where Moses sees the bush on fire, but the bush isn't being consumed by the fire.  And Moses turns aside to have a look – he goes out of his way much as the ancient scientists in today's story, driven by their own curiosity and desire for the truth, risk a voyage across the desert to see the child promised by the stars.  But the rabbi said that the important thing about the Exodus story is not that the bush is burning but that Moses notices.  Because, said the rabbi, every bush is burning, every bush is on fire with the divine presence, everything in the universe shines because God is at the heart of it. Mostly we just don't notice.  And so it is in our Epiphany story. It is a story that invites us to open our eyes to the light that is everywhere.  
So, what are the magi telling us?  Are these barbarian astrologers just a fancy way of saying the whole world is going to sit up and take notice here?  Well, yes, at one level that's exactly what the story's saying.  In this way of looking at it the important thing is what the magi aren't – they aren't Jewish – they're not the sort of people who are supposed to get it right because they're not supposed to be included in God's plan – the fact that these outsiders recognise and pay homage to Jesus when the bigwigs in Herod's court and the chief priests feel threatened and reject him suggests that - in Jesus – God is breaking the mould and breaking all the boundaries that up to now have defined who is supposed to be acceptable and who isn't – so this story belongs to the strand of Jewish theology that says all the nations are eventually going to come to us and find themselves blessed in the God of Israel.  It's a generous theology of inclusiveness that has been part of the self-understanding of the people of Israel right from the start – and what Matthew is saying is that this is fundamental to the meaning and purpose of Jesus.  What stops this from just being a shallow sort of triumphalism is that at the same time Matthew is pointing to the cross as the ultimate cost and the key to this divine inclusiveness.  Because of the birth of Jesus, even Gentiles with their strange habits – people like you and me, in other words, get to find the purpose and the meaning of their lives in Israel's God.
But I want to just speculate for a bit about what it is that the magi are.  Not only are they foreign, but these astrologers or sorcerers are the specialist revealers of hidden knowledge and wisdom in the religion of their culture, the scientists, the revealers of epiphanies.  These are people of patience and persistence, students of subtleties, they follow stars and they pay attention to dreams.  This is a very different sort of wisdom to the wisdom of our own age, the wisdom of pragmatism that all too often tunes out the softer voices of hunch and intuition.  The wisest man in Matthew's version of the nativity is of course Joseph, the foster father of Jesus modelled perhaps on the figure of that most famous dreamer of all, the Joseph in the Book of Exodus whose attention to his dreams delivered his people from famine.  In Matthew's story, Joseph is offered as a model for human spirituality and integrity – and possibly also as an example and a mentor to the magi themselves.  The magi from the east are students of the mysteries of the world around them, like all true scientists intuitive and persistent and willing to risk everything they have in following a lead.  And their science, their spirituality, their intuition and learning lead them across the desert to where Jesus is.  Almost.  The magi do take a wrong turn and end up in Jerusalem.  There, they turn out to be almost fatally naive to the realities of political power and fall straight into Herod's trap.  Human wisdom, human subtlety and learning gets us just so far.
Incidentally the story of the magi cautions us against believing that there is any opposition or contradiction between science and religion.  True knowledge of the world acquired through love and patient observation is a reflection of the wisdom of God.  Science leads us into love and wonder at creation that reflects the love and beauty of God.
But here's the point – however they get there, the magi eventually get to Bethlehem, and there they are blessed.  They find the child with his mother, they do homage and offer their gifts, and there they are blessed with true wisdom – it is only after they find the Christ-child with his humble and obedient mother and his dreaming, far-seeing father that the magi really become wise men, able to interpret their dreams and understand what God is trying to tell them.  
Maybe, if we look at it like this, the magi represent all of us, who are looking for the Christ-child but who routinely get muddled and lost in our own illusions of competence.  But they – also like us – are eventually brought to where the Child is, not through their own skill but by God's persistence and subliminal prompting.  And when they get there, they find something that upsets all their theories and all their science, because they find a child who is himself the revelation!  One suggestion I read recently is that the precious objects they give to the baby Jesus could be the symbols of their own status and learning as astrologers – which would mean they were not so much giving presents to Jesus as surrendering the emblems of their own competence and their own knowledge.  Like Frodo in the Lord of the Rings, the magi have been on a long and dangerous quest, and what they have discovered is that the one thing they have to give up is the symbol of their own power and their own competence.  The vulnerability of God coming as a tiny baby exposes the illusion of our own control and our own self-sufficiency.  Could it be that there's something more important than bringing gifts to the One who is the giver of all gifts?  Could it be that when we encounter the baby Jesus, and we see God daring to be weak, when we see the reality of God's powerlessness in the world, that we are being challenged to lay something down – to lay down all the illusions of control that we build up as defences in a world where nothing seems safe and certain?  That the love and the vulnerability of God-with-us – is paradoxically more life-giving than the most powerful ideology of control.  Because it's at the manger that we see clearly the power of an incarnate God which is the power of humble, vulnerable love - not the power to stop earthquake or bushfire or cyclone, or the power to topple dictators or protect the innocent, but the power to suffer and die, and the power to renew and restore us and all things.
Whatever the exact meaning of the gifts the magi give, what happens when they meet the Christ-child is that the magi worship, and hand over the treasures of their heart – the things that are most important to them, and in return they are given wisdom, the gift of discerning the truth, and that is what they take home.  That's the deal for each of us when we seek Jesus, we recognise the illusion of our own strength and our own competence by the light of God's weakness and God's vulnerability, and we are unexpectedly blessed.
On the feast of the Epiphany the Church has always called us to think about exactly what is revealed in Jesus Christ, and on how we respond to that in the world we live in.  Epiphany, in fact, was celebrated by the Church long before Christmas ever was, as a feast of the coming of the light.  Epiphany, I think, is a day for self-examination, a day for being honest with ourselves - both about what God needs us to pay attention to and what God needs us to give up - so that we can receive the gift of humble love that alone can transform us into the wisdom of God.

Reverend Evan Pederick
Rector, Anglican Parish of Canning
mob 0433 174 112