Epiphany--Lab Geeks of Luminosity and the Transmission of the Light
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
Epiphany: Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7,10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12
The Reverend Tyler B. Doherty, Priest-in-Charge
The Feast of the Epiphany is part of a densely packed series of seasons and feasts whose overall shape is easy to forget. Let me take a moment, like they do on t.v., to conduct a “previously on…” thumbnail sketch of the story thus far, and then tease out the meaning of the Epiphany for us here and now.
We might consider the entire sweep of the great season from Advent to Epiphany as a kind of pageant or play. The play begins with Advent when we celebrate the union of the Eternal Word of God with human nature in the womb of the Virgin Mary and ponder in our hearts what it might be like through our consent to God’s presence and action to give birth to Christ in the our hearts—to become theotokos—“god-bearers.” In the second act we celebrate Christmas—there is an explosion of light in which the Eternal Word of God appears in the mud and straw of the manger. What is uncontainable is wrapped in swaddling bands. What is eternal, takes on mortal flesh. What is pure and undefiled becomes weakness, sin, and vulnerability all for the sake of waking us up. Waking us up to the fact that we are already loved and showing us who we really are—beloved children of God whose deepest desire is for union and communion—rambunctious playfulness and joyful cavorting—with his most precious creation. Epiphany—the Feast we celebrate tonight—is the third act and drives home the universal scope of God’s gift to us in His Son—everyone from far and wide is invited and welcomed at the manger. Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan by John—the feast we celebrate tomorrow—is the fourth act and celebrates Jesus’ manifestation to his own people—insiders and outsiders alike.
That’s the arc of the narrative we enact liturgically, but what’s the point of the story? Simple. To become the light. Not simply to notice the light like a cool-headed lepidopterist writing field notes and pinning butterflies’ wings in display cases. Not to write poems about the light. Not to create complex theological treatises about the light that we can share with other light aficionados, but to become to the light. This whole theo-drama is about assimilating ourselves to the divine light—seeing clearly what gets with the way of transmitting the light of God’s unconditional love for us, and letting it gently fall away. This theo-drama is about the realization—the making real, making manifest—of who we are now (not tomorrow, not next week, not after we have accumulated enough brownie points) as children of God. This theo-drama we live out is about the shape of our lives—that each of us might become more and more and place where God happens, an instance, an opening, where God can be God and live God’s life through us. The light, as John tells us, has come into the world that we might be children of the light, that we might dwell in that light, live from that light, and manifest that light in our daily lives.
It makes sense, then that the Magi—the Wise Men—were star-gazers. Light experts. Lab Geeks of Luminosity. People with an eye for the divine light and the courage to seek after it wherever it might lead them. The Magi stand for genuine seekers after truth down the ages. Their hunger for depth and meaning is ours—the desire not to skate across the surface of our lives, or sleepwalk through life, but to live an authentic, free, dignified existence that does justice to the promise of fullness and abundance of life. Their hunger is for that peace that passes understanding—the peace that can’t be bought or sold, moralized, or medicalized.
The other thing to remind ourselves about the Magi is that they are strangers at the manger, outsiders suddenly welcomed into the banquet of divine love by a God who goes out into the highways and byways to welcome all comers with an all-you-can-eat special that’s been running (at least) since the foundation of the world. At Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan—Jesus’ identity is revealed to his own people—the Jews, the people of Israel, the insiders. But here, Jesus is manifested to the gentiles who represent the stranger, the other, the one least like us and yet loved all the same. The Magi are a sign for us that even those of us who consider ourselves lost in the far country, broken down and beaten up at the side of the road between Jerusalem and Jericho, blind as bat to the reality of God’s love, and tongue-tied when it comes to speaking that love to others—even to us strangers at the manger a beckoning star shines without discrimination. It shines bathing everything in its soft, diffuse glow. That’s why the Letter to the Ephesians makes appoint of saying, “the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” The Magi are a sign to us of the indiscriminate hospitality and radical welcome of God. No one left out, no one left behind. It’s one big manger with the whole universe kneeling at the creche.
The Magi respond to the invitation to the banquet of divine love with a yes that is a yes of their whole being. They strike out into the unknown, leave behind their old way of making sense of the world, and open themselves to the mystery of God revealed in Christ in the manger. We might call them “wise men,” but you can bet their friends called them nut-cases and fools. Later Matthew writes—“They opened their treasure chests.” That is, they make the gift of themselves, all of themselves, in joyful, other-centered surrender. For us, it is really a question of allowing ourselves to be loved, of opening the gift that has already been given, of being present enough to penetrated, and permeated, by the Presence. Our yes, our willingness to open to the openness, is the only effort asked of us. God loves us so much that He respects our human freedom. Our yes to transformation, to becoming transmitters of the divine light, is what allows God’s presence and action to beginning to work in our lives. We open our treasure chests to give the gift of ourselves to God in Christ who receives the gift and gives it back to us as a new self, a new person who sees with the eye of the heart opened, who beholds the thrill, the radiance, the coming of the light that is at the heart of each moment. Herod, by contrast, is emblematic of the ways we resist the divine love, and decline the invitation to the banquet. Herod is dominated by fear and secrets—he convenes backroom meetings and conspires because he sees this new thing being done by God in Christ as a threat. The old order is about to change, and Herod quite enjoys the corner office with the comfy chair.
The invitation of Epiphany dangled before us this evening is to be become so united, unified, and identified with God that we manifest God in every action and in this way give God the gift of opening a space for God to discover Himself in us—God discovering Himself as a Special Ed teacher, as a retiree, as a food bank volunteer, as a cashier at a bookstore, as a trial lawyer, as a working mom…. We make a space for God in us delivering the poor and the oppressed who has no helper. God in us caring for the poor and lowly. God in us preserving the lives of the needy. God in us rescuing others from lives of oppression and violence. God in us cherishing the dignity of each of God’s children—“and dear shall their blood be in his sight” (Ps. 72: 12-14).
That’s what the story looks like from our side. From God’s side, however, the story is even more amazing—it’s all about reaching out, calling, pleading, luring, and wooing. In the calling of Abraham and Sarah, in the gift of the law, the words of the prophets, the sending of His only Son. Again and again, God calls us to Himself. From the very beginning of creation God’s only desire has been for us to be in union with Him. From the very beginning God has been trying to convince us of His unconditional love for each of us without exception. We have a tough time believing, accepting, and receiving that love which is the source and summit of every other kind of love. It does not compute. The dazzling calculus of that love overwhelms our merit-based abacus.
Our little gesture of consent to God, the opening of our treasure chests to God as God is, means that the star we sought for so long, begins to dawn, not in the sky “out there”, but in the depths of our heart. Remember that phrase from 2 Peter—“day dawns and morning star rises in your hearts” (1:19). We have, as Isaiah reminds us, the “abundance of the sea” brought to us. The wealth of the nations is ours (60:5). The wealth, the abundance, the radiance, the joy are already ours and have nothing to do with the size of our bank account or whether we are late on a mortgage payment. When that star rises, when we recognize the gift and live from its embarrassing richness, we cannot help but leave the manger “by another road” (Matthew 2:12). The old, potholed road of Herod-like fear, resistance to love, and telling ourselves that we are the only ones not invited to the banquet (even while we are standing in its midst) lose their attractiveness. That bogus story is seen as the fake news it is. The corner office and the comfy chair lose their appeal in the face of the glory of the Lord, the “boundless riches of Christ” (Ephesians 3:8). With the Magi, we go a different way. It’s a new way, down a new road into the undiscovered country. It’s the road of love, the way of following a star that’s already risen if we would but take off the blinders.