Feast of the Epiphany: Journeying with the Magi to the Creche OR Going Home by a Different Road
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
Epiphany, Year C
The Reverend Tyler B. Doherty, Priest-in-Charge
The Feast of the Epiphany represents, with the Baptism of Our Lord next Sunday, the climax of the season of Advent and Christmas, that time in which the world goes dark that we might focus ourselves, and pattern our lives after the One who is the Light of the World, the One in whom our peace, joy and happiness resides—Jesus Christ. In the season of Advent, the call is to let fall away all that is inessential, all that hinders the recognition of our essential goodness, our belovedness, our identity as unexpected insiders in the very life of God, sons and daughters of the Most High. All the various ways in which we’ve tried, through our social, cultural, educational, and even religious conditioning to seek for God through the power, possessions, and prestige are revealed, in the blazing glory of the Light of Christ to be poor substitutes for the gift of God’s very self to us.
Christianity is, in its essence, about the transmission of the light of God love. At Jesus’ baptism in Jordan, the Spirit descends upon him and we hear those astounding words, “You are my son, my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” Jesus’ intimacy with the Father, his sonness, his belovedness, is not just true of him, but of all of us as well. We, too, are beloved sons and daughters of God, and it is this experience that propels us out into the world to seek, name, and celebrate the loving presence of Jesus in the lives of others—all others.
The tendency of all religion is to take something like the manifestation of God’s love to us in the person of Jesus and to make it a marker of our specialness, our electedness. But our readings for today cut against such a presumption. In Isaiah we hear that the light will be the light of “all nations” not just a select few, a country club elite. In Ephesians, we hear that God has come to the gentiles—that the boundaries between people are human-created boundaries not God-given ones. And in our gospel for today we hear that these strange wise men, star-gazers, seekers of the light—they too are welcomed into the experience of divine intimacy. The love of God is not a possession of a privileged elite, but the divine birthright of all people as created in the image and likeness of God. The manger, truly speaking, is a manger without walls, without boundaries and all are invited, welcomed, at the creche. All are beckoned, heeding that deep yearning for a life of true significance, dignity, abundance, and fullness, to make the journey, to follow the star, and recognize their innate belovedness as children of God.
The Magi are a sign for us, then, of the spiritual journey each one of us is to make. They represent the universal human desire for depth and meaning, for peace and happiness, for freedom and joy. The Magi are the seeker within each one of us who, having tasted the bitterness of seeking happiness “out there” through power/control, affection/esteem, safety/security, yearn for a different way to be in the world, to be with themselves, others, and with God. They are the ordinary adventurous ones who take the risk and make the journey—in all their strangeness, their misfitness, their outsiderness and not-good-enoughness—to the creche.
They have the courage to do something different—to listen to a different story than the one that tells them they are not good enough, smart enough, holy enough, skinny enough. They have the courage to see through those crippling stories of lack. They have the courage to follow a star away from the settled comfort of what they already know towards the hope and promise of a truly human human life, towards who they really are. Somehow, they know, better than all the people they meet on the way who tell them they are crazy, too unorthodox, too Persian, too whatever—somehow they know their inherent goodness, that they are loveable, just as they are, and make the journey to the source of that goodness and belovedness as revealed, as manifest, in the infant child Jesus.
That’s why, I think, we have all these amazingly extravagant images of abundance and generosity in our readings for today: the boundless riches of Christ, rain upon the mown field, multitudes of camels covering you, radiance, light. These are images of true goodness of the Good News in Christ—that the gift, that for which our hearts yearn, and for which we have sought far and wide, has already been given to us. It is who we are. Our lives are a case of mistaken identity in a sense—we think that it is in outward pursuits that we will find the balm for our sense of separation from God. But these pursuits inevitably fail and leave us with something like the taste of pennies in our mouths. The Epiphany is a reminder to us of the hollowness of all these pursuits, of their ultimate unsatisfactoriness and how it is in making the journey to the manger of the heart that we discovered that for which we have hungered for so long.
If the gift is already given, how come our lives feel so unsatisfactory? Why the gnawing sense of always being a day late and dollar short? The main reason is that while the gift has been given, we still have to open the gift, to realize our giftedness, to make the undeserved, unmerited, gracious giftedness that is our birthright the ground from which we live. Our life of discipleship—dwelling upon scripture on a daily basis, engaging in the life of prayer, participating in the sacraments and the liturgy, serving others in sacrificial love—all of these are the means by which the tradition of the Church teaches us that we already have, we already are, that which we seek. They are the skillful, tradition-tested means of opening the gift.
The meaning of the word “epiphany” is to “make manifest,” to “make real.” And that is the task of each one of us—to make the reality of God’s love for us with all our quirks and uniqueness manifest. For the Good News to have its transformative effect on us, on our neighbors, and the world we cannot be satisfied with a merely notional idea of our belovedness. It needs to be true in our own experience—in the same way that we know a lemon is sour and sugar sweet. That’s the grand destiny of human person—not to be contented with platitudes and fondly saccharine pronouncements, but to know in the core of our being that we have become “fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”
The Christian life is really about allowing oneself to be loved—of opening, allowing, receiving, yielding to our belovedness. That is how we allow the gift to open in us. The only effort on our part is to consent, and God does the rest of the work as long as we keep consenting, keeping opening. “Into your hands I commend my spirit,” Jesus says at the crucifixion. That is the basic disposition of us as well. We open, we allow, we give ourselves away and let God do the heavy lifting. That’s why we have that little detail in the account of Magi’s visit—“they opened their treasure chests.” God doesn’t need gold, frankincense, and myrrh and more than he delights in blood sacrifice, burnt offerings, or the bulls of Bashan. But the key is that the treasure chest has been opened—there is a little space through which God can sneak in like a theif in the night and burgle us with His extravagant love. It’s in those little practices, the holy habits that the Church patterns in us over the years that opening becomes second nature, like brushing our teeth or tapping the brakes when an oblivious ear-phoned pedestrian steps out into traffic.
Over time, as letting ourselves be loved becomes a more habitual disposition like learning how to float in the ocean of divine love on our backs, we find that all those other tape-loops we’ve inherited from teachers, parents, nation about our not-enoughness, our unlovableness start to lose their power. A new freedom, a freedom to be ourselves just as we are, arises in our hearts and we quite naturally, without even thinking about it in a conscious way, start to live out our love for others in unexpected ways. After we’ve made “remaining with Jesus,” abiding with him and in him, an habitual disposition, then all the other ways we’ve previously sought for peace, joy, and happiness, pale in comparison. Herod and his calculating ways have lost their pull and we decide to go home by a different road—the royal road of belovedness, of accepting our acceptance, of yielding, allowing, and surrendering to the love that won’t let us go.
My prayer for us this 2019 is that we make this a year of opening our treasure chests, of allowing, receiving, giving our consent to God’s presence and action within, that we might make God’s love for each of us just as we are, the ground from which we live and that our lives might truly manifest, realize, make real this love in our service to others—especially those strangers and outsiders who, like the Magi, don’t fit the bill. My prayer is that we might have the courage to make the journey away from our old stories about ourselves, our not-enoughness, our sense of lack, our self-sufficiency and with the Magi realize the true birthright of what it means to be created in the image and likeness of God. My prayer is that like the Magi, this might be a year of going home by a different road while Herod and his minions stomp their frustrated little feet in futile protest at the freedom, the boldness, that is life in Christ, the life of each one of us.