A sermon, based on Matthew 2.1-12, preached with the people Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 2019
Epiphany. From the Greek, meaning, revelation. In Western Christianity, since the fifth century of the Common Era, a celebration of the revelation of God in human flesh in Jesus as the Messiah not only to and for Israel, but to and for the whole world. That “whole world,” meaning Gentiles, represented by the magi; likely Zoroastrian priests from Persia, schooled in the astrological arts. They, following a star, arrived in Jerusalem, inquiring about a Bethlehem baby born “king of the Jews.” After being summoned by an anxious King Herod, threatened by the news of the birth of a rival king, they journey to the place where the child lay, kneeling in homage, offering gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
This morning, on day six of this new year, I bid we focus on one detail: “(The magi) left for their own country by another road.”
Yes, the magi, warned in a dream of Herod’s murderous intentions, bypassed Jerusalem to avoid telling the despotic king where to find the child. Yet, too, the magi went home by a different path because they were different people. Guided by a star, they had found true light. They had an epiphany, a stellar “Aha!” transformative moment. Returning home, facing forward, I imagine them also looking back to Bethlehem, recalling, reflecting on the revelation that changed their lives.
We, continuing our life’s journeys, enter 2019. We look forward. We also, with 2018 still fresh in memory, occasionally, may look back to recall some telling, touching moment, some thrilling, perhaps tragic event.
As we look back, what epiphanies did we see? What “Aha!” moments did we experience? And how were we changed?
As we look forward, what epiphanies will we see? What “Aha!” moments will we experience? How will we be changed?
This second set of questions, of course, is unanswerable. Sometimes, wanting to know what is to come, I wish epiphanies could be made to order to appear on demand. However, on immediate second thought, as epiphanies, by nature, are beyond human command and control and can be joyful or sorrowful or both, it’s probably best not to know in advance.
We have entered a new year. It is the month of January. Named for Janus. The Roman mythological god of gates and doors, entries and exits, beginnings and endings; often depicted as a head with two faces, one looking to what was, the other, to what is to come.
A suitable image for the story of magi who, following a star, finding a transformative revelation in a Bethlehem-born baby, return home by another way, looking forward and looking back and for us as we enter the new year.
Still, there must be more to life than this swivel-headed, dizzying existence of looking back to what was, what is known, what is “once upon a time” and looking forward to what is to come, what is unknown, what is not yet in time. For if looking back and forward is all we do, then there is much that we can and will miss that is true.
So, it is that between the two faces of Janus, one peering into the past, the other gazing into the future, is his true face; invisible, incapable of representation, impossible to depict, for it looks perpetually at the present.
The present. That rapid, constant succession of instant, immediate moments, which, as the past is behind us and the future is beyond us, are the only moments in which we can (are able to) be.
The magi came from afar, found the one for whom they had searched, and “left…by another road.” Maybe this was their epiphany. Maybe this was the light of insight they experienced at Bethlehem. Maybe this is their lesson to us. To live in each present moment. To bring into each present moment, to be in each present moment all who we are and all that we have.
This was the original end of this sermon, but another thought occurs.
Ever had the experience of being in a conversation and you stopped listening to the one speaking to you, largely because you began to form in your mind your response, which you wanted to share or, contrarily, the one to whom you were speaking interrupted you, in effect, putting a period or semicolon or ellipsis on your sentence before you arrived at that place of your ending or pausing, largely because she or he wanted you to shut up so that she or he could speak?
If so, then I submit to us that these are everyday, ordinary examples, two among many, of not being in the present moment.
In this coming year, this I pledge to you. I, with the might of the Holy Spirit, will strive to be more present with you in every present moment.
I encourage us all to do this, to be like this. For, again, the present – that rapid, constant succession of instant, immediate moments – is the only space in time in which we can be and, therefore, is the most important space in time we have. And we darest not let the present pass without our being present.
The Adoration of the Magi, Luca Giordano (1634-1705)
Janus, detail of the Nave ceiling art of The Abbey Church of Waltham Holy Cross and St Lawrence, Waltham Abbey, Essex, England