Isaiah 60:1-3, 6b; Matthew 2:1-12
The Reverend Tom Herbek
January 7, 2018
January 6th is the day set by the medieval church as “Little Christmas” or “Epiphany”, the day when the Wise Men arrived at the manger. It is the endpoint of the 12 days of Christmas. The women in medieval homes could relax after Epiphany. The belief was that if the Yule Log went out before January 6th, (it was the women’s duty to keep it lit) then terrible tragedy would befall the family during the next year. If it stayed lit, then the family could expect a good year. So the day of Epiphany was an especially welcome sight for the women of medieval households.
For most of our society, Epiphany has no meaning, and many could not tell you when it occurs or why. But if you say to someone, “I had an epiphany”, they will probably know what you mean. An epiphany often catches us by surprise, and it changes the way we understand something important about ourselves, or our life, or the people we care about. An epiphany is that moment when we see suddenly- for the first time- what has been there in front of us, but we see it in a new way. Often our first response to a moment of epiphany is to feel really warm and happy inside. It is as if we are in a cartoon and a light bulb has come on in our head, and we smile and really enjoy the moment. The reality of an epiphany is often that we see not only something around us in new ways, but also, we see ourselves in a new way.
Often an epiphany is both joyful and sorrowful at the same time, because it changes our perception of how we have lived life up to this moment. Often an epiphany brings us to the end of our comfort zone, and we realize we cannot return to the way we saw life, or ourselves, or the people around us, before the light bulb came on inside our mind and our heart.
As with the Wise Men, it often happens in circumstances we did not expect, along roads we have never traveled before. As Mark Twain once wrote: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” It causes us to change our minds about what “everyone” believes, or does, or is like. It often helps us to accept and appreciate diversity. And it may change how we view God and our faith.
The writer Anne Lamott says, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” Sometimes epiphanies happen because of writers like Mark Twain or Anne Lamott who make us laugh at some serious things in life.
Epiphanies happen to us in our faith, perhaps because we too might expect to find God can only work with the powerful and wealthy in important cities, and are surprised to find God in a poor peasant child in a manger in Bethlehem.
Marianne Borg, widow of Marcus Borg, put together some of his writings that had never been published, in a recently released book. She ends her forward to it with a message from the Jewish Sabbath Prayer Book: “Days pass, and the years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles. Fill our eyes with seeing and our minds with knowing. Let there be moments when your Presence, like lightning, illumines the darkness in which we walk.” (From Days of Awe and Wonder)
Our God is a God of surprises, a God of epiphanies. Part of our calling as a church family is to be a nurturing place for epiphanies, to be a group that listens and learns and grows because we share in life’s journey together. We can be catalysts for epiphanies by welcoming diversity, and by trying to understand those who see things differently than we do.
In one of his lectures, Marcus Borg said:
I now see the Christian life very differently. I now see it as a journey. Here I am using “journey” as a comprehensive metaphor or image for what the Christian life is like and most centrally about. This journey image is a very rich metaphor, and I invite you for a few minutes to think with me about some of the resonances of speaking of it as a journey. To be on a journey is to be in movement. Moving from place to place – there is change in such a life. A journey is a process that involves our whole being. It involves our feet as well as our minds and our heads. A journey involves following a path or a way. To be on a journey is not to be wandering aimlessly, though there may be times when it feels like that; people have gone on this journey before us, and there is a trail, a path, a way that we are called to. The journey image suggests that the Christian life is more like following a path than it is about believing things with our minds.
A journey also involves a leaving, a departing, a setting out. It involves leaving home.
Borg ends that chapter with a quote from poet Mary Oliver: “What are you going to do with your one wild and precious life?”
Epiphanies are the road signs that help us to find our way on the journey of life, that help us to decide how we will live our one wild and precious life. Psychologist Kristin Neff once described an epiphany she had:
The epiphany was like life opened a doorway,
and my job was to walk through it.
I didn’t know what I was going to find.
I didn’t know what was going to happen.
But in life, you don’t ever know what’s going to happen.
What I do know is that as life continues to open these doors,
I feel safe enough and trusting enough to walk through them.
She describes her epiphany in this way:
One night in the group, a woman started talking about self-compassion – how important it was to have compassion for yourself – and the fact that you couldn’t really be fully compassionate with others until you were compassionate to yourself. I remember her talk and that night perfectly. It was like a lightbulb went on over my head when she was explaining that this was a way you could relate to yourself. It had never dawned on me before that we actually can take the same care and nurturing stance toward ourselves that we’re told to take with the people we care about – and it wouldn’t be the same as self-indulgence! It was a radical mind shift for me.
In our culture we don’t really talk about having compassion for ourselves. We talk about being compassionate to other people, to be kind, to be giving, to be nurturing to others. But toward yourself, the idea is you’re supposed to be self-critical – really hard and tough on yourself – to motivate yourself.
But during that talk, I realized for the first time that it was actually possible to have compassion for myself. For me, this was an epiphany.
I suddenly understood: “I wouldn’t talk to or treat a friend half as horribly as I talk to or treat myself. Why am I doing this to myself? Stop it.” I could act like a kind, compassionate, caring friend to myself. And once I did – once I started being my own kind, compassionate, caring friend – everything in my life changed, both personally and professionally.
- Epiphany by Elise Ballard
Epiphanies change our view of how we accept ourselves. Elise Ballard also tells about a personal epiphany that happened to a man named Roger Birnbaum, film producer and owner of Spyglass Productions:
My most powerful epiphany occurred when I was thirty or so. A dear friend of mine – let’s call him George-had been living in downtown Los Angeles. Someone broke in to rob his loft, and George was murdered. It was a real trauma for me and all his friends. We were still young enough to think that we were immortal – that nothing would ever happen to us. We were all coming into our own. Things were starting to happen for us in our careers and lives… then one of them ended in this senseless, brutal way.
I remember sitting in the memorial service packed with family and friends who took turns standing up to speak about George. Like everybody else, I felt raw. At a time like that, it’s so intense – so many emotions come over you – that you’re vibrating. I was listening to and feeling every word that was spoken. One friend of George’s came up and said, “You know, whenever I was with George, he always made me feel like I was being the best possible person I could be. There was no judgment. There was no jealousy. He was a friend who, when he was in my presence, inspired and encouraged me to become the best I could be – either on my own or with his help.”
My first thought was simply, “Wow. What an amazing thing.” But then I started to question myself: “Am I like that? Or am I one of those people that has to make sure that somebody else is doing much worse in order for me to feel better?” In my heart I knew I wasn’t quite that kind of person, but that I also wasn’t like George. And at that moment – I remember it as clearly as if it had happened yesterday – I said to myself, “I don’t know what kind of person I am, but from this moment on, I’m going to be George’s kind of person. I’ll strive to be the best possible version of myself, and I will also try to help the person or people around me to do the same.”
I think that moment at his memorial was one of the most powerful in my life. The example George set has affected me, and a lot of other people who have entered my life since then: friends, family, and colleagues. Helping each person be the best possible version of who they can be – that will only enrich your life. It comes right back to you. If you’re supporting all the people in your life, and if they indeed become their best possible selves, then you’re around the best. I’ve made this one of the guiding tenets of my life.
Epiphanies can change the guiding tenets of our life, too. Just like the Wise Men, we never know when an epiphany will come our way, something that will surprise us and help us to see with new eyes, to grow in new ways, to start a new journey in life. The Wise Men could not return the way they had come. They went home a different way, took a different route home. Epiphanies do that to us. We learn something new about life, something particularly transforming about our life, and we then journey on a new path. Our way of living our one wild, precious life is now different than it was before. In this church family, we must look for opportunities to experience an epiphany, and ways to encourage our fellow travelers to experience their own epiphanies.
We can create an opportunity for epiphanies to happen by discussing issues at greater depth, calling each other to more creative ministries of caring and compassion, not being afraid of the surprises in our faith journey, and helping each other to come alive, to become all that God has created us to be.
At the end of 2018, if a cartoonist were to draw a picture of our church family, my hope is that they would have to fill most of the frames of the cartoon with lots of light bulbs going on.
My hope is that, at the end of 2018, as we each look back on this year, we will be able to say, “That was the year I had this extraordinary epiphany!”