Saturday, January 17, 2015

Here’s to Epiphanies, Great and Small

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, January 2, 2005

Here is how the Revised Standard Version of the New Testament renders the story of Epiphany. The verses are from the second chapter of the gospel according to Matthew:
“Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly, and ascertained from them what time the star appeared; and he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.’ When they heard the king they went their way; and lo, the star they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, the rejoiced exceedingly with great joy, and going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.”
Years later, the poet T.S. Eliot presented a somewhat different perspective on the Epiphany in his poem, “Journey of the Magi”:
A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow…
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices;
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That all this was folly.
There is, I think, a natural correlation between Epiphany Sunday—the Christian festival which commemorates the adoration of the infant Jesus by the Three Wise Men—and our customary New Year’s service, in which we look back at the milestones of the past year, and forward to our hopes for that which is about to begin. For, as Eliot says later in his poem, that first Epiphany-- the Adoration of the Magi—was an event on the cusp of an age: an event marking the death of one age, and the birth of another:
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death?
Or, as Madeline L’Engle wrote in a selection you might remember from our Christmas Eve service:
“The wise men were wise men indeed, men of great intellectual sophistication; but each one saw the birth of an unknown child as an event of unprecedented proportions, and each one left his home to make the long trip to Judea because of what he had read in the movement of the planets and the stars. They understood that the birth of a single child could affect the entire universe, just as physicists today understand that all creation is a single organism. Nothing happens in isolation. The crying of a baby sends sound waves to galaxies thousand of light years away.
“So these ancient astronomers believed that something was happening in Bethlehem that would change the world.”
This is the spirit, I think, that is at the heart of the hope we can feel with the coming of the new year; it’s what Hermann Hesse spoke of as “the magic that dwells in each new beginning”. Life is, to a large degree, a paradox; it’s a unity of opposites—joy and sorrow; success and failure; and so on. It is important, then, both to our spiritual and our psychological well-beings to have this sense of new beginning: This sense that the slate has been wiped clean; this chance to let go, both of our triumphs and our frustrations. It allows us the discovery that while we are all products of our pasts, we need not wallow in either our pride or our guilt. We can let go, and know that at the new year, symbolically at least, we have the chance to start things anew. We have the opportunity, at least, to re-orient our lives according to the new dispensation that has been revealed to us; according to whatever new great star lights our way.
I don’t believe it’s an accident that Epiphany comes near the start of the New Year (any more than it’s an accident that Christmas comes so close to the Solstice, so close to the darkest night of the entire year). The New Year presents us with the chance, at least psychologically, to discern what epiphanies, great and small, we are offered at this season. What holy infants— what divine possibilities—what higher ideals—what new insights and new opportunities—have been made to dwell within us, or among us, in the new year that is coming to birth? What new things have been revealed to us at this turning of the year, at this changing of the age?
What infants of new hope and new possibility will we fall down to worship?
What Herods of repression and fear will we turn our backs upon and leave dead in our pasts? Which addictions and afflictions, and past shame and past hurt, can we let go of, before they drag us down, or slaughter whatever innocence is left within our hearts?
Which road will we choose to return to the true homeland of which we dream?
Epiphany presents a new hope to us, and New Year gives us the opportunity to act upon that hope. But that doesn’t mean that life is going to get any easier. No one ever chronicled the Wise Men’s journey home, but it couldn’t have been an easy trip. If getting to Bethlehem took them over a year, then getting home via a covert alternate route took them at least that long. And don’t forget: now they had a very important and powerful enemy in the person of King Herod. Don’t bet for a minute that he just accepted what he would have seen as a “betrayal” with magnanimity and grace. Maybe he had the Wise Men followed, or arrested. Maybe they didn’t make it home at all. Hope is not the assurance that something will succeed the first time around. It is, rather, the assurance that something is worth doing, that it has meaning, and makes sense.
We have been given the opportunity to discern new ideals in this life. We are often given the wherewithal to act upon them. But that doesn’t guarantee us anything of easy success, and to the contrary, it can make life much more difficult. It might be so much easier just to go back to Herod, tell him where the child was, and wait for our imperial honorarium check to arrive in the mail.
But there’s that spark—that divine spark—that continues to burn within us. There is that spirit of “something more” that will not let us go. And in spite of the voices singing in our ears, telling us that all is folly, we persevere. We have courage; we cling to faith; and dawn comes, and we find at last, below the snowline, the temperate valley, smelling of life, and our souls are refreshed, and we go on:
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.
“Life is hard,” said Will Rogers. “Life is hard,” and then, he added, “Compared to what?” Even when we arrive home finally, we never quite feel settled again. All the false gods of the Herods still surround us. And we grow old, and the body fails us, and things never quite work out the way we might have dreamed. And there is strife and discord and disharmony, and we bear with it all—because we know that it all comes with the territory of being alive, and that life is good, in spite of these limitations.
And we go on hoping. For hope is a dimension of the human spirit which makes life worth living.
And we go on dreaming. For to refuse to dream is to squander the new year we have before us.
Remember your ideals; cherish your dreams.
Hold fast to those things which give you hope. Remember the lights that have shown in darkness for you, and kindle those lights anew within the depths of your souls, over and over again, if need be.
Remember that with each new day, the miracle of the Creation is enacted anew. And each one of us is part of the miracle.
And lend our voices only
To sounds of freedom
No longer lend our strength
To that which we wish
To be free from
Fill your lives
With love and bravery
And we shall lead
A life uncommon
(Jewel Kilcher)
“Some might say, ‘It all depends on what the new year will bring,’
“But what I make of it depends on me.”
(Robert Terry Weston)
May the blessings of the new year be with you all. And may the blessings of all of us be with this new year.

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