Vision as Epiphany

“Vision as Epiphany,” Bob Ryder


Matthew 2:1-12
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, astrologers from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising,and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was upset, and all Jerusalem with him; calling together the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiahwas to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherdmy people Israel.”’

Herod secretly called for the wise menand learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.  Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I too may go and pay him homage.’ When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising,until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped,they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Howard Thurman
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild nations,
To bring peace among brothers and sisters,
To make music in the heart.

Meister Eckhart – We are created to communicate and share all the gifts we have received from God.  We are created to share ourselves …to pour forth everything we possess, whether in our bodies or our souls.

In most of our homes, the Christmas decorations have been put away – Christmas trees are either stored in basements or out by the curb waiting for the city to pick them up; colored lights have been taken off the eaves of houses; and the greenery, stockings and candles have been boxed.  Christmas is over for another year.  How fitting, then, that the story of the Magi’s visit to the Christ child is the reading assigned for this second week afterChristmas, as their faith was challenged and grew after the initial excitement had faded away.  Thus begins the season of Epiphany, then as now afterthe birth story has taken place and settled into memory.

The word epiphany comes from the Greek root “phaino,” which means to manifest or to shine.  The prefix “epi” modifies a root word by intensifying its meaning.  Thus, the original meaning translated into English is something like “an intensely lustrous appearance,” or “a sudden manifestation of something important emerging from darkness or hiding.” In more modern usage the word has also come to meanthe sudden comprehension of a previously unknown essence or meaning; an inspired understanding or profound insight; an enlightenment; an illuminating discovery of truth often resulting in elation, awe, or wonder. I like to think of it as an internal light suddenly switching on, illuminating our ignorance or naiveté.  It makes sense, then, that the symbol of the season is a star, a bright light shining in a dark sky.  And what better way to begin our exploration of what it means for us to be a people of vision than to consider Epiphany?

Let’s agree on a working definition of vision. Let’s agree that we’re thinking not so much about sight as we are about perspective – the ability to interpret our situation and the world’s situation in a certain context.  The goal isn’t just to notice what’s happening, but to discover sacred presence in what’s happening and invest ourselves into the story, adjusting the trajectory of our lives accordingly.  We can begin by noticing the story of the Magi involves not just one but two distict and separate epiphanies.  The first, the one most of us think about, is the guiding star leading the Magi first to Jerusalem, then to Bethlehem and the place of Jesus’ birth. Their intention had been to report back to Herod with the location of the child after they visited, taking him at his word that he likewise meant to honor the child. That’s when the second epiphany occurs as they’re warned in a dream not to return to Herod, but to avoid Jerusalem altogether and return home by another road. They listened to that inner voice, its own kind of epiphany, and changed their plans accordingly. That’s what Epiphany is about – openness to finding the sacred in unlikely and unpredictable situations, and changing our plans to accommodate it.  This is how we’re encouraged to consider epiphanies in our own lives, to look ahead with our eyes and our minds open.

We can experience still another epiphany while reading this familiar story with new perspective.  Matthew’s story of the Magi is among the first in the Christian canon as it came to be arranged in the early centuries after Jesus’ ministry, and it turns out to be a story about inclusivity when we look at it with sacred vision.  According to Matthew, the first people to discern Jesus’ sacred identity and honor him as King of the Jews were non-Jewish foreigners – Caspar, Balthazar, and Melchior – the names alter associated with those mysterious visitors from the East. The Greek word Mathew used to refer to these traveling visitors translates to English not as kings or scholars as the hymn suggests, but as “astrologers.” Judaism was not especially appreciative of sorcery or astrology or magic (note the root word in magi), so for Mathew to compose his story with these particular characters as the first to recognize the Messiah was a beautiful and generous epiphany.  God’s love was not limited to the exclusive benefit of Israel as commonly assumed by Jews of that time.  Rather, God’s gift was for the benefit of all people.

Still another epiphany can be in the story of a fourth Magi named Artaban.  His tale is told in a book entitled “The Other Wise Man,” written in 1895 by Henry Van Dyke.  According to the story Artaban follows course. We’ve never heard of him because he doesn’t make it to Bethlehem with the other three. Rather than remaining with his colleagues, Artaban heeds his own inner voice to follow another star. His original intention had been to journey with his companions to find the Christ child and gift him with a sack of precious stones to complement the gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  But this plan ends up misdirected and waylaid by Artaban’s frequent impromptu acts of kindness and love.  As the story unfolds, he uses one of the jewels to help a beaten man recover his health; he relinquishes another to spare innocent children from being slaughtered by Herod’s soldiers. He gives away still others to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit prisoners. When he finally arrives in Jerusalem, it’s 33 years later and the time of Jesus’ crucifixion. There Artaban offers his one remaining jewel to buy the freedom of a slave girl. When at last, as he meets Jesus, Artaban confesses he no longer has a gift for him.  But instead of reprimanding Artaban, of course Jesus thanks him for the many priceless gifts he created along the way by intervening for the well-being of others, explaining that whenever he’d cared for those who were vulnerable and needy, he’d shown that kindness to Jesus himself.

Artaban’s story exemplifies the words of Howard Thurman – that Christmas is not at all complete or finished once we’ve put away our decorations and leave the birth story behind to go back to our lives.  Rather, that’s when the true work of Christmas begins. To live with compassion, to share mercy, to seek justice and travel open to the inspiration of the sacred – that is what we are called to do.  When the stars of the universe and the inner light of our own spirits combine, epiphany happens again and again.  So as we move forward into the journey of this new year, let us refine our vision, believing in what we can achieve in being authentically ourselves; being more patient and thoughtful; listening more and better to others; working for justice and peace; connecting with all of creation and with the infinite.  Amen.