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January 5, 2003

"The Feast of the Epiphany."

(Matthew 2:1-12)

The dictionary defines "epiphany" as "an appearance or manifestation of God; a moment of sudden intuitive understanding; a flash of insight or an experience that occasions such a moment." Today we celebrate a sudden spiritual realization when we recognize that we are in the presence of God. I'd like to make a few points about our story and about epiphanies in general, and then pose some questions.

First, the three wise men, the Magi, are from the Persian priestly caste, from the East, from present day Iraq and Iran. They are seekers, wisdom figures, and they are Gentiles, non-Jews. The first thing they do is confront King Herod, "Where is the newborn king of the Jews?" Right from the start, this is a political story involving confrontation with the ruler. "We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage," they say. The famous Magi are saying, "We do not worship you or the emperor, but God's incarnation among the poor, the nonviolent messiah." This is not going to go over well with Herod.

We are told that Herod--and all of Jerusalem-- is troubled when they hear this. Political rulers cannot bear not being divine. They think they have the power to do whatever they want and to kill whomever they want. In particular, empires and government leaders despise children, as we see in our world today.

So the ruling authorities try to coopt the Magi. Herod calls the Magi secretly to find the time of the star's appearance and says he wants to worship the child, but of course he's lying. He tells t hem, "Go and search for the child. When you have found him, bring me word, that I too may go and do him homage." He's suddenly pious, but he's actually planning to murder the child and if necessary all first born sons, which is what he will do, in the slaughter of the innocents after the Magi leave. Here we see the outward false piety of our government, military rulers and the murderous, inner violence which really rules their hearts.

So the Magi set out, and they see the star, which stops over the place where the child is, and it's as if the whole universe points to Christ. It's such a dramatic story, but if you think about it, who really pays attention to the stars? I think you have to be a contemplative to notice creation, and if you look hard at the beauty of creation, you find yourself drawn to God. Creation leads us to God, to Christ.

So the Magi enter and see the child with Mary his mother, and they are filled with joy at the sight of Jesus. They immediately worship God. They prostrate themselves, and do him homage. They offer him great gifts: gold (which is what you give a king); frankincense (which is what you give the high priest); and myrrh, which is ointment you put on a dead body (which is what you would give a crucified, suffering servant). I've often wondered how Mary felt receiving myrrh at the birth of her child.

Then we are told that the pilgrims go home by a different route. Their encounter with Christ changes them. They cannot go back the way they came because if they do, they will be killed. So they noncooperate with King Herod. They disobey the ruling authorities in an act of peaceful civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance, which leads me to conclude that when we meet the God of nonviolence, our first act is an act of worship and our second act is to disobey the false gods of violence and the imperial ruling authorities who kill and wage war, then and now. In the next few verses as you know, the holy family flees to Egypt, Herod is "furious," and kills 2000 children in an effort to kill Jesus. So this leads me to a couple of general conclusions about epiphanies.

First, epiphanies happen at night. They are journeys toward God but they take place in darkness. The sudden spiritual experience of God's presence comes after a long journey at night.

Second, epiphanies require following stars, doing something foolish in the eyes of the world. In other words, we too have to be contemplatives if we want to have an epiphany.

Third, epiphanies require community. Notice that the Magi travel as a threesome, not as individuals. They seek the holy child together as a community. They worship together as a community. They share joy in the presence of Jesus together as a community, and they disobey the warmaking government which kill children as a community.

Fourth, epiphanies are political. They are acts of nonviolent resistance to the warmaking authorities. They lead us to the God of peace, and the experience of God leads us away from the warmaking rulers.

Fifth, epiphanies are life and death journeys. They involve risk. They require dropping everything to go after something holy. They are scary, and take us into the unknown. Epiphanies get us in trouble. They disrupt our lives. That's what happens if we really want to seek Christ. Our lives get disrupted.

Sixth, epiphanies are journeys onto the margins of the world, among the homeless, the poor, refugees. God is found not in the world of the rich and powerful, but among the poor and powerless, among homeless children.

Seventh, epiphanies call us to religious tolerance. Mary and Joseph are Jews. The Magi are non-Jews, who are seeking the Holy One. The Gospel lesson is that we are to be respectful of all religions and all cultures.

Eighth, epiphanies fill us with joy and lead us to worship God and offer gifts to God. When we meet God, we are filled with joy. These are contemplative experiences of prayer and praise because they are encounters with Christ.

I think the story of the Epiphany is a metaphor of our pilgrimage through life to Christ and I would like to invite you to reflect on your life story as a journey to Christ, to see yourselves as the Magi, as a people on a journey to Christ.

So my questions:
  1. What have been the epiphanies in your lives, those moments when you encountered God?
  2. When have you encountered Christ?
  3. How are you seeking Christ in your life now?
  4. What gifts are you bringing to God?
  5. How do you worship God?
  6. How has your encounter with God, your own epiphany, changed your life?
  7. How have you gone home a different route after meeting God?
  8. How have you changed your direction?
  9. How are you willing to disobey the political, warmaking authorities who want to kill Christ all over again today in the world's children, in the world's poor, in our enemies?


My hope and prayer is that you will see the star in your life and, like the Magi, meet Christ, and be filled with joy.

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