Well, a Happy New Year to all of you. The old year is gone, the new year has begun and, as usual in the rhythm of the church year, we find ourselves, once again, beginning the year on Epiphany Sunday.
Although there was a time when our Presbyterian ancestors avoided the various church seasons – and, for that matter, Christian holidays in general – usually in order to avoid being perceived as being “too Catholic”, there is a great deal of practical and spiritual wisdom woven into the observance of the various seasons of the church year, as they move us through important themes and dimensions of Christian spirituality.
From the hope and expectation of Advent, through the celebration of Christmas, to the weeks of self-reflection and repentance of Lent; then through the anguish of Good Friday to exultation of Easter, the spiritual enthusiasm of Pentecost and the weeks of growth in Ordinary time, culminating in the glorification of Christ as King of God’s eternal reign of love, and then back into Advent, the cycle of these spiritual seasons leads us through so many different dimensions and facets of Christian spirituality.
The reason that I mention this is not simply because it is good to know the themes in each of the church seasons, nor simply because we gather together, today, at the beginning of the new calendar year.
Rather, I do so because today is Epiphany Sunday, and though we typically read the story of the magi on Epiphany, it is good to remember that there are specific dynamics at work in this Epiphany story that we are wise to embrace throughout all of the various seasons that now lie before us.
Epiphany — which marks the end of the Christmas season, and is traditionally celebrated on January 6, or on the Sunday after January 1 in those years when Epiphany does not coincide with a Sunday as it does today. The word Epiphany is based on the Greek word for appearance, or revealing, or manifestation. As such, the word epiphany signifies that something is being revealed to, or made known in the world.
And the story that is most commonly associated with this theme of revelation and appearance is the story of the magi, or wisemen, as we find it in today’s suggested Gospel reading from Matthew chapter 2.
It is a story that invites speculation, reflection and imagination.
Some of those speculations emerge because of details in the story itself; and others, interestingly, emerge because of significant gaps, ambiguities, and unexplained details in the text. Those gaps, and ambiguities, and omitted details have led to a remarkable degree of imaginative creativity over the centuries.
In actual fact, the details that most people would mention, if asked about this story, are not even found in the text itself. There is no reference, for example, to there only being three wisemen, nor any mention that they were kings, nor where they were actually from — regardless of what we might sing about the three kings from Orient are; there is no indication that the star that they followed stopped over the stable in Bethlehem, nor is there any indication that the wisemen were present on the night of Jesus’ birth, alongside the cattle and the shepherds — regardless of what we might have been depicted on the Christmas cards and in the nativity scenes that we have all seen over the past few weeks.
So what do we know about these magi? Four of the things that the text reveals to us, about them, are worthy of our attention.
First, we know that they paid attention.
Second, we know that they were willing to ask questions about things that they did not fully understand.
Third, they were active seekers.
And fourth, they knelt in reverence, in humility and in worship when they found themselves in the presence of Christ.
Each of these attributes of the magi is worth pondering, not only on this particular Sunday, but throughout each day, each season, each moment of the year that lies before us.
So, first, they paid attention. Paying attention is a key attribute of a vibrant spiritual life. Other parts of the biblical text commend those who remain alert, awake, keen to see and respond to God’s mysterious ways. As such, we are wise to pay attention to the signs of God’s grace and presence in this world, just as the magi did by the light of the star; after all, it would have been quite easy for them to go about their daily activities and ignore the presence of that mysterious yet wondrous sign that was leading them towards Christ.
We are wise to pay attention to the priorities and allegiances that shape our lives, for such attention can help us to keep our lives aligned with what is truly important; after all, the journey that the magi took would have taken a great deal of effort, and it would have been just as easy for them to stay in their homeland and binge-watch yet another complete forgettable series on Netflix, rather than set out to follow the star.
We are wise to pay attention to the guidance that comes to us, sometimes from the most unusual sources, as the magi did by listening even to Herod’s advisors who, in their own strange way, ended up playing a pivotal and influential role in helping the magi to find Christ – because like them, we might hear important guidance that comes to us on the lips of the most unexpected of messengers.
We are wise to pay attention to our dreams. Dreams play a powerful role in Matthew’s Gospel, and even in this story, as the magi were directed, by God, to return home by another road rather than participate in Herod’s terrible plans.
In all things, and at all times, we are wise, throughout every moment and season of the year, to pay attention. To be mindful, to be aware, to be willing to go out of our comfort zones, as the magi did, to encounter the presence of Christ in this world.
Second, we are wise to ask questions. It is interesting to note that the only words that are placed on the lips of the magi, in this passage, are the words of a question – “where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star at its rising and have come to pay him homage.”
The magi were wise; they were learned; they were experienced travelers; they had seen the world; and yet, they were still willing to ask questions. They did not assume that they had all of the answers.
Strangely, and sadly, there are times when we fall into the trap of thinking that, when it comes to matters of faith, the presence of questions reveals a lack of health or vitality in relation to what we believe. Nothing could be further from the truth. We all need to ask questions if we are going to grow in our faith, if we are going to explore and challenge what we think that we believe, if we are going to move closer to the One who is, ever and always, beyond our ability to fully understand and comprehend. To be aware of the questions that we have – and to be willing to engage those questions with intentionality and integrity — are, often, the only way to grow. For what it’s worth, Bob and I can honestly attest that there has never been a question that either of us has ever been asked, or that we have had to ponder, in matters of faith, that has never been asked and explored before. To be a part of the church is to be a part of a long, a living and a vibrant tradition of people who have confronted all of the questions that any of us will ever have, and who have had the integrity to wrestle with those questions with every part of their minds, their hearts, their spirits, their souls. The magi had questions, and they were willing to ask them. We do well to follow their example.
Third, the magi were seekers. They were willing to set out, not entirely knowing where they were heading or what they would find, simply with the desire to find the newborn king. After all, there would have been countless others who saw the very same star that the magi saw, and shrugged it off and went about their business, lived their lives, forgotten what they had seen. And missed the opportunity to sit in the presence of the living Christ.
And what was true then is just as true today. Are we actively seeking God? We certainly believe in a God who seeks us, as a shepherd seeks out one lost sheep – but it can be good to remember that we, too, are called to be seekers. In prayer, in attentiveness to our lives, in the ancient pages of Scripture, in acts of compassionate and humble service, in the events of our daily lives, at each and every moment, and throughout all of the seasons of our lives, we are called to seek the One who is seeking us.
And fourth, the journey of the magi led them to a place of reverence, of humility, of worship in the presence of Christ. When they found the child, they did not expect him to commend them for their commitment, their diligence and their dedication – rather, they knelt before him and paid him homage. The journey led to a place of revelation, to the experience of encounter, and the revelation and encounter led them to worship.
So it was, and so it is, and so it can be with our lives – throughout all of the seasons of our lives, and throughout all of the seasons of the year.
We are called to pay attention; to ask questions; to seek the One who is seeking us; and, when we do, to find ourselves, alongside the magi of old, and the wise of every age and generation, kneeling before him, in reverence, in humility, and in worship; and acknowledging him as the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, the longed-for Messiah, and the Saviour of the world.
For when we find ourselves in his presence, we shall find ourselves in the place where our souls most long to be – that is, in the presence of Love itself.
Thanks be to God.