Sunday, 6 January 2013

Epiphany: The Magi Were True Spiritual Seekers

Where shall I look for Enlightenment?”  by Joan Chittister

“Where shall I look for Enlightenment?” the disciple asked.
“Here,” the elder said.    
“When will it happen?” the disciple asked.
“It is happening right now,” the elder answered.
“Then why don’t I experience it?” the disciple persisted.
“Because you do not look,” the elder said.
“But what should I look for?” the disciple continued.
“Nothing.  Just look,” the elder said.
“But at what?” the disciple asked again.
“At anything your eyes alight upon,” the elder answered.
“But must I look in a special kind of way?” the disciple went on.
“No.  The ordinary way will do,” the elder said.
“But don’t I always look the ordinary way?” the disciple said.
“No, you don’t,” the elder said.
“But why ever not?” the disciple asked.
“Because to look you must be here.  You’re mostly somewhere else,” the elder said.

Today is the 12th Day of Christmas, you all know the song. So if you haven’t already you had better take your decorations down. Today signals the end of Christmas. Today, at least in the western church, is the feast day of “Epiphany”.
The word Epiphany comes from the Greek meaning “to appear” or “to be made manifest”. In the western church Epiphany signifies the day that Jesus was shown to be the divine Christ; the day that divinity was revealed to the three wise men as they had completed their journey following that wondrous star; a journey which had taken 12 days, as they had travelled afar, or so the ancient story says.

Now the Eastern Orthodox Church takes a different view. They celebrate “Theophany” on the January 19th. It is regarded as the day that Jesus was Baptized in the river Jordon by John the Baptist and proclaimed as the Son of God. Epiphany is marked in diverse ways in different cultures. In Spain and the countries of Latin America children leave hay in their shoes over night in the hope that the wise men will leave sweets and presents for them. In France each family bakes a cake with a coin in it and whoever finds the coin in their piece is made king or queen for the day, rather like our like our own tradition of the Christmas pudding. There are many other traditions throughout the world. We live in such a rich and wonder filled world.

Now of course Epiphany has taken on a more universal meaning in more recent centuries. Today when someone proclaims that they have had an epiphany they are usually claiming that they have experienced a sudden awakening to a new truth. These sudden awakenings generally do not occur in special settings. In fact what is usually significant is that they occur in a seemingly ordinary way. Like the Christ child in a lowly stable.

During my time as a minister I’ve had many myself. I have had several early in the morning as I walked out my front door and heard bird songs. Those little birds speak a language that I now understand. Several have occurred as I have travelled in my car, watching the world from my window, often as I past through the mist between Carrington and Flixton. I have experienced several spots of time moments when a new deeper truth has suddenly come to me. It comes in the ordinary things, in the unexpected things and when it comes it is beautiful. I know that many others have had similar experiences too. I know this because they have shared them with me. This is one of the many gifts of ministry. People come to and ask you questions about experiences that they have had, that they cannot make sense of and are nervous to talk about. I think to some degree we are all afraid of ridicule. I have had several of these conversations in the last few days. What a wonderful gift. Thank you!

Now while most folk have not have been Baptised in the river Jordan or been visited by three kings from the orient we have had our own personal epiphanies, those magic moments, those inexplicable spots of time that changed us forever; moments that are so vivid, that they stay with us and can be instantly recalled whenever we begin to talk of them. Why do we so rarely talk of them?

There is so much in the story of the Magi’s journey. Personally I am not interested in debates about its factual accuracy; I will leave that to the historians, the scientists and the Biblical literalists. I am more interested in the mythos, the universal truth that speaks beyond the story. You see I believe that the journey has so much to teach we who live in the 21st century, actually perhaps it speaks to our times more than at any other moment in the last 2,000 years. I believe that the impulse that was present in the Magi is also present within us all. Those three figures were after all true spiritual seekers. Isn’t this why they were following that wonderous star? While they were committed to their own Zoroastrian tradition the star drew them beyond these truths and they passed over the Rubicon of their day and stepped into another tradition in search of answers. They travelled from afar to Judea; they came from Persia seeking to expand upon their spiritual awareness and understanding. The Magi experienced divine revelation and yet they were pagan’s they were not from the elite, the elect, the chosen people. This story tells me that the revelation is open to all, that we can all gain access to this truth if we seek it, if we are open to it. This is why we experience those epiphanies those moments when life, the universe, when God speaks to us and life is never quite the same again. Those extraordinary moments that occur in the ordinariness of life.

The story of the Magi has something to teach about the purpose of religious community too, certainly for a free religious tradition like the Unitarians. Such communities are a place for the seekers, the travellers, to come and journey together toward new light, new truth. There are many people out there seeking a spiritual home, a place where they can journey with others without being constrained by beliefs and dogmas. Those who claim to be spiritual, but not religious, well guess what they need community too. I believe that those people can find a home with we Unitarians, it is our role to let them know that we exist and that they are welcome in our communities. This 2013 I am making it my mission to connect to those seekers and to welcome to the communities I serve. I am inviting the congregations to join with me on this journey; I am inviting them to be inspired by the Magi and find a way to invite all those other seekers out there to join them. I know that congregations need them as they have so much to teach us. We just need to discover a way to journey together; we need to find a way to invite them in.

There is something else about the Magi that we spiritual seekers can learn from, something that sets them apart from the other characters in the Natvity story. They are the archetypes for the spiritual seeker within all of us. Remember that they were moved by a rising star. Were they told to go to Bethlehem? No they “saw” the star with their own eyes and had vision enough to be moved by it.

They say that seeing is believing. Well we live in a visual culture. Think about how we communicate truth to one another. When someone tries to explain something to us and we try to show that we understand do we say “I hear you”? No we usually answer “I see”. When going visiting do we say “I am going to hear, or smell, or touch, or taste my family? No we say we are going to see our family. When we hear a strange noise outside what do we say? We say we are going to see what has happened. Of all our senses we tend to trust our eyes the most. Hearing of something is not enough; we have to see it with our own eyes. This is what inspired the Magi. The star drew them out of the confines of their own understanding to witness something remarkable with their own eyes.

There are moments in all of our lives when something we see sends shock waves of understanding in and through us; moments that lift us way beyond normality. These are Epiphanies, moments when something we see transforms our lives with freshness and gives us a new found perspective.

Remember that the Magi observed a sacred vision that transformed them. They witnessed a star and it was this that compelled them to begin their journey. It was not just that they saw the star it was that they had vision enough to be moved by it. What is it that has inspired you on your journeys? Perhaps you who read this could think about that and begin to share it with those who you share community with.

For the Magi this star in the sky was an opening to something new, something beyond their current understanding. The Magi looked and they saw and drew them to Bethlehem. Most of us will experience these openings, these peepholes at some time or another and they will allow us to see beyond our current understanding. Let us hope that we have vision enough to respond to them.

Life speaks to us all the time, all we need is vision enough to respond to it. We do not need to search madly for enlightenment. All that is required is that we pay attention to our lives and the world all around us and to not be afraid to talk about those moments when they do occur. This to me is the purpose of free religious communities. They are places for the Magi in all of us; a place for those who wish to seek beyond their current understanding and to share that with others who also wish to seek beyond theirs.

So I say to you are reading this let us all journey afar, let us follow that wondrous star, but let’s do it together.

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