The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham
The Feast of the Epiphany, (Year C)
Matthew 2:1-12, Isaiah, Ephesians
January 6, 2019
Light from Light
Arise, shine; for your light has come,
And the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
When I was in Middle School, we took our first skills inventory test, one of many until undergrad. They brought in a large, repurposed bus that was filled with cubicles and tables, each holding a certain test. There was one that had me sort things into patterns, and another gave me several small nuts and washers and had me screw them onto a bolt in a certain order, completing as many as I could in a set time.
By college, these tests became computerized, with patterns and matching, turning complex figures in my head to match them to the shadow they would make if light was shown upon them from a certain angle.
Looking back on it, the entire enterprise was a bit like the sorting ceremony at Hogwarts, where someone would mysteriously recognize my innermost potential and strength, thereby helping me embark on the rest of my life’s journey. Properly sorted.
Having the particular mental and spiritual hardware I have, I thrived on these tests, hoping to be affirmed with the recognition that I did have some gifts. While a future of glory in sports did not seem to be in the cards, I would find out I was “special” in some way.
One particular college inventory told me I was meant to be a florist—strangely Cynthia shared this assessment when she took an inventory! But, alas, the Flower Guild here will tell you my exam must have been tabulated incorrectly! And I must say, with all these exams, I continue to be disappointed that “wizard” is never an option.
Each of us, I think, appreciates having our particular gifts recognized and affirmed. While we can, of course, discern our ego’s tracks in some of this need, there is also a deeper dimension to this yearning to be recognized and affirmed. Within each one of us, our heart knows that God has set up a home there, and She has brought particular gifts, talents, and skills that have taken root, that yearn to be watered and grow. Within each of us, Light has been implanted. One Light, in many beautiful shades.
There is one Light, after all. We were reminded of this truth last week in John’s Gospel: in Jesus was life, and that life was the light of all people. All people. Every single human being, indeed all of creation the text tells us, has within it this Divine Light of Christ. Yes, even that person you are thinking of right now!
The Light of Christ continues to stream from the Source to rest within each one of us, in that mysterious place called our heart. This, our tradition tells us, is called “the soul.” This enlightened heart is what we are called to nurture through our spiritual practice. We desperately need to pay more attention to our souls, what nurtures them—and what starves them. This is why worship and prayer is at the absolute heart of what we do—before all else.
This Light is always present to us, and is made incarnate, is enfleshed, in Jesus.
We believe in one God, we say in the Creed.
And in Jesus Christ, his only Son our Lord.
God from God, Light from Light.
When we pay attention to this Light, nurture it, tend to that sacred flame in our souls, we begin to recognize that the Light within us is drawn toward the Source that gave birth to it. Like a compass that turns North. Our hearts are drawn toward God not because God is absent, but because our souls long for wholeness, for rest in the Source that gives them life. This, our tradition tells us, is called “salvation.”
Here we see the rich meaning of The Epiphany, this beautiful feast that is so rarely observed. Normally, it falls during the week, always on January 6, the day after the twelfth day of Christmas. So, while we know it exists, we seldom truly celebrate it. It is the Feast of the Manifestation, the Celebration of the Shining Forth of God in Christ. Epiphaneo. It is an ancient feast, older, on the whole, than the formalized observance of Christmas, believe it or not.
I like to think of the Epiphany this way: as we practice our prayer, our faith yearns to delve deeper than the consumer mentality of Christmas, to ponder the images of Christ’s birth, the coming of Christ in our lives every day. Ultimately, our practice of faith invites us to embody Christ in our lives—to be God-bearers.
The Epiphany is like the poetry underneath even the images of Christmas. It is an intense, focused gaze at the Light itself which, ultimately, is silent and suffuses all of life as it draws it toward wholeness.
This Feast of Light reminds us of how our hearts are gifted with the presence of Christ—a gift that comes with great responsibility.
Arise, shine, for your light has come,
And the glory of the Lord has risen upon you,
as we hear in Isaiah this morning.
And, at the end of the text from Isaiah, we see the trajectory of the Light:
They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.
So, even before the “Wise Men” were imagined as “wise,” this pattern of bringing gifts and praise before God was established as the only proper response to the Light.
When we become aware of our own gifts, as our hearts are filled with gratitude for our own enlightenment, as it were, we offer this giftedness back to God.
Praise God from whom all blessings flow.
All things come of Thee, O Lord, and of Thy own have we given Thee.
Put another way,
Praise God from whom all Light flows.
All Light comes of Thee, O Lord, and of Thy own Light do we give Light.
This is the deep truth of The Epiphany, as we see embodied in the magi themselves. I think of all the characters in the Christmas story, they are my favorite. These mysterious people, we don’t know how many there were only that they give gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But we are never told how many traveled there. I imagine quite a few on that holy road trip.
Having noticed the Light in the sky, something in their hearts resonated with this awareness and they were drawn toward it, carried out of their comfort zones, away from their normal patterns, into spaces of risk. Why would they do this?
To go to the Source. The compasses of their souls were fixed on the Light, and they set out on their journey. And having “arrived at the Source,” as it were, they did the most natural thing possible: out of the devotion of their own hearts, they offered gifts back to the One who gives life and light to all people. Through whom all things were made, as the Creed envisions.
For what some call “the ethical turn” in the sermon. What does all this mean, these words and images? How does this image of Light actually “fit” into our busy, consumer-driven, competitive lives, you may wonder. Not well, I would say. What does it matter to us?
Our liturgy, worship, and tradition matter because our practice of faith calls us—always—to honor the presence of God in every person we meet, even as we live into our vocation as Light-bearers in the world. Some may hear such words of light, practice of prayer, being a God-bearer, living from the heart, etc., and think it is all just a bunch of fluff. Some may want to dismiss it all as some alternative lifestyle; however, when I am tempted to dismiss it (and tempted I am), it is not because it asks too little, but because it demands too much.
A deeper reflection on the Light of Christ, what we mean by “soul,” and “salvation,” the way our hearts are attuned to the presence of God, and how we are prompted to share our gifts with the world—I would argue there is nothing more important to reflect on. Just look at the news today to see what happens when we ignore this truth or reject it in favor of greed, arrogance, and warped power. This is what happens when we unleash our egos and live by our shadow rather than the Light.
So, seek out the Light. Keep your eyes open to see it, and your hearts open to follow it. Consent to where it takes you. Take the risk to step out onto new horizons and be led back to the Source from which we all came. Share the gifts God has given you with the community and the world. Pay homage to the One from whom all comes and to whom all returns. And never give up hope, for God will continue to call willing souls onto paths of awareness and transformation, following yonder star.