Happy New Year, and Blessed Epiphany!
To everything there is a season, Scripture says, and so there is.
In Advent, we waited in joyful expectancy , preparing ourselves for the birth of the Messiah. At Christmas, we celebrated the fulfillment of that promise. Now here we are in the season of Epiphany. The word "Epiphany" means manifestation, or appearing.
Epiphany is about God's showing God's self to the world, in surprising ways. Epiphany is also about God transforming us and our world.
In this season of "ringing out the old and ringing in the new," I think many of us are looking for transformation that goes beyond New Year's resolutions. We seek a deeper knowledge of God. We long to experience God in ways that are life-changing. I know you as a congregation are interested in Benedictine spirituality, lay monasticisim, Bible Study, music and the arts, and that you are committed to social justice. I believe you are seeking transformational spiritual experiences, as well as ways to be agents of transformation to a troubled world. Because it's not all about us and our private enlightenment, is it? It's about doing something with our experience of God, something that benefits the human community, or as much of it as we are able to affect. At least that's how I see it.
So, how can we gain a deeper knowledge of God? How can we have transformational experiences, live transformed lives and help others lead transformed lives? These are very appropriate questions for Epiphany.
I'm going to back up a bit and give just a little history about this celebration of Epiphany. Because it has something to do with the questions I've just asked about transformation.
The earliest recorded celebration of the Feast of the Epiphany took place in Egypt at the end of the 2nd century. It commemorated three things: 1) The Visit of the Magi to the stable in Bethlehem, 2) Jesus's baptism as an adult in in the Jordan River and 3) the wedding at Cana, where Jesus turns water into wine. These three events from Scripture were all celebrated on the Feast of Epiphany, because they were all understood as signs that God had appeared in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
The Eastern church has kept this original three-fold emphasis of Epiphany. On January 6, they still commemorate the visit of the magi, Jesus's baptism in the Jordan, and the miracle at Cana.
Here in the western church, our celebrations of the Feast of Epiphany tend to focus only on the visit of the magi, or three kings. This original three-part celebration of Epiphany has been recovered somewhat in the Anglican church (my church). And we're also recovering it partially at Reconciler, as we celebrate tonight both The Baptism of our Lord and the Feast of the Epiphany. Next Sunday our gospel reading will be the miracle at Cana story. So in some places in the west, at any rate, there are current attempts to keep together the three parts of the original Epiphany celebration.
Why do these three stories belong together and what do they have to tell us about God and this season of Epiphany? Yes, they all show us how special Jesus was. They're all stories of God in flesh appearing. They're all proofs, if you will, that he was the Messiah. Is there more? I think so. Taken together, they tell us something about how we can have a deeper knowledge of God, live transformed lives, and help others transform their lives. It's all about transformation.
Let's look at these stories in turn. Story number One. The magi who came from the east. We're not actually sure who they were. The Greek word "magi" can be translated as "wise men" or "astrologers." Tradition portrays them as three kings. A wise scholar says we says we need to believe they were powerful, worldly men, that they saw Jesus and gave him their stamp of approval. People become real to us when the rich and powerful say they are real. But the magi may in fact have been traveling entertainers, like…circus performers. In that case, God chose outsiders, people of low status, to be the first to see the Messiah.1
So lesson number one: you don't have to be anyone special – rich, famous, or important -- to experience God and have a transformed life. You can be on the margins. You just have to be willing to go on a journey, figuratively, and sometimes literally. What journeys, pilgrimages, retreats, classes, meetings are you willing to undertake? How far will you venture to meet the One? Know that God is willing to meet you there.
Story Number Two. After John the Baptist baptizes Jesus in the Jordan, the sky opens up and a voice from heaven said: "This is my beloved Son; with him I am well pleased." God says how special Jesus is, out loud and in front of a crowd. And Jesus's disciples hear and believe.
What does this story say to us? Other than that Jesus was the One? I think it also says that traditional rites of passage, like baptism and other sacraments, can be transformational. I believe this, because the sacraments have more than once been occasions for me of deep joy, grace and peace. They can be life-changing ways to experience the great love God has for each of us.
So in the new year, when we think about transformation, we might consider experiencing a larger share of the sacraments. Do you regularly take communion? Would you like to receive anointing with oil? Have you thought about being baptized? What about receiving the sacrament of reconciliation, that is, offering confession and receiving pardon? In the Episcopal Church, these are all considered sacraments. Maybe you're already doing these things, but you might like to do them more often. I'm not saying the heavens will necessarily open and a voice will speak to you from the clouds if you do, but in my experience sacraments can often be powerful. I suggest we all remain open to the life-giving and life-changing properties of the sacraments.
Are they the only ways we can experience God's grace. No. Sacraments can be wonderful conduits for the Holy Spirit, but God's grace isn't limited to the sacraments. I think most of us have found grace in experiences not strictly considered sacred. A family meal around the table. A glass of wine and good conversation with a friend. A dip in a clear cool lake. These experiences can feel a lot like taking communion or being baptized. They give us sense of oneness with others and with nature, a sense of being in touch with something beyond ourselves. Art and music also can be transforming and life-giving. There are many ways to connect with the Holy Spirit, and they don't all occur in church.
Which brings me to the third story: the wedding at Cana, where Jesus turned the water into wine. What does it say to us about transformation?
I think it says that if you invite Jesus into your life, he might show up in some unexpected places and do some very surprising things. God's grace outpours onto all of us, in many different situations, even in the midst of regular life.
The wedding at Cana showed that Jesus, while not a party animal, was a person who lived among the people. He ate, drank, and socialized. He dealt with real people in real situations. Sometimes I feel the church is too disconnected from the rest of life, and that this is not good for either the church nor the world. So while I'm not advocating a wild and crazy lifestyle, I'm saying God can be found in the mainstream, not just a chapel or monastery . Do you want to be transformed? Life your life in the world, not just in church. You'll find God out and about, mixing it up at the mall or a wedding, school or work.
You may recognize this thinking – about God in the midst of life – as Benedictine or Celtic spirituality. It's also good solid Anglican theology – called incarnational theology. It boils down to the idea that God is in all of life, church and state, home and work. That spirituality should not be divorced from the real world.
The great Anglican incarnational theologians of the 19th and 20th centuries -- Maurice, Temple, Gore, Vida Scudder, to name a few -- believed in the power of the Christ to transform the world. They were social activists. While seeking to transform their own lives through faith, they sought to improve the political and social realities around them.
It's a tricky thing, combining church and politics. The incarnationalists did so because they saw God in all of life, and didn't feel spirituality and politics could be neatly separated.A former teacher of mine writes:
"The modest political 'revolution' in November [in the US] gives us some hope that the Iraq War might find an end, and that more attention might be paid to social justice and human needs at home and abroad. "Politics" is rarely the solution, however. Each one of us must actually do those "random acts of kindness" and dig down deep into our souls to summon the spiritual will to make a difference in our own environments, in our own communities."
I think he is echoing a theme of the incarnationalists: we need a spiritual base from which to find strength and nourishment for the hard work of transforming our corners of the world.
So if you want to be a change agent, keep meeting God and being transformed. Go on some journeys, literal and figurative, in order to encounter the Holy One. Look for Him in the sacraments of the church, and your experiences outside the church. Be open to the life-changing nature of all these encounters with the Holy One, whether you find him in the margins of society, the waters of baptism, or the mainstreams of life.
It's Epiphany! Are you ready for a little transformation?
1 The Rev. Dr. Sam Portaro, Brightest and Best: A Companion to Lesser Feasts and Fasts. Cowley Publications, Cambridge, MA, 1998.
Delivered by Rev. Laura Gottardi-Littell