Reflection: January 7—Epiphany

Published on Jan 8th, 2018 by Rev. David Boyd | 0

         While on sabbatical in Palestine and Israel four years ago, our tour visited the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. It is the traditional site where it is thought Jesus was born. Usually, there is a huge line-up of tourists to see the actual traditional spot within the church. No one knows for sure where Jesus was actually born, but it is generally thought that Jesus was born in a cave in Bethlehem. Underneath the Church of the Nativity there is a honeycomb of caves.

         In one of these caves underneath the Nativity Church, Jerome translated the Bible into Latin in the 4th Century. Since it was too difficult to get in to see the actual spot where Jesus was born, we were taken to these caves where Jerome translated the Bible. Because Omar, our Palestinian guide knew one of the priests at the Nativity Church, we were able to look through a hole in the wall to see the spot where Jesus was born. Because Jim and Jean Strathdee were part of our tour, we also sang a number of Jim’s songs, including “I Am the Light of the World” in the caves underneath the Nativity Church. It was a special moment.

         There are all kinds of frescoes in the Church of the Nativity, which was thought to have been completed under the auspices of Constantine’s mother, Helena, in 339 CE. It was destroyed by fire and rebuilt in the 6th Century. It is a World Heritage Site and is full of icons and frescoes. It is quite beautiful and the work to maintain these art treasurers is enormous.

         To get into the Church, there is what is called the Door of Humility, a common thing in ancient churches. All but children have to stoop to enter the Church of the Nativity. The Church itself is a manifestation of God’s beauty and presence in the world. “Manifestation of God” is what Epiphany means.

         There is a story of a Jewish Rabbi named Akiva: 

One day he was asked, “Our world‑‑who created it?”
Rabbi Akiva replied, “The Holy One of the Universe, blessed be God!”
The questioner asked for proof.
Akiva told his students when relating this question, “Even as a house proclaims its builder, a garment its weaver, or a door its carpenter, so does the world proclaim that the Holy One of the Universe, blessed be God, created it.”

         The beauty of the Church of the Nativity, or some other piece of art or architecture, or a beautiful poem, or the beauty of a full moon, or the beauty of bright sunshine, or the beauty of a new life, or a flower, all point, according to Akiva, to the Creator and the beauty and blessedness of God.

         The Eastern Orthodox branch of our church has written mystically of the birth and Epiphany of Jesus as an experience of beauty, but more importantly as the emergence from darkness into light, of love and compassion. The cave features prominently in Orthodox theology so that Jesus is thought to be emerging from the cave, like a womb as it were, into the bright sunshine of a new day, to bring light and love and compassion into the world. The Magi recognized this moment of the emergence of light, as did the shepherds. But with the story of the magi, the focus is more on the light that guided them and the new light that exists in the world.

         I remember reading a story of how Fred Buechner, an American Presbyterian Minister, spoke of the moment when God brought a new light into his life.  Buechner lived in New York; at the age of 27 he lived alone, was a struggling writer, was in love with a woman who didn’t love him, was a non‑churchgoer; on an impulse one Sunday morning, he went to a church next door to where he lived.  He heard the tail end of a sermon about Jesus and laughter and he writes of that moment,

“And at the phrase `great laughter’, for reasons that I have never satisfactorily understood, the great wall of China crumbled and Atlantis rose up out of the sea, and on Madison Avenue, at 73rd Street, tears leapt from my eyes as though I had been struck across the face.”

         Today, as we celebrate the epiphany and the visit of the magi, let us look to our own lives to see the power of God bringing something new, perhaps order out of chaos, or clarity out of the dark abyss we might find ourselves in, or love out of hatred.  Epiphany is that moment of surprise when we are caught up in something beyond ourselves and we realize the beauty of life in a new way. Like Buechner, something strikes us in a moment of pain or a moment when our hearts are open and everything changes. This is Epiphany; it was thus for the magi and it is for us, also.

Epiphany is the light display of a God that bids us become a living part of the Christmas pageant, that bids us become an active participant in the drama of life and love. Epiphany is knowing that the beauty of life extends to us, sweeps us up in its arms, and holds us in love with the whole world.

May it be always so.  AMEN!

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