Harrowing Of Hell
January 6, 2019

The Feast of the Epiphany

Preacher: The Rev. Ruth Anne Garcia

Happy Epiphany!

So here we are. We have “survived” Christmas and are entering into a new season in the Church year; a season is which we celebrate the way that God was made manifest through Jesus Christ. This season lasts which lasts between four to nine weeks – starts today, January 6, and will last through the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday; when we  Episcopalians, following the example Great Britain, have had the good sense to introduce pancakes into the Shrove Tuesday equation. So, if you have made a resolution this year to be mindful of your food choices you could aim to stick to those choices until March 5t – eat some pancakes—and then begin again in earnest on Ash Wednesday. See the seasons of the church year can be helpful with your resolutions!

Anyway, getting back to Epiphany, the gospel stories we read in this season describe various events that revealed the divinity of Jesus during his lifetime. Today we remember the coming of the Magi. Next week we will observe the Baptism of our Lord. The gospels for the other Sundays of the Epiphany season include the wedding at Cana, the calling of the disciples, various miracles and teachings of Jesus, and culminate with the Transfiguration where Jesus’ identity as the Son of God is dramatically revealed. Throughout this season, then, we are invited to recall and respond to the ways in which Jesus, the Emmanuel – the God who is with us – has and is being revealed to us.  

It is a lovely season, Epiphany. And I have always especially loved the Feast of the Epiphany because of my grandfather and his stories about the Día de los Tres Reyes Magos in Spain. As was the tradition, he and other children would put their shoes out on their balconies for the Magi to fill with treats.  In any case, one year Grandpa decided to put his brand new shoes out for the Magi—he wanted to put his best footware forward, as it were, because they were, after all, kings—so against the expressed wishes of his mother and father,  grandpa put his new shoes  and some hay for the camels out on the balcony. Sadly, that year thieves came and stole, not only any gifts the Magi may have left, BUT also my grandpa’s new shoes as well. Because he always told this story with glee, I think grandpa Tony still had a wonderful Epiphany Feast – although someone else made out like a bandit….with two new shoes….

I was thinking about Grandpa’s story the other day when I was doing some work up at Café Verite in Madrona. A mother and her very young daughter came in to have a treat. She was probably two or three and was eating a tiny little cupcake. She was sitting in a big chair and had taken the opportunity to take off first, one and then another shoe. One was dropped beneath her chair where she also discarded her little socks and the other was thrown in my general vicinity.  She then proceeded to swing her freed feet and legs happily back and forth while her mother patiently and wisely took the opportunity to take a sip of coffee and have a bite of her treat instead of worrying about the errant shoe. And I was enjoying a wonderful moment in a neighborhood coffee shop, I thought about Epiphany in both its wonder and its reality.

On that first Epiphany, Mary and Joseph were probably both still exhausted from the birth of Jesus and travel when they are visited by the three Maji from Persia. These Maji had travelled far to find their son and brought with them gifts fit for a King – a prophet and Savior that these Zoroastrian priests believed their own prophet had foretold. The Magi give Jesus three gifts: Gold, a sign of kingship, associated with the gods; frankincense representing wisdom; and myrrh a sign of long life and healing. We read this now and think about how impractical these gifts are – we have probably all seen the cartoons and memes about how if the Wise men were  wise women they would have brought food, diapers and extra sets of swaddling clothes right? But can you imagine what it must have been like to know that these learned and important men travelled long distances to see your Son? To come, to kneel down, and pay him homage? We hear these words now as those who believe, and can know in hindsight, that this babe was the son of God. But imagine how that scenario would have played out in Café Verite… If I were to have gone up to that lovely mother and her young daughter and knelt down before her child there on the big chair with her bare feet and opened up a box with say a huge crown like Queen Elizabeth would wear and told her I had come from afar—from the East… from NYC—to seek out her child and to pay her homage? What if I were to tell her that her daughter was the hope of the world and that she will make a great change in the world for the better? Making it a little more personal and uncomfortable, what if I were to come up to one of you and kneel before you and give you a crown or something and pay you homage? It is strange right? You would think I was either going crazy or being facetious or maybe even suspect me of mocking you. But that is exactly what happens on that first Epiphany. A huge, amazing, unforeseen moment of reverence and honor comes unexpected into what might have seemed like any other normal day and sets in motion a whole set of events that will mark the life of Jesus and those around him.  

And that is what Epiphany and epiphanies are about. A few years ago, Elise Ballard did a study of and wrote a book about epiphanies with a small “e”. She writes: “ By epiphanies I mean the major, life-changing revelations that have had the greatest impact on our lives.” She goes on to say that, “It’s been very interesting to notice that every single person I’ve talked to, whether the person has spiritual beliefs or not, speaks of these kinds of moments with a sense of reverence.”

That makes sense to me because our personal epiphanies, whether we always make the connection ourselves, are linked to God and the way that God shows Godself to us. The word “epiphany” comes from the Greek “epiphaneia,” meaning “appearance” or “manifestation,” and referred to the revelations brought by the gods. And the revelation that Epiphany with the BIG E recalls is that as the prophet Isaiah foretold “…our light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon us.” Such grandiose statements are sometimes hard to put in to perspective. Especially when the world goes on as the world goes on. I, for one, have seen so many tweets and posts about just how bad 2018 was and how much everyone is hoping 2019 is better. So, we can forget what a big deal has occurred – we can be too harried to see that the light has come and the glory of God dwells with us. Sometimes we need someone or something to come from the outside to remind us. So today, it is the three Zoroastrian priests come to Judea and tell Herod and the chief priests and scribes what had already happened among them when Jesus is born. But lest we forget this news given to the powers that be – to Herod the Great who did not want the legitimacy of his rule undermined, to the priests and scribes within the community who might not be willing to let a bunch of foreigners tell them who their King was to be—well this news is not always welcomed. While we skip over the reading of it, the response of Herod to the Magi’s news was a horrific slaughter of those little ones in Bethlehem, one of whom might have been  the “heir” of the throne of David. Epiphanies are not welcomed by those who want things to remain the same—who want to protect what they have. But as Isaiah said, they cannot stop God. He writes: “For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”  So, when we see this brightness, when we experience the Epiphany, we as Christians are called to “duty” if you will.

In this time of Epiphany we might do well to look to the scriptures for guidance so that we can not only receive the Epiphany but be changed by it. Elise Ballard said that she found four things in common with those who had a life-changing epiphany. The first is that they were open—were willing to listen–  to the experience. Even though, she notes these epiphanies often occurred in the middle of a crisis – a life change or an illness. When we read how Mary received the shepherds and “treasured” all that happened in her heart, we need to remember that these things happened during the middle of some really rough times and still Jesus was born.  The second thing that life-changing epiphanies share is a belief – a faith in the validity of what is revealed. We see this in Mary’s belief in the angel and the shepherds and the kings. And Joseph’s belief in the dream that would lead he, Mary, and Jesus to safety in Egypt. The third thing is that folks took action—the shepherds left their sheep, the Magi travelled, Mary and Joseph go to Egypt. And the forth thing about life-changing epiphanies, and I would say a world-changing Epiphany with a big E is that when we act, God shows up and reveals to us the way. Maya Angelou has a great quote about epiphanies she says,”[an epiphany] probably has a million definitions. It’s the occurrence when the mind, the body, the heart, and the soul focus together and see an old thing in a new way.” She has a second quote that I think speaks to how our action is an integral part of the Epiphany. She says, “Do the best you can until you know better and when you know better – do better.” Today on this feast of the Epiphany we know better.

Thinking back on the scene in the coffee shop last week—if I were to bow down and give a crown to a little girl with her far flung shoes and socks – well if I were to tell that mother that her daughter was the hope of the world and that she will change the world for the better – well, honestly, that is possible. And maybe in the telling of it, that mother would treasure this in her heart and that belief could, indeed, change everything. 

The prophet Isaiah says:

Lift up your eyes and look around;
they all gather together, they come to you; 

your sons shall come from far away,
and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms. 

Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and rejoice, 

A multitude of camels shall cover you,
the young camels of Midian and Ephah; 
all those from Sheba shall come. 

They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.