Illuminating Presence

January 6, 2019 — Rev. Paula Norbert


Happy New Year to everyone!  Today, as many of you know, is the Epiphany, January 6th, the date by which we mark the visit of the 3 Wise Men, the Magi to the newborn King, Jesus.  This is typically the final story in the birth narratives which are found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, and then it is usually followed by the story of Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist, which marks the beginning of his public ministry.  In fact, only Matthew shares this particular story.  The baptism of Jesus is an epiphany story and we mark these weeks following this date as the Epiphany.  This is the season in which the identity of Jesus, his real identify, becomes clearer to all who will look and see.  The birth stories began with the very private annunciation of the angel to Mary and then Joseph, then the shepherds and animals in the manger come to be a part of this story as the circle gets wider, including an expanding circle of witnesses.  From today until Easter, everything that is usually read in Scripture is an epiphany of Jesus.  This is the most important season in the church’s year because this is when we come to see who Jesus really is, where he is to be found and where we begin to understand what he came to do.  Let us pray, Be with us, O Holy One, as we begin a new year. Help us to be open to the many ways you show your presence with us each day. Amen.

I’m guessing you’ve heard this one before, but it’s a good time to re-tell it.  Many have asked, What would have happened if it had been three Wise Women instead of three Wise Men who visited the newborn Jesus after his birth? They would have asked directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole, and brought practical gifts.  We actually don’t know that there were only 3 wise men, but given the three symbolic gifts that were received, that’s always been the long- held belief.  I’d like to offer just a few brief remarks as we look to the days ahead, the days beyond the beautiful stories of Jesus’ birth and re-visit the stories of teaching and healing and miracles and travel among the people of his time.  The Rev. Peter Gomes, former Minister of Memorial Chapel at Harvard, reflected on this time of Epiphany.  He wrote, “The Epiphany is that manifestation of God in the world where the message is greater than the manger and goes well beyond it.  To leave the story of Jesus in the manger, to pack it up as we have done with our creche and put it away for another year, is to fail to understand what the Epiphany is all about.“  The Gospel stories of his adult ministry in the weeks ahead are “part of this growing process of discovery of who Jesus is and where he is to be found.  That’s why this season is known as the season of light.”

We commonly think of an epiphany as a striking or sudden realization.  Some have defined it as ‘showing forth’ like a light along a dark path.  Others speak about it using the metaphor of a light bulb going on as we finally grasp the meaning of something.  Some use the language of an illuminating discovery, or “a moment of sudden or great revelation that usually changes us in some way.”  And so, as we transition from the Seasons of Advent and Christmas to Epiphany, we are invited to be open to new understandings, new illuminations in our lives.  What might those look like?  Where is God speaking to us in the details of our lives, illuminating the pathways, leading us to new revelations that may change us in some way?

The lovely passage from Isaiah 60 also uses the language of light and glory, an image of rising up from wherever we have been pressed or pushed down, rising up to behold the glory that comes to us. It is the light of God that breaks through the thick darkness, and it will appear over us. When have we failed to look up and see the glory of God over us? Since the winter solstice, our time of daylight is getting increasingly longer and so even the cycles of nature lead us to illumination.  What do we see in the light?  And, in the darkness, where is the light shining forth?

Matthew sets this story of the visitors bearing gifts into the larger story of God’s covenantal and ongoing relationship with the people of God, a relationship of healing and hope.  The Wise Ones at the manger are our witnesses; they represent our journey of peering into the great mystery of this story and coming to some better understanding of what this all could possibly mean.  Yes, the Wise Men followed a star, but it appears that they needed additional directions along the way.  They knew they were journeying to something important, but they didn’t fully know what they would discover.  Matthew’s theme here is the hiddenness of Christ, the small and often unnoticed ways God enters our lives in epiphanies large and small.  This hiddenness is a kind of divine signature: instead of “showing forth” conspicuously at the Temple, God slips into the world by way of a poor family in a backwater town.  And instead of “showing forth” to a crowd of supposed insiders, God will be noticed first by strangers from a foreign land, “wise ones from the East.” God does indeed show forth – but in a hidden way.


Good News Club- Jar for the year. If the season of Advent was about preparing our hearts for the coming of the child Jesus, the season of Epiphany invites us to be open to new insights, new wisdom about the reasons God chose to come to the world in human form and that understanding involves the heart, the mind and the spirit.  We need to be attentive and to be open to the epiphanies both large and small that will continue to grace our lives in this new year.