Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
I lounge on the grass, that's all. So
simple. Then I lie back until I am
inside the cloud that is just above me
but very high, and shaped like a fish.
Or, perhaps not. Then I enter the place
of not-thinking, not-remembering, not-
wanting. When the blue jay cries out his
riddle, in his carping voice, I return.
But I go back, the threshold is always
near. Over and back, over and back. Then
I rise. Maybe I rub my face as though I
have been asleep. But I have not been
asleep. I have been, as I say, inside
the cloud, or, perhaps, the lily floating
on the water. Then I go back to town
to my own house, my own life, which has
now become brighter and simpler, some-where I have never been before….
Mary Oliver, in her third of “Six Recognitions of the Lord” speaks to us about simple things, the common experience of lounging on the grass, gazing upward on a summer day when the clouds are large, white, and puffy against the blue heavens. And we, looking at the clouds, their shape, their size…somehow have an extraordinary experience with the simple and ordinary, and then return home, where everything seems new and different. Returning home, changed by an ordinary experience.
Gazing heavenward was an everyday event for the people in those days, but especially for the wise men or Magi (which is from the same Greek word from which we get the word “magic”) They weren’t magicians, but probably something closer to astrologers. Matthew doesn’t tell us that there were three, he just says wise men, and, indeed it was Longfellow who named them Balthasar, Melchior and Gaspar all those years later. No, the wise men’s story is extraordinarily ordinary. These wise men, not unlike our own three wise men, Bill, Tom, and David, noticed something, something a bit unusual, something that they took to be a sign that they needed to pay attention to, and they followed it. The same star shone for everyone those days, but it was the wise men who began the long trek, acting on what they saw. They noticed, they acted, and returned home, ever changed by what happened. And so were we. . .
In the celebration of the Feast of the Epiphany, we hear again this passage from Matthew’s gospel recounting the story of the wise men, gentiles, from the East, possibly Babylon, searching out and finding the Christ Child. “Epiphany” means a “showing” or “shining forth,”. . . or it can also mean a sudden insight…and from this passage we hear that divine light shone forth from the child, and that the visitors were attracted to it.
Understanding it as the appearance of God maybe misses the point a bit. I think of it as the Transparency of God. The divine light that shone in the child was not a foreign light to the earth. It was and is the light at the heart of all life. It was and is the light from which all things come. This story of the Epiphany is a story about the Light at the heart of everything, the Light at the heart of you, the Light at the heart of me…and that that light shone, and still shines in and for all people…and was noticed. And then all was different.
A couple of things strike me about this Epiphany story. The first regards following stars and dreams and what that might be about in our world. Celtic wisdom, a deep source in this area, teaches one to gain insights from the two books of God, the big book and the little book. The big book refers to the universe, to the whole creation, to creatures, to the heavens, and to everything that is. According to Celtic wisdom, the universe is like a living text that we can learn to read. We learn from the flowing of the seasons, the heavens, and our dreams at night. We see and hear God in the waves crashing on the ocean beach and in the jay at the bird feeder. We’ve all gained perspective on a hike or a walk or a drive, seen something in creation and gained a sudden insight – all good practices. The smaller book of God, physically smaller that is, is the book of Scripture from which we learn from those who have gone before us how to listen for God speaking to us. Our ancestors in faith speak to us throughout scripture about their experiences of God, their mistakes and their failings as well as their hopes and wisdom – all given to us so that we too can learn the way in which God speaks in the human heart and throughout history.
But, rather than listen to the BIG book and the little book individually, we are invited to listen to them both and in stereo. If we listen only to the little book, Scripture, and ignore the big book, Creation, we may miss the complete wisdom that is offered, and that is God and the light in all things. We might miss the intimacy of God’s voice. The challenge is to listen to both books, not just individually but in community and then faithfully wrestle with big questions, knowing God and perceiving the light in all things.
The second thing that strikes me is the fact that the wise men went beyond the boundaries of their own homelands to find the Light. We may, at times, find ourselves in a mindset counter to that. We may, at some level, believe that everything we need is within our community, our nation, within our faith tradition, within our cultural inheritance. But, in this gospel story, something radically different presents itself to us. That there is Light beyond our inherited boundaries, Light that we need and that it is there to complete the Light we have already received. We need - we rely on one another as nations and religions just as much as the species of the Earth do. We are tied to each other. We need one another in order to be whole.
Lastly, this story is a story about risk, enormous risk. That Light that the wise men saw and followed was a huge threat to the most powerful man in Judea, because the Light that the wise men found was the Light at the heart of all life, not just of some life, not just of some people. The power structures of the time held that power was held by some and not meant for most.
The wise men took an enormous risk, going into a foreign land with such a radical claim – of a baby, a new-born king, and then advertised it to the power structure in place. We don’t know what happened to the wise men. It says they went home by another way, having been warned in a dream, but I think that they would not have regretted the risk they took, they would never have regretted crossing the boundaries of their homeland, they would never have regretted following a star.
Following a star is a risk. It involves noticing the star (or hearing a call toward something) and setting off for something new. Each of us has set out following one kind of star of another, not knowing where it would lead, or how it would turn out. When you think back on those times…was it worth it?
A young man grew up and was educated in Germany at the turn of the last century, his father intending for him to become an electrical engineer, but the boy, resenting the educational regimen and teaching methods resisted. He wrote that the spirit of learning and creative thought was lost in strict rote learning. Because he excelled at math and physics from a young age, reaching levels far ahead of his peers, he taught himself algebra and Euclidean geometry in a single summer, discovering his own original proof of the Pythagorean theorem at age 12. His passion for geometry and algebra led him to be convinced that nature could be understood as a mathematical structure. Upon reaching adulthood and living in Switzerland, he went to work in the Swiss Patent Office in Bern, where he lived, evaluating others’ patent applications for a variety of devices. But, his interest in math and physics grew, as did his education, and he produced many major scientific treatises, some of which were noticed by a few people in the field. And then, he developed a new theory of general relativity, which stated that light from another star should be bent by the Sun’s gravity. This theory was proved during the solar eclipse in May of 1919. Albert Einstein was a man of faith and of science whose light shone so that others and their work in the sciences were changed by it. He said, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” Scientists who came to know the work of Albert Einstein, a fairly new and unknown man on the scientific scene, were changed by him. They noticed, took interest in the light he shed in the world, and all was different. 
This story of the Epiphany is not just a story from our tradition meant for entertainment. In fact, what a difference it would make if it challenged us in our faith journey every day. Wise men, from the East, gentiles, following the light to visit this infant, a Jewish child. This portion of Matthew’s gospel proclaims that Jesus, his life and his message were made manifest for all people, regardless of origins or nationality. Epiphany declares an end to the idea of national or personal and exclusive gods. These gods may range anywhere from Ares, the Greek god of war, to the god of thoughtless patriotism, to the god of stockpiled money. Jesus is universal. He was made manifest and still is, to everyone. The wise men were not Kings, they were star gazers, barrier breakers, and they shattered false ethnic fences by taking a long walk to find this child of light.
Epiphany, the feast, begins the season of Epiphany, and in these weeks, eight of them this year as Easter and Lent are quite late, we focus on the light, of the manifestations of the light around us and of our own willingness to notice and follow that light.
Though we hear this story at the beginning of January each year, we should be challenged and ultimately changed by this piece of scripture. If Jesus can be for anyone, regardless of who they are, or where they are from, can we? Jesus is the light of the whole world. We then, who bear that light must be light for all others – even those who are different than we. Epiphanies come to us regularly. We only need to be observant and notice the messengers who bring them. And then we return home where everything is the same, and at the same time different.
Star of wonder, star of night,
Star with royal beauty bright;
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect light.