Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Feast of the Epiphany

As part of our Epiphany celebration in the Upper School, a small group of students sang "Seasons of Love," from the Broadway musical, Rent.  Truly they are stars...

Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Matthew 2:1-12

Happy New Year!  Again... How do we measure a year?  By the school calendar, from August to May?  By the church calendar, from Advent to Advent?  Does the year start on January 1st?  The Chinese New Year is still more than a month away, when we’ll enter the Year of the Tiger.  Happy New Year!  Maybe...

My son, in third grade, and my mom made this confetti for their New Year’s Eve celebration last week.  And they made these crowns to wear and a “Happy 2010” sign for the front door.  Little Charlie told me all about it the next day, the dance contest I probably would have paid good money to see, the ice cream with chocolate sauce and star sprinkles, the countdown to midnight (well, it was midnight somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean).  “It was a mega-party,” Little Charlie said.  Happy New Year!

How do you measure a year?  I think I told you back in December that the church begins its new year with Advent, the season in which we prepare to hear once again the story of Love Come Down at Christmas, to begin once again our own journeys to Bethlehem and beyond with Emmanuel, God-with-us.

But then, a journey of faith in the church or in any tradition, perhaps, is not easily measured, is it?  We may count the days of the journey on a calendar of some sort, and there are “mega-parties” from time to time, significant events that help us renew our resolve to keep journeying - Christmas, for Christians.  Easter.  What are the special events, perhaps mega-parties, in your tradition, on your journey of faith?  How do you measure a year?  How do you measure a journey?

Along the way, throughout the year, whatever our faith, we ask questions, we have doubts, we get lost, we get found, we learn, we forget, we skip, we stumble, we have epiphanies.  Epiphany comes from a Greek word that means something like, Oh!  An epiphany is a sudden realization, a new grasp of the deep meaning of something.  It is the name given to this special event, this day on the church calendar, the day when we recall the journey of wise men to Bethlehem, where they met the child Jesus and realized, with sudden and overwhelming joy, that they were meeting God. 

We don’t really know how to measure the wise men’s journey.  Only the stars know how many steps it took to travel from somewhere in the East to Bethlehem and back.  “A cold coming we had of it,” poet T.S. Eliot imagines one of the wise men to say.  “Just the worst time of year for the journey, and such a long journey: the ways deep and the weather sharp, the very dead of winter.”  We don’t really know, though, what time of year it was when the herald star appeared, or whether the wise men rode camels, or even how many wise men there were.  Scripture doesn’t say.  But it matters not - those things aren’t the deep meaning of the story.

We do know that they brought with them rare and valuable gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh - gifts fit for a king.  Did the wise men feel foolish as they stooped to enter not a palace but a small house, their fine robes and furs sweeping up sawdust from the carpenter’s dirt floors?  We don’t really know what happened to the gifts they gave, whether they were kept or sold or given away.  But it matters not - those things aren’t the deep meaning of the story.

What does matter, I believe, is this: When the wise men looked at Jesus, the stars they so dearly loved suddenly paled in comparison to the light they saw in his eyes, and they gave him the very best they had to offer.  I don’t mean the gold, or frankincense, or myrrh - such things meant very little to the newborn king.  The gift that pleased God best, the gift we celebrate today, was their willingness to begin again, to let the light of God’s love be their new guiding star as they journeyed back home and told the story of all that they had seen and heard of the child on Mary’s lap.

Today is the Feast of the Epiphany, but on a journey of faith each and every day can contain moments of revelation, moments of light cast across our paths in new and surprising ways, moments in which we grasp or at least glimpse deep meaning.  “Always we begin again,” wrote Saint Benedict in the sixth century, understanding that each day, each moment, each minute is an opportunity to start anew on our lives’ journeys and to give the very best that we have to offer.  And I still don’t mean gold, or frankincense, or myrrh...

At the end of last year (or, wait, the middle, or...good grief, how do you measure a year?!?)... In May of last year, I was asked if we could use the song “Seasons of Love,” from the Broadway musical Rent, in a chapel service.  Rent is hardly a show about faith, except, perhaps, that it is a show about epiphanies and beginning again.  In the story, a group of friends grow increasingly isolated from one another as they struggle through a year of bad luck and bad decisions.  They wonder what they have left to show for themselves, what they have left to offer, and they sing, “525,600 minutes...525,000 moments so do you measure, measure a year?”  

So, how do we measure?  In daylight?  In sunsets?  In midnights?  In cups of coffee?  In grades earned?  Hours worked?  Practices attended?  Games won?  In pizzas eaten?  Rows knitted?  Service hours earned?   Text messages sent?  In lines memorized?  Miles driven?  Pages read?  Dollars earned?  All of these things can and do tell us about who we are, about where we’ve been, and about where we hope our journeys will take us.  They represent many of the exceptional gifts we have to offer.  But, not quite the best...

The broken and weary characters in Rent discover that, despite their own arrays of gifts and liabilities, despite their accomplishments and their failures, the only true measure of a year is love, the kind of love that opens us up to new possibilities, new directions, new friendships, new stories, new journeys.  And so we have 525,600 minutes...525,000 moments so dear in which we can offer the gift of love, of our own willingness to begin again, to let the light of God’s love be our guiding star as we continue on our way.  For epiphanies are not the end of a journey, but rather a bright new beginning...

Happy New Year!  Happy Middle of the Year!  Happy Almost-New Year!  Whatever calendar you use, whatever journeys you take, this year let’s measure in love.  Amen. 

Artwork: "Tree Star," by David Orth; "As I Saw the Living Creatures," by D. Riis Grife; title and artist unknown; "Journey of Three Wise Men," by Oldivad.

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