January 12, 2020
The Feast of Epiphany
Today we celebrate the Magi, the gifts and the star, and I want to wade into the deep end of the pool and bring some gravitas into these last moments of this mystery of Christmas and the Feast of Epiphany. So, as we say in Godly Play, watch where I go to get this story so that you know where to find it. (Place the crowns on the wise guys.) Yes, this is what greeted me when I arrived back from Phoenix and straight into the finance committee meeting. And yes, I joined in with my own contribution, a halo, of course. I’d have to be an angel to put up with these guys.
This is a moment where I choose to enter more deeply into the mystery of Christmas, into this story so richly textured, so mythic in nature, this sacred story that can’t simply be told, enacted and then put back on the shelf until next year. For the true nature of myth is a symbolic but concrete presentation of the union of the finite and the Infinite. What story has a more powerful way of revealing and concealing the glorious dance of the Infinite God with God’s creatures, made of the earth and infused with spirit — body, finite and limited, and spirit, infinite and indefinable — these humans who can reach to the heavens and embrace the union of the infinite and the finite? What story can better sustain our lives from cradle to grave than this story?
This story of the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ brings together the infinite and the finite, the indefinable and the defined. God in humanity made manifest! This is Epiphany — God in humanity made manifest — the infinite and the finite shown forth, not as a single miracle but as a testimony of all reality. And that is what we often miss in the flurry of getting ready, in the production of a pageant and in the exhaustion of food, family and fun.
When we get to Epiphany, we are already beginning to think about Lent. The crèche is put away, the costumes are boxed up for another year and the greens are finally tossed, dried out reminders of our favorite time of year. For these many weeks we have been immersed in the holiday spirit and often miss the power of the myth. I’m anxious to redeem this word myth for it is an important word for the contemplative life.
I quote from Beatrice Bruteau who writes about myth, metaphysics and mysticism: “All three have to do with the great basic fact of being, that being is both Infinite — transcendent of all form and therefore inconceivable and unspeakable — and possessed of a multitude of expressive, intelligible, often beautiful, sometimes conflicting forms.” She goes on to say, “Receiving and assimilating myth is itself an unconscious experience of the union of the finite and the Infinite. For the mythic embodies the presence of the Infinite, the undefined, the unspeakable, in the artistic guise of the finite, the defined, the variously spoken.”
And most importantly, “The reality that the myth means to present to us cannot be captured and pinned down and interpreted as a single fixed meaning. The myth seems to be rich with endless particular interpretations, yet it remains a singly glimpsed reality, a unitary window on the Great Ultimate.
And for us, today, that is what we experience on this feast day of Epiphany — we hear this story again, a story we know by heart and have experienced year after year — a story bigger than the Magi and King Herod and the star that guided the way — for we, too, are to be found in this story, we, too, are Magi and we, too, find murderous ways to avoid dealing with this child in the manger, we, too, find ourselves in this scene of shepherds and angels. That is the power of myth that doesn’t let us be observers but draws us into the story. Mythic consciousness liberates the mind from the literal, one-dimensional, fixed, denotative interpretative habits of our culture.
We are called to look beyond the question of what happened to the question of what the story means, especially how it sets before us the great mystery of the intersection of the finite and the Infinite. And we must remember this second thing about myth is that it is not about somebody else, it is about us. This story is about us — the secret about this divine life is that it is already in us. That was Jerome Berryman’s question sixty years ago at Princeton Seminary: “What if it’s not about what we put into a child’s head but about what’s already there? The sacredness of each child, holiness waiting to be released.” For sixty years Jerome has been creating a way to the contemplative life for all of us.
For those of us who stumbled upon this contemplative life and for those who seek it with great in, there is one more thing. It is about a reorientation of our lives. We have been taught to see that we are first and foremost “finite” — “limited and finite.” And secondly, we are taught that we are part of the Infinite oneness. Bruteau has eloquently turned this idea upside down, suggesting that we see our primary identity as part of the Infinite. She offers this perspective: “What the myths say about the finite and the Infinite, more or less explicitly, is that the Infinite comes first and its expression in the finite follows.” We are used to thinking that the real thing, the primary thing, is whether something actually took place in historical time — the finite expression precedes meaning but what the myths say is that meaning comes first and expression comes afterwards.
Eternity is not build on time but time on eternity. The question is not, “Did that event happen in the past? But, is that meaning always happening, is it eternally true?” Thus, a particular historical event is a kind of sacrament of the eternal truth. It is the Eternal that is primary and history, the finite and temporal, that is secondary.
Hard but here is what I want you to consider: Can we reorient ourselves, our thinking from the perspective of the Infinite — what is eternally true — in this very simple way, can we attempt to see as God sees? Can we see through the eyes of Christ? Can we seek to see the eternal through the eyes of the Magi, who traveled a long distance because they perceived in the heavens something Infinite and Eternal? Can we tell this sacred story — this myth that holds heaven and earth together as one — and find the Holy Child in everyone we meet?
And finally, can we imagine that our own stories also contain the mythic promise of a sacred child who sees with the eyes of God?