Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect light...
Look at almost any depiction of the Nativity and you are sure to see, shining brightly in the sky over the stable, that famous star of Bethlehem. The star of Bethlehem is usually drawn as a brilliant star with a long tail pointing downwards like a beacon illuminating the place where Christ was born. I think that in the popular imagination we like to think of the star of Bethlehem as an unmistakable and miraculous sign that led the three Magi (or wise men) to the manger, but the reality was likely quite different. The story from the Gospel of Matthew says very little about the sign that led the Magi to Jesus; it doesn’t call it the “brightest and best of stars of the morning,” nor does it call it a “star with royal beauty bright.” All we really know about this star from the story is that it was observed by the Magi and that it led them to Jesus. King Herod missed it. The chief priests and scribes missed it. Most people missed it. The Magi (a name which means astrologer or sorcerer in Greek) noticed the star and followed it, but they were after all, astrologers. We don’t know how many years the Magi had spent looking to the heavens and trying to unlock its mysteries before they were finally led to this one spot. What we do know, or can at least reasonably assume, is that they were looking. These wise men had been looking for the one who would not only be king of the Jews, but their king as well. They came bearing gifts fully expecting that they would find the one which they had been looking for and when it did finally happen we are told that they were overwhelmed with joy. To have an Epiphany is to suddenly find something you had been looking for; it is that moment when you finally see the solution or the answer that had been eluding you. Sometimes the answer we find surprises us with its simplicity or we realize that what we had been looking for was right in front of us all along; either way, it is usually a very joyous moment.
The Church celebrates the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6th, and in the West we usually celebrate this epiphany of the three wise men as they finally found the newborn king that they had been seeking, but there are other epiphanies that the Church celebrates this day as well: we celebrate the epiphany of John the Baptist as he saw the spirit of God descending upon Jesus in the river Jordan, and we celebrate the epiphany of Jesus’ disciples as they witnessed him perform his first miracle of turning the water into wine. In a few weeks we will celebrate the Feast of the Presentation (or Candlemas), in which we remember the epiphanies of two more individuals: the priest Simeon and the prophetess Anna. Both Simeon and Anna had spent countless years in the temple worshipping God while searching and waiting for the one who would be their messiah and savior, and finally in their old age they were both able to see and recognize the child which they had been seeking. The three wise men, John the Baptist, Simeon and Anna all have one thing in common: they were all actively searching for God when they eventually found him. While we often talk about having an epiphany as if it came more or less out of the blue, but the reality is that it is more often the result of much searching. This isn’t just true of religious epiphanies, but is true for more secular revelations as well. Isaac Newton is famously remembered for developing his theory of gravity after watching an apple fall to the ground, but that answer came to him after many years of pondering the various laws of the universe. It wasn’t momentary brilliance that made Newton so successful (although he was clearly brilliant), it was resilience at continuing to search for answers even when they were hard to find.
The Feast of the Epiphany is a celebration of our quest to find God, to find truth, to find knowledge and to find hope in a world that can at times be incredibly dark. Christmas is about celebrating God being born in this world, but Epiphany is about celebrating when we first found him. Epiphany is about those moments in life when God is real to us, and not just an idea or a hope. The problem with epiphanies though is that we humans sometimes confuse finding one truth with finding all truth, and when we figure one thing out we sometimes begin to think that we have figured all things out. Sometimes we think the epiphany is the end of the journey, when really it is only the beginning. John the Baptist knew that his life was meant to be about searching for God and preparing for his kingdom (and encouraging others to do so as well), but he also recognized that God’s work was more important. It was God’s vision and God’s plan (not his own) that was of primary importance. As the Gospel of John says: “He was not that light, but was sent to bear witness to that light…”
We might think of an epiphany as the end of a quest for some truth: that moment when we find the answer we were looking for, but usually the key that we find just opens the door to more mystery. I am sure that the three Magi left Bethlehem with as many questions about what was to become of this child as they had answers and we know that Isaac Newton’s discoveries about gravity only drove him to ask more questions about the nature of the universe. The epiphanies that we celebrate today are those moments when God managed to grab our attention. For the Church, we point to those moments early in Christ’s life or ministry where we first began to realize that he was something truly special; for ourselves as individuals, I am sure that most of us can point to a time or place in our own lives when God managed to get our attention and wake us up. In either case we can recognize that the epiphany is just the beginning of the real story. Ultimately it doesn’t matter if the star of Bethlehem was bright and beautiful or tiny and insignificant, because what leads us to God is never as important as what we do once we have found him.