Who doesn’t love those a-ha moments when you understand something in a new way or for the first time – something about your life or your work or what you’re called to do and be in this world or about someone you love or about the world itself or about God?
Usually these moments get triggered by something outside of us –the astonishing taste of the eggs, perhaps, or a star in the sky as the Epiphany story of the Magi in the Bible describes. But if we’re waiting on the big new star to catch our eyes kind of epiphany, we might miss the taste of the eggs kind of epiphany.
Pema Chödrön, in her book, The Places that Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times, tells about a cartoon where the drawing is of an astonished looking man saying “What was that?” and the caption below reads, “Bob experiences a moment of well-being.”
She tells that story in a chapter about learning to rejoice in our own good fortune. Learning to rejoice in our own good fortune. You’d think this might come naturally to us, but it really doesn’t. It’s a practice. And it’s one way to open ourselves to the epiphanies that want to find us. It’s not that different from your grandmother’s admonition to count your blessings, name them one by one, count your blessings, see what God has done.
I’m going to pause here to say a word about God. Or rather, about the word God. I use it because it works for me. If that word doesn’t work for you, please substitute any word that does: Universe, Life, Energy, Spirit, Goddess, Godde, gods, The Divine, The One, The Many, The Big Kahuna. I really don’t care and as far as I’ve been able to figure out neither does the Universal-Life-Energy-Spirit. The Bible has many names for this divine creative force, though in English they mostly end up as the rather pedantic God, Lord, Almighty God or Father. They are much more interesting in Hebrew. Take El-Shaddai, for example. Usually translated Almighty God, it is more literally God of the Mountains or God of the Breasts, (God of the Grand Tetons! God of the Big Tits!) depending on one’s leanings. I always go for the breasts.
Judaism has 72 Divine Names, Islam has at least 99 names for God and Hinduism has thousands of names just for Vishnu, to say nothing of the other aspects of the divine.
Christians, who tend to be a bit more literal and less imaginative, think of God as the personal name of the deity, like Joe or Susanne. Me, I’m just using it for shorthand.
Speaking of the Bible, it’s full of epiphanies, but only one that got turned into an annual religious celebration by that name. Epiphany is the 12th day of Christmas (drummers drumming and all that), celebrated on January 6, and it marks the transition between the Christmas season and Lent, the 40 days leading up to Easter, that holy season when Christians everywhere try not to eat chocolate.
In the Bible, Epiphany is the story of the Three Magi, also known as the Three Wise Men or the Three Kings.
They may have been wise, but nowhere does history or the biblical text indicate that these guys were kings, or even that there were three of them. So what were they? Astrologers. Magi is the English transliteration of the Greek word used to describe these visitors from the East. The only other time the word appears in the New Testament, it gets translated as magician or sorcerer. Magi refers to a priestly class of Persian experts in the occult.
It is best translated astrologers, but Christians generally get squeamish about astrology, and magicians for that matter, so most English-language Bibles call these guys Wise Men. Which is kind of funny, because they’re willing to admit that Eastern experts in the occult are wise, as long as we don’t call them astrologers. Or magicians.
These astrologers show up in Bethlehem, having followed a star to find a new world leader, and with their frankincense, gold and myrrh start the whole Christmas gift-giving tradition.
So Epiphany in the Bible is the story about some astrologers traveling across a desert to see a child, born under a special sign of a new star. The story reminds me that God uses whatever God wants to use to get God’s messages across. And astrology is as good a technique as any other.
The astrologers first go to the political leader of the day to ask about the new king. This was a mistake. Never tell people in power that you’ve had a vision of someone more powerful than they are. The paranoia of the powerful is a disastrous thing. (Note: astrologers, like the rest of us, can make mistakes.) King Herod tells the magi to come back and let him know exactly which baby is the powerful one. When they don’t, Herod sets out to kill all the baby boys born that year. (Girls, clearly, are not a threat.)
And why don’t the astrologers return to King Herod? Because they are warned in a dream.
OK, so far in this Christmas story we’ve got astrologers, political tyrants and dreams.
But to go back to the heart of the story, we have a group of people who yearned to find a new spiritual, and possibly political, leader. They were on a search for a teacher, a guide, for wisdom, for direction.
Not unlike most of us.
We can imagine that the magi in this legend practiced their techniques (of astrology or sorcery or whatever it was) for years, maybe decades, before the moment they took off on their epiphany journey. What techniques or practices do we have in place, so that when the moment comes to strike out on a new journey, we’ll be able to recognize it? And more importantly, act on it. Astrology? Magic? Dream interpretation? Meditation? Any of those can help – what makes the difference, with or without any of those practices, is the mind we bring to them.
Notice, too, that they pondered the meaning of the star together and made the journey together. Community and connectedness help when we’re hoping to find and follow stars.
Now, these astrologers, when they got to Jerusalem, headed straight for the most powerful guy in the land to give them advice. How many of us do this, too? Maybe it’s our favorite political leader or maybe it’s the best-selling author, or maybe it’s the celebrity guru. Full disclosure: I did go to Oprah’s “The Life You Want” Tour in Atlanta this fall, complete with best-selling authors and celebrity gurus, and I loved it.
So, we may look to those leaders.
But in the story, what happens to this plan? First, they go to King Herod, but he’s not very helpful, so they go back to following the star and what they find is a poor family with a tiny baby. The opposite of political power. The opposite of New York Times 100 Best Books list.
They find the most vulnerable, needy example of a human they could have. A little baby, with no resources, no connections; an infant who is completely dependent on others for care and feeding and life.
They head for power and they discover vulnerability.
Can we choose to trust the vulnerable over the powerful?
Can we trust our own vulnerability as much as we trust our own power?
Looking to the sky is not a bad thing, as long as we don’t forget to look to the ground, as well.