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The Rev. Dr. John Philip Newell The Rev. Dr. John Philip Newell
John Philip Newell is a poet, a scholar and a teacher. He is currently Companion Theologian for the American Spirituality Centre of Casa del Sol in the high desert of New Mexico.

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The Light Within All Life

Matthew 2:1-12

Epiphany of the Lord - Year C

January 06, 2013

Today in many parts of the Christian household we celebrate the Feast of Epiphany and we hear this passage from Matthew's Gospel--the story of wise men from the East searching out and finding the Christ Child. The word 'epiphany' simply means 'showing' or 'shining forth.' Divine light shines forth from this Child. But it should not so much be understood as the appearance of God as the transparence of God. The divine light that shines in the Child is not a foreign light to the earth. It is the Light at the heart of all life. It is the Light from which all things come. If somehow this Light were extracted from the universe, everything would cease to exist. So this 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.

Look around you now at the people next to you, at the life forms growing from the earth, at the radiance of the sun or the whiteness of the moon. And look also into your own heart. There in all things is the Light. Maybe it is deeply hidden under confusions or falsenesses. But it is there, waiting to come forth anew. In the Christ Child this Light shines. He is our epiphany, our showing. In him we see the Light of life.

I am reminded of the story that my rabbi brother, Nahum, likes to tell. It is the story of the burning bush in the Hebrew Scriptures in which Moses sees a bush on fire, but the bush is not consumed. Nahum says that the important thing about this story is not that the bush is burning but that Moses notices, because every bush is burning, every bush is on fire with the divine presence, everything in the universe shines because God is at the heart of it. So it is in our epiphany story. It is a story that invites us to open our eyes to the light that is everywhere. 

There are three things that particularly strike me in our reading. The first is that it is a story about following stars and paying attention to dreams. Is this not pretty different from how most of us in the Western world have been trained to see? The second thing is that this is a story about finding light way beyond the boundaries of what is familiar to us, beyond the boundaries of our nation, beyond the boundaries of our religion. Is this not pretty challenging to the tight lines in which so many of us have been reared? And the third thing is that this is a story about enormous risk, because the Light that the wise men find is a threat to the political power of the day. Is this not pretty disturbing to those of us who belong to the world's most politically powerful nations?

Let's turn our attention to the first feature of the story, the following of stars and dreams. How can we be sure about paying attention to such signs in our lives? In the Celtic world, from which I draw so heavily, there is the practice of what is called reading from the two books of God--the big book and the little book. The big book refers to the universe, to the creatures, to everything that has been spoken into being. 'In the beginning was the Word,' says St John, and all things have come into being through the Word. Or in the beginning was the Sound, as some of our other teachers put it, and the Sound was with God and the Sound was God. Everything is essentially a sounding of God. The universe is like a sacred vibration, a living text that we can learn to read. And that includes the movement of the stars, the flowing of the seasons, the dreams of the night.

But there is also the little book, physically little, the book of Scripture in which we listen for God speaking to us through those who have gone before, our mothers and fathers in the faith. Their experiences of God, their mistakes and failings, as well as their hopes and wisdom are given to us so that we too can learn the way in which God speaks in the human heart and in human history. And what we are invited to do is listen to these two books in stereo, to the big book and the little book. If we listen only to the little book (Scripture) and ignore the big book (Creation), we may miss the vastness of the utterance, God in all things. And if we listen only to the big book (the expression of God in the universe) and ignore the little book (the word of God in scripture), we may miss the intimacy of the voice, God speaking in the secret places of the human heart. The challenge is to listen in both books, and not just individually but in community, faithfully wrestling together to more deeply know the Sound of God and to resound with God, to re-sound God in our lives and relationships.

And what about the second feature of the story, the wise men going beyond the boundaries of their homeland to find Light? Tragically we have often been given the impression that we have all the light we need, within our nation, within our religious tradition, within our cultural inheritance. But our Gospel story points to something radically different, that there is Light beyond our inherited boundaries, and that we need this Light, that it is given to complete the Light we have received, not to compete with the Light we have received. We need one another as nations and religions as much as the species of the Earth need one another to be whole.

As a young man I spent time with Bede Griffiths, an English Benedictine monk who lived most of his life in India. In the East, in the wisdom and meditative practices of Hinduism, he found what he called 'the other half of his soul.' Like the wise men, he needed to go beyond the boundaries of his homeland, beyond the boundaries of his inherited tradition, in order to see more deeply, more truly. This also was my experience in India at Bede Griffith's ashram. On the second afternoon of my visit I awoke from a siesta in which the briefest of dreams had come to me. In the dream a beautiful young Indian woman, dressed in a sari, sat on the edge of my bed and leaning over me looked into my face and said, 'My mother tells me that I have always loved you.' I awoke amidst floods of tears. Sometimes when truth deeply pierces us we weep. It is as if something has been set free to flow again in our depths.

Some would say that I should have known that I was loved. My religious tradition had told me that. And I had been blessed by a loving family and reared with a strong sense of self-worth. So, some would say that I should have known this. But I didn't. There was a place deep within me that did not know, and I believe there is such a haunted place in most of us. For me it took a visit to the East. It took a messenger from the unconscious clothed in the garb of India for me to remember, or maybe for me to know truly for the first time in my whole life, what my religious tradition had been trying to teach me, that God is Love. Do you know that you are loved? Do you know it in the heart of your being? This is the truth of epiphany, that you are loved, that you are part of this beautiful Light of God, that you too are called to shine for the healing of the world.

And this leads to the third feature of our story, that it is about risk, enormous risk. The Light that the wise men find is a threat to the most powerful man in Judea, because the Light that the wise men find is the Light at the heart of all life, not just of some life, not just of certain people. Any power structure that favours only some rather than serving all, all people, all life, is a false power. It has no ultimate future. It will collapse. And at some level false power knows this. It always feels threatened by the shining of true Power, the power of love. 'Love-Force,' as Mahatma Gandhi called it, 'Not Brute-Force.'

We don't know what happened to the wise men. But my sense is that they would never 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.

Mary Oliver, the Pulitzer Prize winning poet, in 'Six Recognitions of our Lord' writes of such a moment. 'Then,' she says, 'I go back to ... my own house, my own life, which has now become brighter and simpler, somewhere I have never been before.'  I think the wise men in returning home saw everything more brightly. The Light they had found in a distant land turned out to be the Light at the heart of their own land.  But now they saw it as if for the first time. Shall we serve this Light together? Shall we bow to it in one another and every nation? It is the Light within all life.

And a prayer from Praying with the Earth:

May the angels of light glisten for us this day.

May the sparks of God's beauty dance in the eyes of those we love.

May the universe be on fire with presents for us this day.

May the new sun's rising grace us with gratitude.

Let earth's greenness shine and its waters writhe with spirit.

Let heaven's wind stir the soil of our soul and fresh awakenings arise within us.

May the mighty angels of light glisten in all things this day.

May they summon us to reverence.

May they call us to life.

Amen.

 


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