Epiphany is the season we celebrate signs. We mark four Epiphanies in this season of light, including the story of the Magi, Jesus' baptism at the River Jordan, changing water to wine, and the Transfiguration. These Epiphanies are selected from events in Jesus' life when people saw signs and were able to glimpse into the fullness of faith.
In today's epiphany, we celebrate the wonder and miracle of Jesus' first public sign: the changing of water to wine in the second chapter of John at a reception in Cana of Galilee. Now just a quick side note: This is one of only two arguments Jesus loses in the whole Gospel; the second is to the Canaanite woman who begged for healing for her daughter. In this argument Jesus loses to his mother who doesn't listen when he says his time has not yet come to demonstrate this dramatic sign of God's abundance and richness. Instead, she instructs the stewards to bring him what he needs; and new and good wine is created as a testimony, so we can see that Jesus is the Christ and the author of a new creation in which love is made manifest among us.
Signs are like the Alpha and the Omega of God's unfolding revelation. We can see them from the very beginning with the sign of a tree of life in a garden in Eden, to the very end when the sign was offered as a vision of a city of God with a river running through it. Signs remind us that God has not abandoned us; God is dwelling with us. Signs are a gift to keep us looking towards the heavens and walking close to the earth.
Signs are available to us all. They are not reserved for some and we don't need clear vision or still waters. They shine forth in the midst of cloudy skies where fear or terror want to impede our ability to see new life and hope. They break through rocky ground where we remember our vulnerability. Signs are woven into in the fabric of creation to say that whatever is before your eyes Love gets the final word.
One of the most important, profound signs in my life came from a tiny slip of paper that fell from my father's prayer book. He was an Episcopal priest who was killed by a drunk driver when I was 5 years old. I never saw a sermon he wrote and didn't know much about his work; but after I was ordained, my mother gave me his old 1928 prayer book. For several years, I prayed the daily offices, holding his book carefully and marveling at the worn pages where his fingers turned the same pages I was holding.
Then one day, a thin, square scrap of paper fell from the book, and I read the only sentence I have ever seen written in my father's hand: "In the shadow of his cross, may your soul find rest." A slip of paper with a single sentence became a powerful sign for me, reminding me that in the midst of this world, we don't have to wait until everything is settled to see a sign. We are to see them while we are still in the midst of the shadow of the cross. We don't have to wait for resurrection to feel the hope of new life and love. Even though death and trauma can feel like a haze over a holy vision that God brings to our senses, our calling is to look deeper, seeing the truth present in suffering.
Seeing signs isn't like putting on rose-colored glasses. It's not a magic trick, like looking into a 3-D image where if we squint our eyes, something beautiful will come out. Signs are more like wearing beatific lenses. Signs ask us to be willing to recognize the blessedness in the brokenness. And signs come at a cost that requires the discipline to look and look and pray and then surrender and to be willing to add our sweat and tears to whatever it is we're seeing.
On a cold and snowy Friday night this winter a group from the community of Thistle Farms were in the diocese of Chicago. Thistle Farms is a movement that celebrates women's freedom and includes residential communities for survivors of trafficking, prostitution, addiction, and violence, as well as a company that manufactures and sells all-natural products. We travel around the country selling the products and sharing the story of hope that women recover and communities can heal. After our presentation on this Friday night, it started snowing like crazy. Three of the survivor leaders of Thistle Farms and I decided to take a late night walk by the conference center and play in the snow. The women felt a bit more scared when we walked down by the lake as the snow was thick, and the path became slippery. So they did what anyone would do: they grabbed hands.
Following from behind, I saw the three shadowed figures on the snowy night by a lake holding hands. And unexpectedly and gracefully I could see the sign before me. It was plain and simple; it was more than fifteen years in the making, and it brought me to tears. Alone many of the women walked the streets and fell down plenty. Alone they knew the inside of prison walls, the backside of anger, the short side of justice, and the underside of bridges. But together they were strong, and I knew without a shadow of a doubt that no one was going to fall. The sign inspired and humbled me to keep going and to remember that to heal we have to hold on to each other.
Epiphany is the season to see three women walking by a lake in the late night snow as a sign of Love incarnate, to see women holding onto one another as a sign of how we should walk and live together, to see that this world is imbued with God's beauty and grace. The signs are in starry patterns in the night sky. They are given to us in the scattered leaves offered like breadcrumbs on a road of hope. You can see them in rich wine, on slips of paper, and in the wonder of a snowy walk. You can experience signs in dreams where fears are laid aside and hearts are wide open. You can find them; we just need to keep praying for eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to feel them. Then we take those signs and use them to help us love the world over and over again until we get it right.
May these Signs and more resound so greatly in your senses that all you are left with is the impulse to kneel and weep, with joy, with hope, with forgiveness, with the Promise that God's Kingdom is always closer than we might think.