You might be surprised to discover that this week we are still thinking about the Christmas story because this weekend we mark Epiphany. “Epiphany” means revelation. It is a discovery, a time of something being revealed, an “aha” moment. The story is quite well known about travellers who we call wise, who follow a star believing that God is revealing something to them, even though they are not the people of this God. It is also a story of a frightened and overwhelmed king who becomes angry and murders his own people and at its heart. It is a story of choices: do we choose to look for God and how we choose to respond if we discover God?
To help me reflect on this I turned to the writing of Steven Charleston, a Native American and former Episcopal Bishop of Alaska, and he writes about faith using teachings from Christian Scripture and his own Native American spirituality. He sees the connections – he is a wise man of our time. In his book ‘Ladder to the Light’, he talks about the “Kiva”, which is our picture this week. A kiva is a sacred space in Native American spirituality and is the equivalent of a Cathedral. However, unlike a Cathedral you don’t go into something to look up at the grandeur because a Kiva is built into the ground and you go down a hole to get into it, and once you are in it, if there is no fire down there, the only place that light comes from is the hole above you. It is a place to discover that you do not need to be afraid of the dark. It is a place where you can remember that you have survived dark times before, and a place to discover afresh that the darkness is not all that there is. For the light is still there, but you have to notice where it is and have the faith to climb the ladder to the light. Each rung on the ladder takes you closer to the light, and in his book, he describes the first rung as the rung of faith “the ascent of light begins with each if us. It is our ability to trust what we cannot see.”
It seems that the Epiphany story is a story of deciding to look for light. This is what the wise travellers do: they notice God at work; they expect God to be at work; they dare to do the foolish things; they go on a journey when they don’t know where they are going. They discover that the foolishness ends up being God’s wisdom at work!
We can discover this light by looking up, and also by daring to have a larger vision. We can also discover it by connecting ourselves to those who have a larger vision. But in a world where we can be afraid of the darkness around it is hard to see the light, never mind have the faith to follow it.
When we are frightened, or overwhelmed by all that threatens there are 3 widely recognised ways that humans respond: Fight, flight or freeze. You may have heard of this. Flight is that we run away and hope it doesn’t catch up with us and so fail to engage with reality. Fight is when we attack what we see as threatening and seek blame others (social media is full of people attacking by blaming). Freeze is when we are so fearful, we do nothing. In the Epiphany story in Matthew Herod is a frightened man, who chooses to fight, and the consequence if terrible. Along with frightened people who attack by blaming we also have a lot of frightened people in the world who attack with physical force and the reality of that is terrifyingly plain in our world this very day.
But there is another way of responding when we are fearful and angry. When I am afraid and become angry, my nurture and nature lead me to an unhelpful mix of fight and freeze. The two tend to conflict with each other and make it impossible for me to think or act in a helpful way. I am gripped emotionally and physically by the stress, my heart pounds, my gut tightens, my palms sweat, and I struggled to be coherent. This sensation can overwhelm me for quite some time.
I’ve recently discovered that if I look in a different direction within myself, if I look towards God – the truth beyond me – I open myself up to a different response. I call it “repentance” because repentance simply means “turn around” or “look/go in another direction”. When I find myself fearful and angry I try to gently remind myself to internally look in another direction – the direction of God – and I am discovering that in the midst of my fear and anger, I remember a different response: love, openness, hope. The fear and anger is not all there is. Is there any chance of love here? This isn’t about saying the hurt and fear and anger are not important – for when we are angry, it is usually because something is important – but what is does do is say there might be a better way to respond that will move us out of the incoherent cycle that other responses can create. To do this of course we need to give ourselves some space – step away, breath, don’t respond immediately. We might call this space “prayer”.
Steven Charleston, who I mentioned before, puts it like this and sums up Epiphany for me this year: “The first step up the Kiva ladder is the step of trust. Do we trust our own vision? Do we trust in love? Do we trust in a truth greater than ourselves? The answers that we give to these questions are the rung of faith. While we are in the kiva, in the darkness we begin developing our spiritual vision. Even if we cannot yet see the light, we imagine it. We believe in what is not visible, trusting that our own spiritual instincts, our own sense of love and justice, will reveal to us a light that can change our reality.”
Epiphany is a willingness to look for the light and the faith to step towards it, for epiphanies don’t just happen, they come when we choose to have faith in that truth that is greater than ourselves!
I pray that you will know the light of God in your life as we journey into 2024 and that your faith will sustain you with the knowledge of the truth that is greater than ourselves. If you’d like to talk about anything I’ve written here or anything at all, please send us a message and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can.
Rev Anne, Epiphany 2024