Mystery in the Stars: The Story of Epiphany

milky way on mountains

Today is the feast of Epiphany in the church calendar. The day when we celebrate those three wise men who came to visit Jesus and bring him gifts. The word epiphany itself comes from ancient Greek times. Before it was used to describe the moment of Christ’s being revealed to the world it was used to describe the celebration of any god who had appeared in a particular place and time. Such as the epiphany of Apollos at Delphi or the epiphany of Zeus at Panamara.

When Christians speak of Epiphany we speak specifically of the epiphany of Emmanuel at Bethlehem. The appearance of the heavenly Father in the form of a human child. The feast of Epiphany in Christianity marks the celebration of Emmanuel being revealed to the world. However, the word epiphany in common use today has come to mean something less specific. It no longer means a God made manifest in the world, now it means a spiritual realization, something which changes us and who we are.

If I were to say to you that I had an epiphany, you would assume I meant I had an a-ha moment, that I had screamed “Eureka!” and leaped out of the bath tub like Archimedes. This is because today epiphany means a profound realization, typically one which changes who we are in some fashion. An Epiphany is a life changing understanding which comes to us in a flash. This is likely because somewhere in the subconscious of our culture we still assume inspiration comes from God.

But either way, whether you use the word in the ancient Greek sense, the traditional Christian sense, or the modern secular sense, the word epiphany denotes a sense of interaction between the world of the mundane and the world of the divine. It implies a sort of revelation, whether it be physical, mental, or spiritual. Today, on the celebration of Epiphany, we recognize the beauty that is God’s presence in the world.

We recognize God’s presence in the world as the baby Jesus in particular, but also generally, in our own lives, in our hearts and minds, and even in the stars and in our dreams. The story from Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 2:1-12) of the three wise men fulfills the words of the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 60:1-9)

Isaiah was prophesying about the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth. Specifically, wise men who came bearing gifts and following a star. These wise men must have had great faith to follow a mysterious star through the night to a little insignificant barn in a little insignificant town so that they could worship a baby born to two lowly peasants and resting with animals in the hay.

But how could they have known to follow that star? How could they have known it would lead them to a baby? And how could they have known that this baby was born king of the Jews? What sort of wisdom is this that allows them to know these things, as the wise men themselves put it, simply by “watching his star rise”? There is some sort of mystery which we do not have knowledge of here. Not only the mystery of what these wise men knew and did but the mystery of Isaiah’s prediction of it 700 years before it happened.

The word mystery comes from the Greek Mysterion, which means a secret rite or doctrine. The Bible speaks about the mysteries of God and of Christ in many instances. In his letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 2), Paul speaks plainly about secret mysteries only available to those who are, what he calls, “mature” or “spiritual”. So, these mysteries are not something which is unknowable, but something which is only understood by those who have matured in their faith.

The mysteries of God are something which can be known, at least in part, by those who are dedicated and earnest. God’s mystery is not unknowable but infinitely knowable. We can constantly know more and yet never know it all. Much like the wise men who were able to interpret the meaning of the stars and greet the infant Christ, or the prophet Isaiah who was able to see the entire scene 700 years before it happened, we are able to tap into the mystery of God. God’s wisdom is out there waiting for us to find it.

Paul says that these mysteries were revealed to him, and his companions, directly by the Spirit. Paul explains that the Spirit of God searches all things, even the depths of God, and that it alone knows God’s being in entirety. Paul emphasizes that these teachings are not of this world, nor communicated by the words of men, but that these things can only be taught by the Spirit. The true wisdom of God cannot be communicated through words, it is something which surpasses all language and all the wisdom of this world.

This means that even Paul himself cannot communicate these mysteries to us completely. Even his teaching can only show us God’s mysteries, as he put it later in his letter, as if we were looking at them through a dirty window. The only way to come to understand the mysteries which surpass language is direct revelation from the Spirit itself. This revelation can come in many forms. At the end of the passage we read from Matthew the three wise men are warned in a dream not to return to Herod with information about the location of the baby Jesus. Of course, Herod would have killed the boy if he had found him, so it is very fortunate that they had this dream, and that they acted upon it.

Dreams are one method by which we can encounter the mysteries of God, but it is not always easy to interpret them or understand them, sometimes they are weird and confusing, they don’t always make sense. They are often entwined with the incoherent ramblings of our subconscious minds. If one is looking for easy answers, dreams are not usually the place to look. But God does not necessarily want us to have easy answers, sometimes we are meant to sit in awe of the mystery which is God.

The mysteries of the Lord may be something which we can know in part but the knowledge of God never ends and we can never reach the depths of that sea. Kallistos Ware, a contemporary and English speaking bishop of the Eastern Orthodox Church, has this to say about the subject:

“We see that it is not the task of Christianity to provide easy answers to every question, but to make us progressively aware of a mystery. God is not so much the object of our knowledge as the cause of our wonder…In the Christian context, we do not mean by a “mystery” merely that which is baffling and mysterious, an enigma or insoluble problem. A mystery is, on the contrary, something that is revealed for our understanding, but which we never understand exhaustively because it leads into the depth or the darkness of God. The eyes are closed—but they are also opened.”

He says here that a mystery is something which has been revealed for our understanding. The word reveal has the same root as the word revelation which is the Latin revelare. Revelare means to unveil, uncover, or lay bare. In the religious sense revelation is an act of God upon the human mind which uncovers the truth hidden there. We often speak of scripture as divine revelation, something which was physically written by human hands but which was made known to the person writing it by a divine act of unveiling.

The Holy Spirit has the ability to remove the veil which covers our eyes. As Jesus often put it, we are given eyes which can see or ears which can hear – as if our eyes and ears are covered by veils which need to be removed. This act of removing the veil which covers our eyes reveals something which was there all along. The issue is not that the mysteries are far removed from us, the issue is that we have eyes but do not see, ears but do not hear.

The magi in the reading from Matthew followed a star. Now, a star is not something which is hidden, it is a bright light in the sky for all to see. Yet Herod, who wished very much to find the baby Jesus as well, while being perfectly able to see the star, could not understand its true meaning. He had eyes but could not see. He did not understand the significance of the things around him. There was a veil which prevented him from understanding the mystery of the Heavens. The veil which covered Herod’s eyes was the meditation in his heart, his intentions were evil and he was full of pride. The wise men, on the contrary, were humble. They traveled a great distance to bring lavish gifts to and kneel before a baby in a barn.

It seems, from this story at least, that humility is the key which opens the door to God’s mysteries, those who praise the Lord, even when he comes in the form of a helpless child in an insignificant town in a faraway land, those humble and wise men will have the mysteries of the heavens revealed to them and the Lord will speak to them in their dreams. While the proud, people like the king Herod who wanted to maintain his position of power and who was willing to manipulate the wise men so that he could kill the Lord incarnate, a proud man like this had his eyes covered, he had ears but could not hear.

We must kneel before the power of God and be humble before the innocence of the Christ child if we wish to have the veil removed from our eyes. The mysteries of God can be found all around us. They can be found in the stars and in our dreams, they can be found in scripture and sacred music, they can be found in the words of our family and loved ones, in the rising and setting of the sun, they can be found in silence, they can be found anywhere and everywhere.

But, if we are to see them, we must mature in our faith. We must be the spiritual people which Paul spoke of. We must live in the glory and power of the Holy Spirit and be simple servants of what is good and just. We must be humble enough to kneel before an infant, have faith enough to follow a star to a distant land, and be wise enough to listen to our dreams.

So my friends, I encourage you to look deeply at the world around you, see what is on the surface but also see what lies beneath it. Do not be afraid to hear God’s call, do not be afraid to see God’s mysteries in the stars, or in your dreams, or in the way the sun rises or the way the wind blows. Our God is master of all of nature and he can speak to us in any way he chooses. But know that God is speaking to you, always and forever. In every moment there is a message from Heaven for those who have eyes that see and ears that hear.

We need never be in doubt or feel lost, for our savior leads us along the path of life. We never need to feel alone for God is present in the rolling thunder and the quiet stillness, God is present in everything, just barely hidden underneath the veil of this world. Lift that veil, peek behind the obvious and behold the mysteries which await you there. And in so doing, you will come to know the mysteries of God, you will come to understand where God is leading you and what God is telling you.

You will come to live in communion with the Holy Spirit and partake in its power and its peace. And once you have found this place, this place which is here hidden beneath the veil of pride, doubt, and distraction, you will become instruments of God’s peace and servants of the infant Christ. This is the most important task in the Christian life: to know the mystery. Not to understand it and dissect it, but to have touched it, to know how vast and loving it is.

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