Spirit, Learning and Life

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What You Seek Is Seeking You

by Eldon Heinrichs

WELCOME TO THE season of Epiphany. I’ve often said how much I like Epiphany more than Christmas. The dust has settled, the expectations have been lowered, new rhythms are being established in light of the possibilities of a new year. The Christ child is still a newborn, oblivious to angels and shepherds, magi and sheep, a vulnerable human consciousness still awakening. We humans are trying to awaken too - from the hangover of Christmas and the sleepiness of winter.

What you seek is seeking you

image by Lydia Penner

Epiphany in History

Epiphany begins after the 12 days of Christmas. (Yes, those twelve days of milking maids and partridges in pear trees!) The twelfth night of Christmas, also referred to as the eve of Epiphany, is a day that commemorates the visit of the Magi to the baby Jesus and was traditionally celebrated with partying and revelry - a temporary suspension of rules and social conventions. In Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night, named in honour of this day, there is an overturning of conventional social norms and gender roles, along with the general merriment around such chaos (think of Mardi Gras before Lent.)

In the Church of England, the Twelfth Night was when celebrants sang songs, defaced doors with chalk, and ate Three Kings’ or Twelfth Night cake. Inside the cake was baked a bean and a pea. The cake was passed out to everyone in the household, including servants, one of the few nights where such social mixing was allowed. Who ever found the bean was declared King of Misrule, whoever found the pea in their cake was declared Queen of Misrule. The evening would proceed with the merriment and chaos of possible gender reversals and overturning of power structures. It’s like what happens in The Prince and the Pauper, where the king becomes the poor person and vice versa.

The Feast of Epiphany on January 6 would traditionally have been preceded by the gentle mocking of conventional norms, the temporary upending of social order, and the playful reversal of gender roles. From the hull of this pretend shipwreck, the difficult journey from the Twelfth Night of Christmas into Epiphany’s new morning might begin, a possible rebirth into a new way of being human, of being together, or of organizing ourselves into something that looks more like Jesus. It is a celebration of our new birth, a pilgrim journey to Bethlehem. Rebirth is a painful process as well, because it requires the death of old ways of being. Epiphany is also therefore marked by “dis-aster”, (“dis” means ruined and “aster” means star) - a ruined star, where things are turned over to make way for the new. (Interesting that Epiphany and the January 6 riot in the USA are the same day.)

We humans have an instinct that the world is not right, but a complete inability to bring it about, so we dabble in anarchy, we pretend we are something we are not, but after the revelry is over must confess that we do not have enough light for the
path ahead. Things do not change. In our hungover state we we squint to the West and notice the sparse light of a distant star and begin moving our feet.

Origin of the Word

Epiphany is from the Greek word epiphaneia meaning a “manifestation” or “striking appearance”, also, “to display”, “to show off” or “to come suddenly into view," It is also the name of festival held in commemoration of the appearance of a god at some particular place. In literature, an epiphany marks the turn where the protagonist is forever changed and cannot return. Epiphany texts in the Orthodox tradition feature Jesus’s baptism and his first miracle (water into wine) occasions when the veil was lifted - the identity and mission of Jesus was revealed.

Epiphany is made up of two words. “Epi” meaning on, upon, above, close to, leaning towards, beside, in the way of, or near to. It’s a funny word because when they say there’s an “epicenter” of an earthquake, why don’t they just say the center? They say it’s the “epicenter” because they’re unsure where the center really is - it could be 6 km underground. It’s “near the center” of where it’s being felt. The word “demic” in “epidemic” means “the people” which means it’s “near the people”. The second part of “epiphany” is the greek word phainein which means to "bring to light, make appear, to shine, to make visible, to manifest, to strike with awe.” So for example, the word “theophany” means “the appearance of a god”.

Epiphany is a journey into learning how to see.

So why is this day called epi-phany not “theo-phany”? After all, it is a well established credal, doctrinal tradition that this child is indeed “Emmanuel” i.e. God with us. It’s in using that funny little prefix “epi” that things get interesting. This word is a descriptor of an area, a direction, an approximation. “Look over here, in this direction, here is the neighbourhood, you’re getting close.” What are you getting close to? A shining, a manifestation, an appearance, a sudden awakening. It’s a description of a journey - “go this way” - not of an arrival: a journey into an ever deepening mystery.

The poet David Whyte gets at very this idea when he writes:

We are in effect, always close; always close to the ultimate secret: that we are more real in our simple wish to find a way than any destination we could reach: the step between not understanding that and understanding that, it's as close as we get to happiness.

It’s interesting because we often think of happiness related to an arrival instead of a journey into something.

Epiphany as Journey

It is not a short walk from Bethlehem to the cross, from “eight pound baby Jesus” to the high Christology of John’s gospel or the Christ Hymn in Colossians. This mystery of incarnation is more than we can grasp, but it sets us on the way to discover who this Jesus is and ultimately who we are. Whyte continues:

Our human essence lies not in arrival, but in being almost there: we are creatures who are on our way, our journey a series of impending anticipated arrivals ... human beings do not find their essence through fulfillment or eventual arrival but by staying close to the way. They hold the conversation between the ground on which they stand and the horizon to which they go.

The Magi are deep in conversation between the Zoroastrian ground on which they stand and the astral horizon to which they go. It’s interesting that God speaks to them in the language they understand, which is stars. Their journey begins with the barest of signs, the longest of distances — a journey that will upset and upend their world. They desire to draw close — but to what? What they know and what they discover will take time to unpack.

I imagine they prepare by bringing gifts for several eventualities; gold if they encounter a great king, or incense should they meet a great priest, or myrrh (a burial spice) should they meet death, possibly their own. (Matthew, no doubt, had his own reasons for telling this story.) For these first pilgrims, what they shall find is stranger - and more humble - than they can fathom, their gifts more poignant than they could imagine.

This story is beautifully re-imagined in T.S. Eliot’s poem “Journey of the Magi”, a deeply allegorical poem about the pain of spiritual journey and rebirth. It was written after Eliot himself had just experienced a dramatic conversion to the Anglican faith, which informed all of his poetry that came after. Though Eliot’s words are directly about one of the magi, the poem is more generally about the pains of letting go of one way of life and acknowledging the birth of another.

There is nothing romantic about this journey; it begins in the cold, the “worst time of year”, the “ways deep and the weather sharp.” The camels are sore and stubborn, the camel jockeys drunk, cursing, chasing women, the towns unfriendly. They decide to travel at night, and all the while their inner voices tell them this journey was a terrible mistake. Upon arriving back home they are still unsure of what they encountered:

…were we led all that way for Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Epiphany in Colossians

I couldn’t help but see how this poem could describe these new converts to Christ in the Colossians church, “no longer at home in the old dispensation, alienated from the local idols”, at times doubtful of the path forward.

Instead of shaping a homily around a passage, I picked a theme (Epiphany) and sought how that theme is reflected in the book of Colossians. If epiphany is about manifestation, revelation, the appearance of light, peering beneath the surface of things, where does that show up in Colossians? I simply looked for key words - darkness, mystery, secret, revelation - and movements: from dark to light, from mystery to knowing. Once revealed, what difference does it make on our spiritual journey - how do we live in this new dispensation? I scanned the book and let the verses speak for themselves, with a bit of commentary.
The Magi’s journey begins with the barest of signs, the longest of distances — a journey that will upset and upend their world.

All and in All: An Epiphany of Christ

Paul, known previously as Saul, was no stranger to a life-altering epiphany. On the road to Damascus, he experienced a startling and dramatic unveiling of who Christ was, and subsequently experienced the complete unmaking of his entire identity and calling. He spent eight years in the desert making sense of what happened to him. When Paul, in Colossians 1:13, writes “he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins,” he is talking from direct personal experience. This leads us to the first epiphany in Colossians, the Christ hymn in 1:15-20.

15-18 We look at this Son and see the God who cannot be seen. We look at this Son and see God’s original purpose in everything created. For everything, absolutely everything, above and below, visible and invisible, rank after rank after rank of angels—everything got started in him and finds its purpose in him

We know the rest. Christ is the one in whom, through whom, and for whom the entire cosmos is made, is sustained and is reconciled. Christ is the place, the intersection, where heaven and earth overlap and intersect. Christ is the meeting place, the new Temple. As The Message says “...so spacious is he, so expansive, that everything of God finds its proper place in him without crowding. ..all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe...get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies, all because of his death, his blood that poured down from the cross.

More epiphany language follows in v. 26-29.

This mystery has been kept in the dark for a long time, but now it’s out in the open. God wanted everyone...to know this rich and glorious secret inside and out...the mystery in a nutshell is just this: Christ is in you, so therefore you can look forward to sharing in God’s glory.

Sharing in Glory: An Epiphany of Believers

The epiphany of Christ, kept secret but now revealed, leads to a second epiphany, the revelation of the sons and daughters of God. God’s glory, hidden in creation, now revealed in the Son, is now revealed in us as we join the resurrection parade. This idea is carried forward in chapter 2:9,10.

Everything of God gets expressed in him, so you can see and hear him clearly. You don’t need a telescope, a microscope, or a horoscope to realize the fullness of Christ, and the emptiness of the universe without him. When you come to him, that fullness comes together for you, too.

These Colossians were looking for ecstatic experiences through ascetic practices or angelology, and here’s Paul saying, “You don’t need to go through all the song and dance to get this revelation. It’s coming to you!” When you come to him, that fullness comes together for you. It’s like what the poet Rumi says, “What you seek is seeking you."

In Chapter 3 Paul tries to explain this mutually unfolding epiphany:

For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (3:3-4)

The Message puts it this way:

Your old life is dead. Your new life, which is your real life—even though invisible to spectators—is with Christ in God. He is your life. When Christ (your real life, remember) shows up again on this earth, you’ll show up, too—the real you, the glorious you. Meanwhile, be content with obscurity, like Christ.

If we’re content with obscurity, we allow the revelation to unfold, as opposed to trying to make it happen. In my 20s, I remember how every testimony I gave had to have this dramatic God language, and they began to feel more about me than about Christ. How much better it would be to encourage the small revelations in others which may feel obscure to them.

The World Overturned - the Epiphany of a New Dispensation

We, the Kings and Queens of Misrule, now have a new template out of which to live our lives and order our world.

20 “Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: 21 “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? 22 These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. (2:20-22)

The rules have changed in light of this epiphany, and so has the social order been disrupted:

9b since you have taken off your old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. 11 Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. (3:9b-11)

Our deep suspicion that things in this world are not as they should be is confirmed. Anarchy, irony or insurrection are not enough.

2:11-15 Entering into this fullness is not something you figure out or achievje. It’s not a matter of being circumcised or keeping a long list of laws. No, you’re already in—insiders—not through some secretive initiation rite but rather through what Christ has already gone through for you, destroying the power of sin. ...He stripped all the spiritual tyrants in the universe of their sham authority at the Cross and marched them naked through the streets. (2:11-15)

The Journey

Epiphany is a journey into learning how to see. The Colossians had their own star maps, seeking spiritual revelation through ascetic practice and angelology, but Paul showed them that everything they sought was already theirs in the revelation of Jesus. Their own truest selves were hidden, but were now too being revealed. As their true lives are revealed it expresses itself in a new way of being together, a new way of ordering their lives, not around laws of prohibition, not around ethnic identities or class or gender, but by Christ who “is all and in all.” (3:11)

In Watershed we too are learning how to see. Like Zoroastrian wise men and women we have sat with our own star maps: enneagram, typology, psychology, spiral dynamics, literature. Those maps now make sense because of the guiding star of Christ, now more than just paper but a living journey of discovery. We journey together with our gifts in hand, our hidden lives now revealed: the mystery in a nutshell is just this: Christ in you.