Learning Time for Epiphany at Harrow United Church

Video of the Worship Service for January 2, 2022

Acknowledgment of the Land

In the teachings of many indigenous peoples, the year is comprised of a cycle of 13 moons. Each moon reflects changes in the environment, and traditional teachings provide ongoing guidance on how to establish the good life. In the Anishinaabe calendar, it is the time of the Great Spirit Moon, when we are encouraged to sit in silence and reflect on our place in creation.

Nothing does that for me more than looking up at the stars on a cold clear night. Where I grew up, we could sometimes see the Northern Lights. The night sky has stories.

On the church calendar, we are entering the season of Epiphany. It’s a time to celebrate the showing of a great light. We listen again to the story of the Magi, sometimes described as astrologers, observers of the night sky. They travelled from distant lands, following a star, to visit the newborn Christ child. The Magi were not Jewish, and their presence in Matthew’s Nativity story has come to represent the promise that the message of the Christ child is for all people.

In the many centuries since the Magi made their pilgrimage across land, and cultures and traditions, many followers of Jesus have travelled to bring their faith to new lands. Too often, the wondrous gift of the message of God’s love came wrapped in a package that included the assumption that non-European cultures and peoples were inferior, or even unwholesome.

We only need to think about Canada’s Indian Residential School System to see how disastrous it is when a religion’s missionary efforts are uncritically aligned with our biases and worst impulses.

We acknowledge that this place where we gather, to seek and share the light, and hear the stories of faith, is on landhonoured by the Wampum Treaties; agreements between the Anishinaabe , Haudenosaunee , Lenni, Lenape and allied Nations to peacefully share and care for the resources around the Great Lakes. We acknowledge the presence of the Three Fires Confederacy (Ojibwe, Odawa, Potawatomi and Huron/Wendat) Peoples and the Caldwell First Nation. We share history and desire a better future with all First Nations, Inuit and Métis people.

Video: https://youtu.be/ynBRP9z02Ds

Hawaiian-born Shawn Ishimoto, does his version of the James Taylor song “Home by Another Way”.

Scripture Readings

Reader: Isaiah 60 :1-6 (The Inclusive Bible)

 “Arise, shine, for your light has come!

the glory of YHWH is rising upon you!

Though darkness still covers the earth and dense clouds enshroud the peoples,

upon you YHWH now dawns, and God’s glory will be seen among you!

The nations will come to your light and the leaders to your bright dawn!

Lift up your eyes, and look around:

they’re all gathering and coming to you—your daughters and your sons

journey from afar, escorted in safety;

you’ll see them and beam with joy, your heart will swell with pride.

The riches of the sea will flow to you, and the wealth of the nations will come to you—

camel caravans will cover your roads, the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah;

everyone in Sheba will come, bringing gold and incense and singing the praise of YHWH.

Reader: Gospel of Matthew 2:1-12 (The Inclusive Bible)

After Jesus’ birth—which happened in Bethlehem of Judea, during the reign of Herod—astrologers from the East arrived in Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the newborn ruler of the Jews? We observed his star at its rising and have come to pay homage.”

At this news Herod became greatly disturbed, as did all of Jerusalem. Summoning all the chief priests and religious scholars of the people, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 

“In Bethlehem of Judea,” they informed him. “Here is what the prophet has written:

‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah,

are by no means least among the leaders of Judah,

since from you will come a ruler

who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ ”

Herod called the astrologers aside and found out from them the exact time of the star’s appearance. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, after having instructed them, “Go and get detailed information about the child. When you have found him, report back to me—so that I may go and offer homage, too.”

After their audience with the ruler, they set out.  The star which they had observed at its rising went ahead of them until it came to a standstill over the place where the child lay. They were overjoyed at seeing the star and, upon entering the house, found the child with Mary, his mother.

They prostrated themselves and paid homage. Then they opened their coffers and presented the child with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. They were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, so they went back to their own country by another route.

Learning Time: “Kings? Magi? Wise Men?”

Link to Audio File of this learning time:

This may be a trick question. Who invented the light bulb?

I used to think it was Thomas Edison. The truth is many other scientists and inventors experimented with different models of light bulbs for at least 50 years before Edison. Edison’s laboratory hired a Princeton physicist named Frances Upton to study the earlier efforts so the lab could perfect a commercially viable version. Edison bought one of the earlier patents and used much of that design for his own light bulb.

Most inventions are collaborations, based on earlier work. Which is a less dramatic story than that of Edison slaving away, all alone in the lab, burning the midnight oil, (because there is no electric light) trying thousands of variations until he finds the design that will do the job. 

I’ve heard motivational speakers and preachers use Edison as an example of what you can do if you just keep trying. They use his famous quote, “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” It’s a great message about persistence, that also perpetuates the myth that Edison invented the light bulb all by himself.

It’s one of those cases where unfortunately, the truth can get in the way of a great story. It really does make such a great story.  And such a great image! Often in comic strips or tv shows they show a light bulb shining over someone’s head when they get an idea, or when everything suddenly makes sense. We talk about the moment the light comes on, or we say something has dawned on us, or we have seen the light.

If you look at icons, religious paintings, even stained glass windows, there are often halos, or glowing light around the faces- this is an artistic convention that says- this was a holy, or special person- who seemed to radiate God’s love.

For the last few weeks in church we’ve heard about the Magi. We have the idea that because there are 3 gifts, the gold, frankincense, and myrrh, there must be three people delivering them. We even have names for them: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, but those names were added to the story hundreds of years after Matthew’s Gospel was written.

Syrian Christians call them Larvandad, Gushnasaph, and Hormisdas. In Ethiopia, the Magi are called Hor, Karsudan, and Basanater.  Many Chinese Christians believe that one of the magi came from China. In some traditions they talk about there being as many as 12 travelers. 

The word Magi derives from an Old Persian word “magus”, the name for priests of the Zoroastrian religion. Zoroastrians were very interested in the stars. Their reputation as astrologers led to the term Magi being connected with the occult, and this led to the development of the English word “magic”.

The Zoroastrian faith predates Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and is still around. It was the first monotheistic religion- featuring the worship of just one God, that they call Ahura Mazda.

They believe humanity has a role to play in the universal conflict between order and chaos. They have a moral code summed up in the words “Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds. They teach the equality of all, regardless of race, sex or social position.

Zoroastrian worship and prayers always take place in the presence of some form of fire, which is considered to evident in any source of light. We kind of do that, with our Advent and Christ candles, and passing the flame from candle to candle on Christmas Eve.

When the Magi leave Mary and Joseph and the baby, they are warned in a dream to avoid King Herod, and they head home another way, and are never mentioned in the Bible again.

Traditions built up over time to continue their story. One story is the Magi continued to travel for many years, and they met up with the Apostle Thomas while he was on his way to India, after the first Easter. That legend says Thomas baptized them, and they later became bishops.

Another story says Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine found their buried remains, had them dug up, and brought to Constantinople. Later the bones were moved to the Shrine of the Three Kings at the Cologne Cathedral. One story said the remains of each Magi were carried on a different boat, which is reflected in the old carol “I saw three ships come sailing in”. 

Another tradition is the visitors from the East were Kings. The gifts they carried were all very expensive, the kind of things Kings might have laying around the palace. There is also a line in Psalm 72 that talks about kings from foreign lands bringing tribute gifts to Israel’s king.

Epiphany, the name for the day when we tell the story of the Magi, is an English word that comes from ancient Greek words “Epi-phanos”, which translate roughly as “manifestation” or “appearance” or “making known”. It means that something previously hidden has been revealed. A sunrise is a kind of epiphany, a moment when darkness is sliced open by light. 

That sounds a lot like the prologue to John’s Gospel, which has no nativity story, but instead says:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

No baby. No stable. No Magi. Not even Mary and Joseph. Just the Word, and life, and light.

The early Christians didn’t do Christmas. For the first 3 centuries of Christianity, there was no celebration of Jesus’ birth.

The Easter story was celebrated every Sunday. Epiphany was the big holiday, celebrated early in the new year. It marked not the birth of Jesus, but the visit of the Magi, or Wise Men to the infant Jesus. This was considered vitally important, because the Magi were not Jewish.

The Good News about God’s love is not just for one people in one place, but for all people in every place. The light shines for everyone.

I have another trick question. Who discovered God? Who has the right story to tell about God?

Some Christians give the rest of us a bad name, by claiming to have exclusive rights, to the only right story about God. It reminds me of the myth that Edison invented the light bulb. Christians didn’t invent God, and do not hold the patent or franchise on seeing the light of God.

Because Matthew’s Gospel includes the story, and the early church kept the story- we have a clue that the earliest Jesus followers gave respect to people of other faiths and backgrounds.

They recognized that the Magi, and other people from the foreign lands they represent, could know and follow after God, even though they were not Jews. They were also not Christians, because being Christian hadn’t yet been invented. The Magi were people of another faith, who were remembered because they honoured the founder of our faith.

Perhaps one of the best ways we can let our light shine in our time, is to offer friendship and respect to sincere people of all faiths, even people from cultures that seem very foreign to us. Jesus has shined God’s loving light on us. We are free to see God’s light shining in a whole sky of stars- not just one light.

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