Many Christians just celebrated Epiphany, the twelfth day of Christmas and the day the three wise visited the baby Jesus. It began the tradition of gift-giving at Christmas and also represents the true message of how God came to earth as a helpless infant. For me, it also suggests the power of the natural world to affirm our majesty and power and to open up new possibilities – if only we but follow the heavenly stars to our own new vision of freedom.
You may remember that, during the darkest days in the history of our country when people bought and sold other people whom they could then treat worst than the vilest of farm animals, there were a few courageous souls – God-fearing whites and daring blacks – who developed an elaborate system of secret hiding places to help runaways find their way north to freedom. The Underground Railroad relied on markers in trees, special lights hung out at certain hours, quilts of particular colors hung out to dry, and other such signals to set the path. Many of them had learned the popular folk tune, “Follow the Drinking Gourd.”
Follow the drinking gourd
Follow the drinking gourd
For the old man is a-waitin’
For to carry you to freedom
Follow the drinking gourd.
The verses were elaborate codes devised by an itinerant white carpenter (the “old man”) who went from plantation to plantation, teaching the song to slaves from Alabama and Mississippi. It led them up along the Tennessee and Ohio Rivers to the northern states and, later, Canada. Hounded by dogs and slave owners, the runaways and their accomplices faced torture and certain death if they were caught. The “drinking gourd” is the constellation we know as the Big Dipper. If you look at the two sides of the cup that are opposite the handle and multiply the distance between the two stars by seven, you will see the North Star, also called Polaris.
The black slaves and their supporters were not the first to follow a star to freedom. Two thousand years ago, three kings from the Orient followed a star to Bethlehem. Without knowing much about it, it seems like nice, romantic little tale, but that doesn’t do justice to the story. First, it was a time of terrible oppression. The period of Roman occupation in Palestine was different – but fully as gruesome – as the days of slavery before the Civil War. Taxes were upwards of 60-70%, and people lost their land to pay tribute to the Roman Empire and those Jewish authorities that supported Caesar. Some people sold themselves and their children into slavery, because it was that or starvation. Five percent of the people owned 95% of the wealth, and the rest suffered, cruelly and unmercifully.
Second, “kings” is a misnomer. The three men who came to Bethlehem were probably astrologers from Babylon or further east. Astrologers were the first astronomers, who were, in turn, the scholars and scientists of the ancient world. The term “magi” is the root of magician, and it designated someone of exceptional wisdom and knowledge. Think Gandolf, as in Lord of the Rings, and you get a pretty good idea of the caliber of these three people – men who could envision a world different from what they saw around them, namely a world of goodness, kindness, justice, and freedom. For them, Jesus symbolized a new way of living. In presenting him with gold, frankincense, and myrrh, the Magi were acknowledging Jesus’ kingship, his priesthood, and his humanity, that is, honoring the fact that the God who is king is also fully human and fully vulnerable – just like us. In recognizing the love of God embodied in this tiny child, these three wisest of all wise men could see a way out of the oppression and injustice of the Roman Empire. Think stars, think freedom.
Epiphany is a Greek word that means to “shine upon” or to “give light.” It means a dramatic uncovering or sudden awareness that changes one’s sense of reality. Suddenly you see what is happening and what is possible in a whole new light. It’s an “ah ha” moment, in which you blurt out, “Eureka – now I see it. Now I understand.” St. Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus was an epiphany. The runaway slaves vision of freedom was an epiphany. The Magi’s recognition that a tiny infant could and would change the world was an epiphany.
I had a dramatic epiphany about 25 years ago, during the darkest period of my life. My husband had decided, rather suddenly, to end the marriage, leaving me with two kids, an expensive mortgage, and not much else. I felt alone, helpless, trapped – consumed with terror and anger. The rage was a poison within my body, like the cancer that had killed my mother years earlier. I knew that it only hurt the children and me and had little effect on my estranged husband, but I was powerless to rid myself of it. I began praying with fervor unlike any time previously.
One autumn weekend, I went camping in the mountains with friends. Around midnight, leaving my kids sleeping in the tent with our trusty dog, four of us went walking to view the stars. It was an extraordinary sight: never had I seen so many stars in the world. I thought back to all of the isolated places I had ever and I couldn’t remember seeing so many stars. My mind wandered to the ancient Phoenicians and Norsemen and others who traveled by the stars. And I wondered if the sky sparkled like this when the shepherds watched at the time of the Nativity.
About fifteen minutes into the walk, I saw the shooting star. It didn’t register much at first, sort of a subconscious thought, “Yup, there’s a shooting star,” as it streaked across an eighth of the night sky. But one of my friends had noticed it too, and asked excitedly whether I had seen it or not. I gave her a smile and probably said something pleasant and noncommittal. I really didn’t want to talk, for I was too enraptured just scanning the sky, and searching for the occasional meteor. I thought some about my current life, but spent more time pondering ancient history, my childhood, and the universe as a whole. I remembered that, in native American spirituality, the stars are our ancestors looked down from the heavens, and I felt wondrously peaceful and complete. I was so happy to be there at that time, at that place. The entire sky was sparkling, radiant, glowing.
And then I glanced at the ground, and it was luminous, as were the shrubs and trees. I looked at my friends, and they sparkled also. And so did I – rather like we had all been gently dabbed with Tinkerbell’s fairy dust. The heavens had opened and the stars had feathered their way down to earth. The delicate energy of God was present inside, outside, all around me… I experienced a unity that I had never known before, in which there were no boundaries of time or place. Past, present, and future were one; here and there were one. I was a child visiting her grandparents in the mountains of Massachusetts, I was an explorer on an ancient canoe, I was a shepherd in Bethlehem, I was a mother whose kids were sleeping contentedly in a modern nylon tent. All the stars were friends and relatives who cared for me. They were sparkling with happiness and cheering me on, saying, “You can do it, girl. We know you can.” I just kept repeating, “Thank you God,” to myself. It was involuntary: I had to thank God.
I later learned that this was a classic religious experience, in which one recognizes God’s grace as a powerful and unmerited gift. In that moment, my cancerous rage disappeared forever, for I had felt God’s love as a warm and comforting hug on a cold and private night. I knew instantly that God loved me and that my children and I would, somehow, survive. I was liberated from the rage and the fear. The stars that came to earth and surrounded my friends and me was the most powerful gift I have ever received. It’s the reason I eventually went into ordained ministry, for it changed my understanding of God, the world, and myself. Think stars, think freedom.
And what about you? What is the sudden revelation that the stars might offer? Consider those attachments that keep you from being fully free. Consider those fears that keep you bound in fetters. Is it anger? Jealousy? Physical decline? Loneliness? Is it an addiction that you would like to liberate yourself from? Is it the sense of inadequacy – physical, psychological, financial, or other? – We are so attached to our emotions and to our material supports that they cloud our vision. We live in darkness, blind to the stars and to the holy in our midst.
So, in your mind’s eye, feel the magi’s gifts coming to you. There is myrrh to acknowledge your humanity, incense to affirm you as an agent of God’s love, and gold to honor your majesty. Feel also the stars that come and dance around you, kissing you with God’s comfort and affection. The gifts of the Magi and of the stars are God’s gift to you. They are gifts of courage, freedom, clear thinking, and clear seeing. They are the gifts of liberation from false attachments and false fears. Think stars, think freedom, follow the Drinking Gourd.
On Epiphany, the twelfth day of Christmas, this is God’s most incredible gift to us.. It is nothing to do with belief; it has nothing to do with some supernatural entity directing what happens in the world. On the contrary, it has everything to do with mystery, connection, peace, and freedom. That is the message of the three kings: the freedom to see the world, others, and ourselves in a new way, in the way of Jesus and the runaway slaves, with liberation and love.
Blessings to you on this New Year and throughout 2018.