Category Archives: Spiritual Life

Revisiting Epiphany

When Epiphany was still simply Epiphany and not so easily confused with January 6th, I met my friend Sarah at the neighboring church she pastored. Near the start of 2021, we sat in her minister’s study and nibbled on star-shaped vanilla sugar cookies that she and her daughter had baked for the Christian holiday. We took off our masks to snack and spoke some about how we understood the journey of the three Wise Ones and the gifts they each presented to Jesus in Bethlehem. Then I told Sarah about a recent Taylor Swift song titled “Epiphany”, a haunting tribute to the mass trauma the pandemic ushered into U.S. hospitals. In it, Taylor croons: “But you dream of some epiphany/ Just one single glimpse of relief/ To make some sense of what you’ve seen.” Thanks to my Catholic upbringing, I have long been devoted to Epiphany. 

Epiphany is that farthest reach of the winter holiday season in the West; I have always thought of its as a the day when we can all breathe a sigh of relief and as Taylor promised, make some sense of what we had seen ourselves: the ready and natural juxtaposition the shadow and the light; the ringing out of the old, the heralding of the new. Later that same day in January 2021, I was at the grocery store stocking the shelves that had gone bare at home, when the chair of my church board unexpectedly called and asked if I was watching the news. No, I was not. Why? She told me about the insurrectionists storming the halls of Congress in Washington, DC. It made so little sense to me at the time, the death and the destruction, and of course, the desecration of our nation’s capitol. 

JWST, 2022. Photo credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScl

It makes only marginally more sense to me today. I suspect most of us are still struggling to comprehend what happened to and in our country on Jan. 6th, 2021. My fairly immediate impulse was to make symbolic gesture of repair, so I ordered a couple of lawn sign from Braver Angels that read “Hold America Together”. A heart wrapped in stars and stripes was emblazoned on each, yet that flag seemed to resemble a bandage. When my signs arrived in the mail, I planted one on either side of our front walk, situated as bipartisan figures appearing to any motorists driving by us on Common Street. I intended to keep them up solely for the first 100 days of the new presidential administration, but then I changed my mind.

Early in January 2022, my friend Parisa told me that she felt the need to reclaim Epiphany from the tyranny of the 24/7 news cycle crowding that first week of the new calendar year. The year prior, the insurrectionists had desecrated a holiday every bit as much as they had a landmark. So I suggested that she and a couple of other minister friends of mine to come over to my house that Epiphany morning. Following Sarah’s lead, I put out star-shaped sugar cookies; this time, mine were covered in dark chocolate and studded with sugar pearls. All of us sat around a table in my back yard so we would not need to wear masks while we snacked on them. We would celebrate the religious holiday we knew from our upbringing and our ministering, the one we loved to preach about in midwinter. The whole time, those Braver Angel signs were still stuck in the frozen ground on my front lawn.

Whenever people mention Jan. 6th during the holiday season, I somehow assume that they too are devotees of Epiphany, that marvelous meaning-making epilogue to the Nativity. Who has been born where and for what purpose? The Magi are fearless in following a rising star that portends something heavenly and momentous. So last December, when the woman at my local coffee shop mentioned wanting to get to Jan. 6th, I smiled conspiratorially. “Oh,” I exclaimed, “Epiphany!” She suddenly looked quizzical. “What’s Epiphany?” she replied. She and I had entirely different calendars in mind. What is Epiphany? Only the direction all twelve days of Christmas point us toward each new year, I told myself.

Now I understand that I may be kept busy honoring and upholding the feast of Epiphany for several more years to come. Admittedly, it’s been a while since I’ve been at Three Kings’ Day dinner and had a cake with a baby doll baked into it. But I never forget the “yonder star” that we sing about in the classic Christmas carol, that “star of wonder, star of night, star with royal beauty bright”, the one that leads many of us onward even today. This January, at the start of 2023, my Braver Angels lawn signs remain in their habitual place. Before I left the house to join my husband for a Friday night dinner out, I quickly hung a star-shaped charm on my handbag, which I considered an important reminder to myself and others. After we came home that evening, I looked online for some featured photos from the James Webb Space Telescope, images of a few of our farthest known stars, gorgeous and awe-inspiring. Glancing over the Cosmic Cliffs and the Pillars of Creation, I marveled at them.

When my father-in-law was in the Intensive Care Unit this past fall, recovering from an awful automobile accident, he told his son and me that he hoped to survive his injures. One of his motivations was a deep desire to live long enough to see more of what the Webb telescope was already revealing to us: entire galaxies being born. Thankfully, he has since recovered. Eventually he was released from the hospital and took his latest copies of Scientific American home with him. We did not have those galactic photos last Epiphany, I realize, or the one prior. However timeless they might appear, these photographs were released rather recently. Of course I take the pictures as proof positive of the majestic benevolence of creation. Revelation is indeed ongoing, I assure myself. More good and more glory will be revealed to us in time.

When the Magi followed the Star of Bethlehem that “went ahead of them” to its stopping place, the Gospel of Matthew tells us, “they were overwhelmed with joy” by the sight of the child who had been born that night. By all indications, though, they arrive in Judea not a couple of hours or a couple of days or a couple of months after his birth, but a couple of years, plural. After the Magi make their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to Jesus, they are warned in a dream not to return home the obviously lengthy way they came. The gospel account in Matthew tells us that “they left for their country by another road” in order to avoid King Herod of Judea and his murderous rage. Shared wisdom was their guide to that necessary byway; it led to their eventual survival. After their departure from Bethlehem, Joseph is warned in another dream to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt. He does so by night, the gospel explains. We are never told about the stars he did or did not see then.

For millennia now, people around the globe world have been celebrating Epiphany. There are billions of us celebrating today, and I am rather glad to count myself in their number. Epiphany is not just a feast, or a special Sunday service — it is a whole season of its own, weeks and weeks of observance of how good intent might be made manifest in this world. Epiphany happens to begin on Jan. 6th, but it does not end then. Far from it. Since the start of the pandemic, since the tragedy of the insurrection in Washington, I crave its religious witness more than ever. What could be more fitting in our own epoch than this holiday which celebrates unveiling and unmasking? Indeed, all of us in America may need to return to our country by another road than the one that brought us here. We may each need to leave certain January days a bit humbler and a good deal wiser than when we came to them. We must keep our eyes open for any and all glimmers of light, scanning for those familiar shapes that stars take after they are born.

The Last Time

View of the Mediterranean from the Peres Center for Peace & Innovation

The last time I went to Israel, the world was evidently ending. It was near to the end of 1999, and people were feeling frantic about the arrival of Y2K and start of the second millennium in the common era. Either all our interactive computer systems were predicted to fail all at once, resulting in mass chaos and global destruction, or we were going to witness the cataclysmic second coming of the Christ. The former was a largely secular concern, so I heard people in Jerusalem, mostly Christians and Muslims, speculating far more about the latter. 

People had competing notions about which direction Jesus would come from and which gate he would use to enter the holy city. I had a Palestinian cab driver who was certain that he knew the answers to both those questions and who had little patience for quarreling about the basic premise with me. I somehow remained far less credulous than everyone else. My overweight backpack was bursting at the seams because I inevitably packed for every possible contingency. But there was one I would not allow, namely the arrival of the apocalypse.

Jews keep a different calendar than Gentiles do; it is the same one they have kept for several millennia now. This year in Jewish time, for instance, is 5782, not 2022. So the Jewish Israelis seemed less concerned than others in the country about the impending end of the world. They had already marked 2000 many years earlier. While the Hebrew Scriptures, like the the Christian Testament, hold out apocalyptic visions, Jews have been watching the world not end for longer than their Christian and Muslim siblings have.

At the Israel Museum, an entire exhibit hall is dedicated to the Shrine of the Book, which houses the Dead Sea Scrolls that were first discovered in Qumran in 1947, the same year that the United Nations adopted its resolution about the creation of an Israeli state. Among the Dead Sea Scrolls are liturgical materials from the Essenes, and among the prayers and hymns is a prayer for the End of Days. The days of the Essenes ended before they could mark that momentous occasion, although their sacred literature was somehow not lost in the sands of time.

The Essenes were a mystical sect of Jews who dwelled in desert from the 2nd Century BCE until the 1st Century CE. They lived in Judea when Jesus was wandering it with his disciples. They believed that humans had immortal and imperishable souls, souls that could outlast the world itself. I remember one of my seminary professors asking us what sort of world we students believed we inhabited; if it was corrupted, conflictual, and cruel, this professor suggested, it would appear a cosmic kindness if it were simply to end. In a sense, apocalyptic literature held out a strange hope to its readers. 

Today, globally, we are witnessing the catastrophic consequences of climate change. Some have suggested that we use the term climate collapse instead, and indeed, it seems we are teetering on the brink of that. At the congregation I used to serve, the Social Action Council asked if we should try rank ordering our priorities. To the obvious annoyance of one long-time council member, I quickly suggested that we put environmental concerns at the top of the list. “Everyone thinks that their causes are the most important,” this member told me, although I had not thought of this previously as my particular cause, just as a pressing issue none of us could ignore any longer. She seemed to think the matter was open to debate. “The planet people are right,” I replied. “In the absence of a planet, all of our causes are lost.” 

The last time I went to Israel, I travelled solo. This summer, I went as part of a Protestant clergy leadership tour led by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Boston. Places look different, I discovered, when they are beheld with communal eyes. In the time were were traveling together, Boston seemed very far away to me. But a ministerial colleague back home told me that by late July, Boston was getting as hot as Haifa. This has been a summer of heat wave after heat wave, and not just in New England. 

At the end of our final day in Israel, just before we left for the airport in Tel Aviv, we visited the Peres Center for Peace & Innovation, established in honor of the late Isreali prime minister Shimon Peres, who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 and whose memory remains a blessing to the country he helped found. He always believed in the human capacity to solve our most stubborn, seemingly intractable problems, primarily by actively expanding our imaginations. “Optimists and pessimists die the same way,” Peres famously said in one interview. “They just live differently. I prefer to live as an optimist.” Who wouldn’t prefer that? As we confront climate collapse, we may need to stay optimistic about the possibility of dramatic and systematic change in order to stay alive.

The contemporary center that bears his name was completed in 2009; it boasts a beautiful view overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. What we clergy-tourists saw from there was blue sky and wide horizon. There is a motto sculpted in in metal letters that gleam under the strong sun: DREAM BIG. In his 2017 book, No Room for Small Dreams: Courage, Imagination, and the Making of Modern Israel, Peres writes: “If an expert says it can’t be done, get another expert.” When the Peres Center showcases innovation, it includes social and ethical reforms as well as scientific and technological advances. We need reforms and advances alike these days, and fairly immediately, to slow the sequencing of future climate disasters. We have a world full of wonders — past and present and future — to preserve.

As you may recall, the world did not in fact end at the close of 1999 or at the start of 2000. Thankfully, computer programmers fixed all those Y2K bugs in time. My cab driver lost the bet he would have gladly made with me, were I a betting woman, and miscalculated the timing of the apocalypse. Obviously, he was not the first to do so. Even the Essenes were not the first to so, and they arrived fairly early on the scene. My guess is that people have been forecasting the end of the world probably since the beginning of time. I honestly do not know if the timeline of humanity has a terminus nearby that it is rapidly approaching. I certainly hope not. None of us wants to see that pulling in to view, not even those most ardently predicting it will. We humans have been wrong so many time before; I find that fact in and of itself inspiring.