A TRANSCENDENT MOMENT IN THE SHADOW OF CHAOS

Although churches all over the world celebrated Epiphany last Sunday, today is the actual day of Epiphany. So I invite you to pause for a few moments today and celebrate Epiphany with me. Epiphany, also known as Theophany in the east, is a Christian feast day that celebrates the revelation of God incarnate that came to us in the form of the infant Christ.

In Western Christianity, Epiphany commemorates the visit of the Magi to the Christ Child, and thus Jesus’ physical manifestation to the Gentiles. Epiphany always includes the story of the star that appeared in the dark sky to guide the Magi to the infant Christ. Epiphany also reminds us to “see” and to open our hearts to the coming of God to us in the form of an infant.

So having decided to sit quietly and contemplate the light of Epiphany, I am suddenly disturbed by terrible sounds coming from the television in the next room. What sort of chaos can so forcefully disrupt my sacred pause on this day? Crowds are storming the United States Capitol, breaching the doors, pushing past the Capitol police, violent confrontations, breaking windows, persons shot, members of Congress made to shelter of place in the building, protesters engaged in an armed standoff in front of the House of Representatives’ chamber. In this very moment — on the day of Epiphany — this is what I am hearing. I feel sad, frightened, disappointed, ashamed  — tears come and I ask why the light of Epiphany seems so dim.

Why this darkness? Why this danger? Why, on the day of Epiphany?

Then I suddenly have my own personal Epiphany and it is this: God is present. In some way, by some miracle, in the mystical wind of Spirit, God is present. With me! With our nation! With the melee! With the confused crowds that have gathered!

“Celebrate through this!” the Spirit is saying to me. “Celebrate the Epiphany — keep listening for God’s voice, pray, praise, worship, sing — because the Magi followed the star in the darkness and found the Prince of Peace!”

As I celebrate Epiphany today, I am surprised by my personal epiphany — a sudden, striking realization that indeed, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.” (Isaiah 9:2)

God of light and of darkness,

My epiphany came today when I realized anew that your divine power is working in my life. When I still know that your divine power is working, even in anarchy, even in the intentions of the violent, chaotic crowds that now gather. I know, God, that your divine power brings light in the midst of darkness, as it always has. I know that your divine power brings sudden, transcendent moments, even in the shadow of chaos.

I have encountered you, God, in these troubling moments. I weep and I grieve. Yet you, God, have given me a transcendent moment of awe that will forever change how I experience this violent world that has always been violent. And so, God, I am lifting my eyes to the dark sky and I am seeing the gleaming Epiphany star in the darkness. I pray to you, God, and I worship you. My heart is filled with gratitude for your constant presence. I praise you and I sing, because singing in the darkness is the way I always get to the light. 

Grant us your peace, God. Send your Spirit of peace to hover over us in this moment of violence in our nation’s Capitol. Send your Spirit of peace for this day of darkness, for the strife of disunity, for the hate and chaos. Send us your Spirit of peace to remain with us forever. 

Help us, God, to keep our eyes on Epiphany’s star. Help us to never choose violence and hate. Help us to persist in faith. Help us to proclaim abiding hope as we lift our voices. As we sing! Amen.

And now, friends, I invite you to lift your voice with the Aeolians of Oakwood University, as they sing of the kind of hope we need, their interpretation of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” arranged by Roland M. Carter. 

Songwriters: R.M. Carter / J.R. Johnson / J.W. Johnson. Lyrics are below.

Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise,
High as the list’ning skies, let it resound loud as the rolling sea

Sing a song full of faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.

Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chast’ning rod,
Felt in the day that hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet,
Come to the place on which our fathers sighed?

We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our star is cast.

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who has by thy might,
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray

Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee,
Least our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee,
Shadowed beneath the hand,
May we forever stand,
True to our God, True to our native land.

“FEARFUL OF THE NIGHT”

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On this Epiphany Sunday, I want to give you a gift — a star.  Not just any ordinary star. My gift to you is a Star Word that I randomly select, eyes closed, from a large bowl. You might be wondering what a Star Word is and what it is for. What is its meaning, if it has any meaning at all? 

The use of Star Words, also called “star gifts,” is a prayer practice connected to Epiphany and the new year. The idea is that a list of intention words, or guiding words, are written or printed on paper stars. These paper stars are then arranged face down on a table or in a bowl or large basket. You are invited to draw a word and to use that word as a guiding word for you throughout the year.

I wish I could choose a Star Word for every one of you reading this blog post. Since I can’t do that, I will choose one word from a beautiful set of 150 cards entitled, “Those Who Dream.” My prayer is that this Star Word will become for you whatever it needs to be — a word to contemplate, a word to emulate, a word that becomes an intention for you, a word that guides you in new ways to new places on your spiritual journeymand into the year 2021. More about your Star Word later. First let us think a bit about Epiphany.

Epiphany, you know, is all about the special, more brilliant star that caught the eye and the imagination of three Magi (or Wise Men or scholars or astrologers) or more widely known throughout the world as The Three Kings. Nations and cultures near and far celebrate them in various ways and are amazed by their story. As the story goes, a brightly shining star in the East appeared suddenly in the dark sky and these three saw it and followed it. Each of them bearing gifts for the “King” they had looked for and hoped for.

As scholarly as these three might have been, they had no idea when this new King would appear, where they would find him or how far they might have to travel. So their journey would have to be a faith journey. And once they saw this sight in the inky black sky, this one star that had serendipitously appeared to them, they knew this would be a journey of trust. Their maps could no longer lead them because something significant about the universe had changed. I imagine that this single star had never before been a part of the constellations they studied.

This star was just unexpectedly up there, in the vast expanse of night sky, sparkling all by itself — among the constellations, but in no way a part of them. “The universe has changed,” the three Magi might have thought. And then their thoughts likely went something like this:

We cannot travel with our old maps, our long held assumptions about the ways the stars align in the sky,

our logic and reasoning about where the new King might be found,

our deductions about when he might appear to us,

our intricate, detailed drawings of constellation patterns and webs,

our studies of the prophecies that foretold the King’s coming.

No, these things we have pondered and studied over the decades can no longer lead us to the King foretold! We must follow that one surprising, unforeseen, unpredicted, astonishing, dazzling, breathtaking, bewildering star!

“Star of wonder,” we sing each year. And so it was — a star of wonder, yet a bewildering star, that called to them and beckoned them to follow. They left their old maps behind, I think, and took with them trust. Just trust. And, of course, their gifts, presumably gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Gifts fit for a real live King foretold, if not for an infant born in a stable.

Trust may well be the one single, simple gift we can take to the Christ child in these days. For when our normals are no longer in place, trust is the only real and needful thing we have left. We trust even beyond pandemics and wildfires and earthquakes and storms, even beyond upheaval and confusion and uncertainty and isolation and loss and grief and death. We trust still, maybe because when we look up into the dark expanse we call sky, we still see the dazzling glow of starlight! The stars are still up there aligned in their patterns even if patterns on earth are in disarray.

I think I probably use these lines from a poem** written by Sarah Williams every single Epiphany because I so love its message. At the end of 2020 — knowing that we will still face many of the same challenges in 2021 — I am now, more than ever, comforted by these words that have passed through so many minds and lips before mine.

Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light;
I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.

The words call us to trust, even through fear, even when our soul is in the dark. Trust is a compelling and timely message for me for the new year. Perhaps the message of trust will also guide you forward on your journey — through pleasant places along the way, but also through fearful, dark passages. May trust be your guide and lead you well, and may you know that behind trust is a God that never leaves our side. 

I am at this moment looking at the bowl of Star Words. I wanted you to see the bowl and the cards inside it. I will turn them over before selecting one.


The card below is the Star Word I have drawn out of the bowl for you, in hopes that it might offer you some extra insight for your journey.

Place your Star Word somewhere where you will see it regularly, and consistently reflect on how God moves in you, through you and around you as you contemplate your Star Word. And may the blessings of God be upon you in the coming year.

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From the Advent series “Those Who Dream” at A Sanctified Art.

** This poem by Sarah Williams was published in Twilight Hours in 1868, the same year the poet died. These lines from the poem became the tombstone epitaph of two amateur astronomers, John and Phoebe Brashear, and is located under the Keeler Memorial Reflecting Telescope at the Allegheny Observatory in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in a tiny basement room decorated in luminous mosaic tiles. The crypt contains the mortal remains of Brashear and his wife, Phoebe. The epitaph on their tomb, an excerpt from Sarah Williams’s poem “The Old Astronomer to His Pupil,” still speaks to all those who have looked upward in awe.

The last line of the poem also offers comfort: “God will mercifully guide me on my way amongst the stars.”