The Rev. Dr. Irina Dubinski


Most religious traditions recognize our, very human, desire to make the heightened enthusiasm of the holidays last a little longer. That is why we ramp up for Christmas over the 4 weeks of Advent, then take 12 days to celebrate it “properly”, and finally give it a sense of closure on Epiphany on January the 6th (a journey of a sort!).

For the Western Christians, the emphasis of the “12th Night” is on the visit of the Magi, and for the Eastern Orthodox -- on the remembrance of the Baptism of Jesus. The Russians celebrate this by a polar dip into their frozen lakes and rivers; and the Greeks -- by echoing their ancient rituals of making an offering to the Sea to placate its waves. I will speak of this at greater lengths next week, as in the Anglican tradition, we enjoy all angles on traditional celebrations, and manage to accomplish both observances by remembering the Baptism of the Lord on the Sunday after we recall the visit of the Magi!

Now, in North America Epiphany is virtually unknown as a celebration, outside the church services and Shakespeare, of course. But, for children in many other parts of the world, such as Latin America, Spain, and Italy, Epiphany is, in fact, even more important than Christmas - because that’s when all the gift-giving occurs, echoing the offerings of the mysterious Magi to the Christ-child. Maybe there were three of them; maybe more. Maybe, they were kings; more likely, the Iranian Zoroastrian astrologers, who studied the night skies. Maybe, the magic star that led them to the Child was the beautiful confluence of Saturn and Jupiter they observed then, just as we saw it this year, and which looked to them like a new powerful heavenly body. And even more likely, they didn’t quite make it there by Christmas Eve, but rather, by the time the newborn had already become a toddler. For it was certainly a lengthy journey in those olden days.

I wonder how would these magi-astrologers-kings themselves put it into words upon return to their faraway lands? Maybe, they would tell it in the lines of “The Journey of the Magi'', TS Elliot’s 1927 poem (on the right). Painting such vivid imagery with the power of words, he describes for us a journey. A journey towards the birth of the sacred child - that is, a close, inner journey to the place of rebirth that takes place within our own hearts. TS Elliot was certainly searching for a sense of peace and renewal, as a young man in the post-war England of the “roaring 20s”. We’ve entered the “roaring 20s” of our own century, and like all generations before us, we are still searching -- yearning, yes, for normalcy and peace, but mostly for the mystical awareness, a better knowledge of self, and a sense of purpose. The journey is wrought with discomfort, regrets for the good-old-days, and security of what is known. It doesn’t help that the destination at first looks, at best, “you might say, satisfactory”: another seemingly ordinary village, another ordinary house… another vaccine, perhaps?

The word Epiphany consists of “epi” (above) + “phaneia” (manifestation), but we also casually use it in daily life to talk about an unexpected insight, or intuition that comes seemingly out of nowhere. Indeed, epiphanies are often experienced in quite mundane circumstances, and in hidden places. It’s a voice that speaks into our minds, which we tend to hear as a whisper, and dismiss as “folly”.

In his poem, TS Elliot creates an exegesis of an ancient scriptural narrative. However, most memorable films and works of literature, and even some visual art and dance, tend to feature an epiphany: an invitation that beckons the hero to set out on a journey, which he or she perceives as a soft, yet persistent, call. It may be gently whispered, or hinted at by a ray of light; may be sung as a lullaby, or seen out of the corner of an eye, a faint movement in the shadows. An invitation to experience the Unknown, as unsettling as it seems to be. Think of your favorite book or movie -- a traditional fairy-tale, perhaps, or any Old Testament story, in a pinch! -- and notice that moment of departure which indicates the hero’s movement towards the increased self-revelation, identity formation, reconciliation between the past and the present?

Could you now recall such moments in your lives? What causes you to strive to be the best version of yourself? My eight-year-old daughter often asks me how she can tell “if it’s God speaking in my head, or my own imagination, or God working through the imagination?” The answer to that question will differ moment by moment, person by person; what is common, however, is the shared desire we all have for this journey - for the gifts that it brings, and those we carry along. Thanks be to God that often enough, we do find the voice to be irresistible, and the journey -- necessary; as much for our own sakes as it is for the sake of others. Amen.

"The Journey of the Magi", TS Elliot

A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of the year

For a journey, and such a long journey:

The ways deep and the weather sharp,

The very dead of winter.”

And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,

Lying down in the melting snow.

There were times we regretted

The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,

And the silken girls bringing sherbet.

Then the camel men cursing and grumbling

And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,

And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,

And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly

And the villages dirty and charging high prices:

A hard time we had of it.

At the end we preferred to travel all night,

Sleeping in snatches,

With the voices singing in our ears, saying

That this was all folly.

     Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,

Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;

With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,

And three trees on the low sky,

And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.

Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,

Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,

And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.

But there was no information, and so we continued

And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon

Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

    All this was a long time ago, I remember,

And I would do it again, but set down

This set down

This: 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.