Journeys to Light: An Epiphany Homily

Readings: Isaiah 60:1-6     Ephesians 3:1-12     Matthew 2:1-12

Sherman Hesselgrave, homilist

Epiphany is about revelation, disclosure, making one’s presence known, shining a light on things. In the Christian tradition, the season of Epiphany is a time when we hear the stories of God’s self-disclosure through the public ministry of Jesus, beginning with Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist in the River Jordan. We will hear more about that story next week. Today’s gospel is a flashback to a kind of magical story—although I don’t suppose ‘magical’ is the correct adjective that goes with Magi, who appear from a distant eastern land in Matthew’s narrative of Jesus’ infancy, on account of their astrological reading of the stars.

Over the last couple weeks, as I was reflecting on today’s readings, one of the features that pushed to the front was the different ways that God’s self-disclosure is facilitated. The prophet Isaiah has received a vision of a hopeful future now that the harrowing period of exile has passed. The letter to the Ephesians recalls Pauls’ own dramatic revelatory encounter with the risen Christ, and his reaching the conclusion that Jesus’ message was not just for Jews, but for all humanity. Then we get to the three astrologers who have been guided by activity in the heavens. There is one other medium of disclosure that is part of today’s gospel, but was left out of the bulletin: [v.12] “And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by a different road.” Dreams are yet another way that God has enlightened people.

I‘m sure it is fair to say that we have all had Aha! moments, when we suddenly understand something that has perplexed us. Or we finally connect enough dots to see a pattern emerging. Sometimes we need someone looking at a problem or situation from a completely different vantage point to help us see what we cannot. The mechanism that facilitates our enlightenment may be remarkable or mundane, expected or a surprise.

Last month someone informed me that a mutual friend had been experiencing depression, and that was why we hadn’t seen her for a while. It was another reminder how cagey depression can be. We can be around people on a regular basis, and not be aware that they are dealing with depression. A few years ago, the World Heath Organization estimated that 350 million people worldwide suffer from depression, that it is a leading cause of disability. “According to Statistics Canada’s 2012 Canadian Community Health Survey (CCHS) on Mental Health, 5.4% of the Canadian population aged 15 years and over reported symptoms that met the criteria for a mood disorder in the previous 12 months, including 4.7% for major depression and 1.5% for bipolar disorder.” [http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/cd-mc/mi-mm/depression-eng.php] That is more than 1.6 million Canadians. I wonder if there is a person or family here today whose lives have not been touched by this. About fifteen years ago, I experienced a situational depression and even went on Zoloft for six months. Given the unpleasant side-effects, I would rather not have to take medication again, although I know many people cannot navigate daily life without the benefit of anti-depressant medication.

My reflection on a friend’s disclosure started me wondering about whether a community could collectively experience a kind of communal depression, and if so, what range of options was there for responding? What kind of epiphany could bring light?

The church’s track record with mental health issues has been a bit dodgy over the centuries. I think most people today can understand how, given the scientific limitations of the New Testament period, people would attribute, say, schizophrenia, to possession by evil spirits. The early desert monastics had a catalogue of “bad thoughts” that had disastrous consequences for their communities. Pride and anger were at the top of the list, along with acedia (a Latin transliteration of the Greek word ‘akedia,’ which means ‘not caring’), a kind of spiritual sloth (Kathleen Norris likens it to “spiritual morphine”). In the Middle Ages, when the taxonomy of sin produced the Seven Deadly Sins, acedia became ‘sloth’ in English, and tended to be associated with physical laziness. But because depression often manifests in not feeling like doing anything, it is now thought that many people who suffered from depression were judged as being slothful sinners.

I was reminded of a passage I read in an anthology that C. S. Lewis edited of theological writings of George MacDonald that I discovered in my mid-20s. [George MacDonald: An Anthology. New York, Macmillan, 1978.] George MacDonald was a “Scottish author, poet, and Christian minister. He was a pioneering figure in the field of fantasy literature and the mentor of fellow writer Lewis Carroll.” [Wikipedia, s.v.] Theologically, he was an iconoclast, who rejected the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. The excerpt that I have been unable to forget is from his Unspoken Sermons:

Troubled soul, thou are not bound to feel but thou art bound to arise. God loves thee whether thou feelest or not… [God] has an especial tenderness of love toward thee for that thou art in the dark and hast no light, and [God’s] heart is glad when thou doest arise and say, “I will go to my Father.” [quoting Luke’s story of the Prodigal] … Fold the arms of thy faith, and wait in the quietness until the light goes up in thy darkness. Fold the arms of thy Faith I say, but not of thy Action: bethink thee of something that though oughtest to do, and go to do it, if it be but the sweeping of a room, or the preparing of a meal, or a visit to a friend. Heed not thy feeling: do thy work.”

I daresay this mantra—Heed not thy feeling: do thy work—has from time to time helped move past the obstacles one encounters. Part of life is doing things we don’t feel like doing, but that need to be done. One of the advantages of a community is that, with a diversity of gifts, there is the possibility of sharing the burden of the hard slogging that can overwhelm an individual. But there are also times when we simply have to do the work we know we have to do, despite feeling no support or appreciation.

Depression is often associated with darkness and gloom. It is no accident that seasonal affective disorder happens in the depths of winter. Yet, within the short days and long nights of winter, we have the celebration of the Epiphany, a season where light casts out darkness, a star in the heavens leads to a life-changing revelation, and a story gives hope to people who walk in darkness, darkness that is manifested in a thousand ways: economic injustice, physical and emotional abuse, discrimination, sexism, racism, violence, war.

Where do we find hope? For one, in our freedom to make choices about today and tomorrow. For another, in the promise that God will provide the spiritual nourishment we need each day. And also in the encouragement and support we give one another as we journey together toward God’s enlightenment.