A sermon preached at Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver on
Sunday, December 31, 2023
by the Reverend Areeta Bridgemohan
Feast of the Epiphany, RCL Year B


May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and our redeemer. Amen. 

Last Sunday marked my first Christmas Eve at the Cathedral. It was fascinating. The daytime services invite people who want to experience the magic and nostalgia of Christmas, featuring familiar carols in a beautiful church setting, to do so without the sacraments or the theological commitments that the traditional services contain. This kind of experience offers an encounter with the sacred. It is part of our ministry to the city. It is lovely to show hospitality to so many who flock to this place of worship on that holy night. 

And that sweet and magical experience of the Christian story sits in contrast with another version of Christianity that we meet on days like today. 

A version of Christianity that acknowledges evil in the world, a version of Christianity that centres mystery and surrender. 

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany. We celebrate the long journey of the magi who pay homage to the child born to be king. This story draws us into the shadow side of the story of Jesus’s birth, where cruel King Herod's appearance reveals the murky sides of the human heart and of our institutions. 

The wise men’s journey shows us what journeying by the light of our faith looks like, a journey that might be confusing to the mind seeking logical answers and factual evidence, a journey that isn’t traveled by choosing a destination and following a map, but is charted by the soul and the heart, responding to God’s call. 

The Reverend Katey Schwind Williams writes: 

“We often imagine the magi literally following this star right up to Jesus’ doorstep, like a carrot hung in front of a horse… But if we’re being honest…that’s a pretty fanciful version of events. We know that’s not how stars work. It’s far more likely that, rather than [being] an ancient version of Google Maps, the star served as more of a beacon, a sign that pointed the magi in the right direction but trusted them to do the rest.”

Magoi is the Greek word that is translated as wise men. This Greek term often referred to astrologers. Perhaps in their study of the night sky, the magi came across an extraordinary alignment of celestial bodies that led them to see a message that a king would be born to the Jews (if you want to go down a rabbit hole, feel free to search ‘what was the star of Bethlehem?’). 

It makes logical sense that they went to Jerusalem, the centre of political and religious power. But this is where their reliance on logic had to give way again to other ways of knowing and learning, ways of discerning. 

Reaching the limit of their knowledge, they asked knowledgeable others. Herod convened the scribes and the chief priests, who provided their scholarship and perspective. They concluded that Bethlehem was the site of the new king's birth, 5 km south of Jerusalem, an inconsequential village inhabited by people at the margins, peasants like Mary and Joseph. 

We imagine that the magi's journey took place in the dark, at night, when they could follow the star. 

This past year I read a book called Dark Nights of the Soul, written by psychotherapist and former monk, Thomas Moore. In this book, he explores the transformative potential of the ‘dark night’, times in our lives when what we thought we knew has been upended, times when we’ve suffered a loss, when we feel disoriented and in pain. He describes the contrast between the ‘solar’ culture we live in characterized by reason and certainty, and ‘lunar’ seasons of life where we need to assume a posture of trust and surrender, not seeking understanding, or fixing, but learning to be guided by other faculties, guided by the light that is available in the night, the moon and the stars. 

He writes:
“You can live from your soul rather than your self. This means to be less in control, less certain of the truth of things but more in touch with your intuitions and emotions. It means to be less focused on the self and more identified with others. It means to understand that you are part of nature and that your soul, which is the source of your very identity, is a piece of the world’s soul… You don’t have to understand this deep level of your existence, but you do have to trust it. You may discover over time that the deep self has a wisdom that you could never muster on the surface… Insights arrive from that deep place, and you can trust it to offer help in making decisions.”

On this journey, the magi trusted the guidance of the star, trusted in the divine guidance to lead them to Jesus. The journey must have been challenging and strange - there might have been times when they wondered if the journey would come to anything, whether it would be worth it, whether they would ever arrive. 

On this journey, they had to rely on others, they had to rely on their intuitions, and when they found the place of Jesus, their emotions told them that they were in the right place, as they were “overwhelmed with joy”. 

And even after they found Jesus, the discernment continued. The magi were warned in a dream, not to return to Herod. Again this divine guidance, received only after they had arrived, told them to discard their original plan and commitment to Herod. Did they feel confused about the meaning of this dream? Did they worry about going back on their commitment to Herod? Did this dream confirm that unsettled feeling they had in the pit of their stomach when they met Herod, someone whose track record included murdering his favourite wife and several of his children, amongst others. The text tells us only that they heeded the warning and, in doing so, saved Jesus’s life.

One of the most compelling parts of this story for me is the last verse of our reading which says: “they left for their own country by another road” (Matt 2:12b). They couldn't retrace their steps back home; they were in for another adventure into the unknown. The text doesn't tell us what this leg of their journey was like and it doesn't tell us how they felt about taking yet another unknown path. The truth is that ultimately there is a great deal of life that is unknown and not in our control, and one posture this story offers us is to trust in divine guidance and be open to the journey. 

In that spirit, I would like to invite you to join me in an activity as we stand on the cusp of 2024. The activity is called “Star Words”. You may have seen or heard of this practice before in other Protestant churches. 

Now I want you to pull out your phone (!) and, if you have internet access, search ‘star word generator’. For those who are joining us online, I've asked Priest Clare to include a link to a star word generator. The one I used is: https://epiphanystars.neocities.org/

My hope is that it would be a tool to add to your chosen practices of inaugurating the new year. Just like the magi drew guidance from the star, the star word that selects you might be a lens through which to hear God speaking in your life in the coming year. Behind this activity is the practice of believing that God is speaking to you through your life. The word you end up with might be comforting, challenging or even chafing, or all of the above. As you sit with this word it may reveal multiple layers of meaning or it may offer an invitation to pause and reframe a situation or an inner dialogue or an invitation to see God’s voice in your life through a different lens. 

May we cross the threshold into the new year, with confidence in God’s guidance and grace. Amen.