Each of us harbors ignorance and darkness (some more than others) as well as wisdom and light, and each of us are responsible for what we say and do. Going forward may everyone see this truth clearly so that we can bring out the light that unites us rather than the darkness that separates us (Lewis Richmond, Buddhist teacher).

May the dark universal mourning of the waning weeks of 2012 give way to bright universal mornings of hope and progress as this new year unfolds before us! (the Rev. Serene Jones, President of Union Theological Seminary)

(See note 1 below for source.)

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Growing up, I was thoroughly puzzled by the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” I don’t mean two turtledoves or four calling birds and all that. I was confused about how Christmas could have twelve days. And what was Shakespeare talking about when he named a play Twelfth Night?

I also knew nothing about the significance of January 6 other than that my sister was born on that date. I had no idea the day was known as “Epiphany” or that it was very significant in the Orthodox tradition.

Such lack of understanding came from my not having the benefit of ministers or a church or family who cared or knew anything about the liturgical year that Christians had observed for centuries. When Christmas Day came, Christmas was over! We threw out our Christmas tree or later, put it away, on January 1, but that had nothing to do with liturgy, only cultural customs. And as far as appreciating the place of Epiphany in the Orthodox traditions: a) there were no Orthodox churches in Albany, GA and b) we were even suspicious of other Presbyterians, so we certainly were not going to learn about what other Christians did.

But since those days, I’ve learned to appreciate the rhythms and the significance of the church year as a spiritual discipline, at least to a great extent. Epiphany in particular fascinates me, with its tale of magi from the East coming to seek the child king Jesus. Maybe it’s because they were part of the movement that, in Israel, produced the wisdom books in the Bible, which I dearly love. Or could be I’m intrigued that Matthew, that most Jewish of gospels, begins with a story about the global  or at least far-off reach of God’s message of hope and peace.

I suggest that the magi can teach us three important lessons for leadership and living today. First, they call us to seek illumination. These were men committed to knowledge and truth wherever and from whomever they may be found. They, and the festival that celebrates their visit, invite us to come out of the night of ignorance into the light of knowledge.

What a relevant message for today, when a politicians and priests make ignorant statements about women’s bodies or our education lags behind other nations or some people think the “X” in “Xmas” is an attempt to banish Christ from Christmas in a liberal conspiracy! (The “X” is not an English x at all, but the Greek letter chi, which is a monogram of Christ.)

Let igorance be banished from the earth, for as Charles Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Present told Scrooge: “…most of all beware this boy (Ignorance), for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.” And as an ancient apocryphal work, The Secret Book of John, reminds us, ignorance is one way we fall under the sway of what Christ in the book calls a “counterfeit spirit,” for we lose touch with the wisdom that is within us (J. Philip Newell, Christ of the Celts: 5).

Second, the story of the magi invites us to inclusion. Brian McLaren is right. We often define ourselves, we say who we are, by declaring whom and what we are against (see note 2). We do it in government. We do it in our families. We do it in our groups of friends. We do it in the church, as we declare ourselves the elect and all others the damned or our group the clean and the rest, dirty.

But in our day of instant global communication, of awareness of other cultures and religions, the peaceful future of humankind is better served by learning about (even if we do not appreciate) the beliefs and practices of our neighbors on this planet and in this nation. The solutions to the huge problems that confront us will come from cooperation and collaboration, not distrust and refusal even to consider compromise, like some in Congress. And churches whose numbers are dwindling (like my denomination) can hardly afford to exclude by rules and suspicion those who seek to belong.

Finally, the magi model imagination. They went home by another road, Matthew’s story tells us. Sometimes there’s value in doing things the same old way. But on the other hand, a new situation, new information, new technology may require a different approach or provide expanded opportunities and fresh possibilities.  What would our worship, our education, our communication, our daily lives be like if we routinely asked “What if? and “Why not?” Isn’t it true that too many times, we’re like Suzie in A Miracle on 34th Street? We can’t picture ourselves as a monkey or an elephant. We need someone, like Kris Kringle (or the magi!) to invite us to live in the “imagi-nation,” to be playful, open, longing to discover, to be transformed. When we answer the call and are taught, we may find a different path to the place we want and need to go.

With such richness in its message, no wonder Epiphany is a favorite among the festivals for me!

© 2013 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

Note 1. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/paul-raushenbush/hope-for-2013_b_2385220.html?ir=religion&utm_campaign=123112&utm_medium=email&utm_source=Alert-religion&utm_content=FullStory

Note 2. http://vimeo.com/49211069#

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit. Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart (2 Corinthians 3:17-4:1).

Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen (Matthew 13:43).

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it (John 1:5).

My late sister Carol Ann was born on January 6. So Epiphany will be for some years, I expect, a bittersweet festival for me and my family.

But experiencing the day as both a celebration of the manifestation of Christ and a reminder of loss is not a bad thing. Maybe because I recall on a festival day someone I have lost, I will be more attuned to the loneliness and grief of others. Like the family in the news whose father was shot and killed in front of his children while working for the Salvation Army. Or the people here in Starkville who grieve over three women and six children lost in an apartment fire the Monday following Christmas. Or those who have no one with whom to enjoy Christmas cheer, for whom this time of year is full of depression and unwanted solitude, not the light of friendship, the glow of joy.

Looking at the world these days, it would be easy to “lose heart” as the apostle put it. For all the songs about peace on Earth, there is none. The Christmas spirit now abroad will likely be replaced by the same self-seeking that seems to rule our lives the rest of the year. Even the churches ignore the teachings of Jesus in favor of bickering over internal issues whose resolution will not lead people closer to our Lord.

So it is even more incumbent on those who want faithfully to follow Jesus to shine as he did, to display his glory in their lives. And the best way to do that is to bring the glow of hope into the lives of the despairing, to lift up with a word of comfort those who are grieving, and to shine the light of truth for those who seek meaning. Let’s start right where we are—with our own families, in our own community, in our own churches. Let the light of Jesus be a beacon through you and me that cannot be overcome.

© 2010 Tom Cheatham