The Light of Epiphany

(Sermon by Lori Erickson at New Song Episcopal Church in Coralville, Iowa, on January 13, 2019)

(Photo by Bob Sessions)

A number of years ago, I had an experience on a Sunday afternoon at Mercer Pool in east Iowa City that I’ve never forgotten. When I entered the pool area, I was surprised to see about a dozen people dressed in coats and ties and dresses standing on the side of the water. In the pool before them were two people in white robes, a pastor and a young man of about 15. As I watched, the pastor placed his hand on the young man’s head and plunged him into the water, a complete dunking, so that when he came up again he sputtered as the water poured off of his head.

There we were in a swimming pool, with the smell of chlorine in the air and adults doing laps and kids splashing around and playing, and in the middle of it all was a baptism.

As the young man shook off the water like a dog shaking itself after a bath, the people gathered around him started to sing a hymn. I think it was “How Great Thou Art,” though I might be mistaken. Their voices were a little weak and tentative at first, but soon their song filled that big, cavernous space in a way that brought goose-bumps to my skin.

A minute later, the pastor and young man got out of the pool, their white robes dripping water the entire way to the locker room. The other people in their group filed out of a side door. And then, the pool returned to its normal routine, and it was as if they’d never been there. I looked around. Nobody said anything, just kept on with their laps and their playing and splashing.

I thought of this story when I read the Gospel reading for this morning, that account of another baptism in a distant land many years ago:

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

(Wikimedia Commons image)

I’ve actually been to the place in the Jordan River where Jesus is said to have been baptized. No doubt there are a number of places that make that claim, of course, and no one really knows for sure. But it probably was a spot similar to what I saw, which was a non-descript stretch of river just a few feet deep running through a dry and desolate valley in the Judean desert.  Frankly, it didn’t look very impressive.

We read the story in the Bible today and think how wondrous it must have been that day, but if there were people passing by on the road near the river that day, watching from a distance, it probably didn’t register much at all. There’s that crazy John the Baptist with his crazy followers, they likely thought, and then went on their way.

Because whether you’re in ancient Palestine, or in Iowa City, you can only see what you’re open to seeing.

To me that’s one of the central messages of the Epiphany season that began last Sunday. This is the season when the light shines in the darkness, when the divine breaks through into ordinary reality. The season of Epiphany is full of references to light. It begins with the Wise Men following the star to Bethlehem and ends with the story of the Transfiguration, when the disciples see Jesus, Moses and Elijah bathed in light on a mountain.

The name of this liturgical season has passed into the English language as epiphany with a small “e.” The word means a sudden, unexpected flash of insight. But the religious roots of the word are still there, visible if you look just a little harder at it.

But you can’t see the light of an epiphany unless you’re open to it—and to me that’s one of the major lessons of this season. I know that the people at Mercer Pool that afternoon didn’t pay much attention to what was happening in their midst, and there were people passing by the Jordan River who didn’t pay much attention at Jesus’ baptism. That’s the way the world is, after all. Most of us are too busy, too wrapped up in our own concerns, to actually see the miracles going on around us.

All of this makes me think of a book I read recently. It’s called Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon’s Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart. Its author is James Doty, who’s a neurosurgeon at Stanford and the director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, of which the Dalai Lama was a founding benefactor. His book is a remarkable story of redemption and healing and compassion, all told through the lens of his experiences.

James Doty grew up poor in a rough part of southern California near Los Angeles. His father was an alcoholic; his mother suffered from depression and was frequently suicidal. His childhood was a series of crises, evictions, arguments, and dysfunction. But what changed his life was a woman named Ruth he met at a magic shop, one of those places that sells tricks and supplies for magicians. Her son owned the shop, and she was visiting for six weeks one summer. James and Ruth met by chance, and what she taught him changed his life, setting him on a trajectory that would eventually lead to remarkable achievements and profound insights.

Now you’ll have to read the book to find out exactly what she taught him that was so life-changing. But let me tell you about one of the concepts he writes about in his book: neuroplasticity, which is a term used to describe how the brain can re-wire itself by creating new neural circuits. Scientists used to think that once people reached adulthood the structure of the brain was largely set, but research now shows just the opposite.

Stress and pain can re-wire the brain in harmful ways, but neuroplasticity can work for good as well. Meditation (and I would include prayer in this category) is one of the things that can help the brain find better pathways. It can help us become more focused and calm and less susceptible to stress, so that even when we open our eyes and return to our ordinary lives, the world looks different to us.

Writes Doty: “By teaching me to relax my body and tame my thoughts, Ruth was guiding me in learning how to control my own attention. She was teaching me to perform the greatest magic trick of all time, an illusion bigger than anything Houdini could pull off, and in front of a really skeptical audience known to heckle at will—my own mind.”

One of the things he learns to do is see the world in a different way, to see himself in a different way. And that made all the difference.

I think what Doty describes relates to the epiphany experience, to seeing the divine break into the ordinary world—or maybe a better way of saying this is that an epiphany is when we see what is always there, just hidden by our own blinders. In other words, we can train our attention to see in a different way.

The mystics in many faith traditions say that when the mind and heart are fully awakened to God, the divine light that permeates all of creation becomes visible. A new kind of vision slowly grows, one with much greater clarity, one that sees that everything is connected and everything is suffused with light.

I believe that the light that shone upon Jesus in his baptism is what we all could see, each day, if only we had eyes and the intention to see it.

Let me end with another story, this one from when our son Owen was small. I watched one day as he toddled into our living room as the late afternoon sunlight was streaming in through the front window. The beams of light looked almost solid as they slanted across the floor, and Owen reached for them with a look of utter delight on his face. It was the first time he’d ever really noticed sunlight, I think, and the joy of his discovery transformed his face as he waved his hands back and forth through the sunbeams, fascinated by their glittering, magical quality.

That’s what it means, I think, to see with an awakened heart. And that path is open to all of us—at Mercer Pool, in our living rooms, in a magic shop in a seedy part of LA, and at the Jordan River. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.

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