The stars shining in your night sky

audio for sermon “The stars shining in your night sky” by Martin Malina

The sermon today comes with thanksgiving to Diana Butler Bass in her blog posted on the last day of Christmas, just before the Day of Epiphany 2023, entitled “Active Epiphany”[1]:

Following the light to the edge(photo by M Malina August 2023 at Kalaloch Beach WA)

On January 6 [every year], the Christian calendar turn[s] to a new season: Epiphany. 

The origins of Epiphany as a church festival are somewhat vague, as is the very definition of the word. “Epiphany” can mean manifestation, revelation, appearance, insight, enlightenment, or a shining forth. 

Epiphany begins with the story of the Magi, three astrologers, who follow a brilliant star to the place of Jesus’ birth and honor the child with gifts.[2] Upon seeing the baby, they were “overwhelmed with joy,” and fell on their knees. 

The wise men awaited a sign in the sky — a star — to guide them on this journey. Revelations break in, light shines forth, and glory appears. Such things are from the realms of mystery, awe, and wonder. They surprise and disrupt the normal course of existence. Epiphanies are not of our making. 

But it would be a mistake to believe that we are only passive recipients of epiphanies. We need to be alert for their appearance and search out the trailings of their presence. Revelations can be missed if one isn’t attentive or attuned to the possibilities of sacred surprise. 

The Magi, of course, were looking for a sign. They were professional spiritual seekers! But they weren’t content just gazing upon the star. They didn’t remain in some distant locale and admire its glory from afar. They got up and followed it to its source. And their journey even involved danger — as a treacherous king attempted to use them to manipulate this manifestation for his own evil purposes. They kept going.

[In the Gospel for today[3] the disciples follow Jesus from a distance and then respond positively to his invitation: “Come and see!” Their watching from a distance turns into active engagement.]

We may not create epiphanies, but we respond to them. Epiphanies grab a hold of us; we can’t shake them. Epiphanies ask something of us. The star is an invitation, a calling to do something — to act. 

These verses from Isaiah, traditionally read at Epiphany, underscore this:

Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.[4]

We arise; we shine — glory entices us, woos us, into the light. We don’t just observe. Epiphany embraces and vivifies us. 

Epiphany is a manifestation, the mystery revealed, and an invitation to discover grace, goodness, and God. It is neither a magic fix nor a moment when utopia arrives. The birth, the star, and heavenly glory don’t eliminate the darkness. Rather, such revelations cast the light that we need to see the way. 

Epiphany beckons us to pay attention and participate in widening the circle of light in the world — to push back against all brittle injustice and brutality. Whether a babe in Bethlehem or a burning bush, epiphanies are guide stars on a longer journey toward healing, liberation, and peace. 

[Did you notice with all the extra snow on the ground recently, how much brighter it is? Even during this darkest time of the year when we in the northern hemisphere are farthest removed from the sun—the source of all light in our solar system—the snow reflects what little light there is and magnifies it. That is why your optician will suggest you wear sunglasses at this time of year, to protect your eyes from the excessive brightness. Can you imagine? In a way, it’s just as bright in the darkest time of year as in it is in the summer when we are closest to the sun! We have enough light that we need, even when we are in the shadows. What sign are you looking for?]

Even when we are lost in the shadows of life’s difficulties, where is the light? Wherever the good peeks through the clouds, follow the good. Wherever you notice a grace, a gifting, a loving presence, a merciful act, follow the grace. Wherever a voice calls for justice, peace, goodwill to all, follow that.

Perhaps these words, a seasonal benediction of sorts, from Madeleine L’Engle capture the fullest sense of Epiphany:

This is my charge to you.
You are to be a light bearer.
You are to choose the light.

Arise. Shine.

[1] Diana Butler Bass, “Active Epiphany” The Cottage (, 5 January 2023)

[2] Matthew 2

[3] From John 1:29-42, the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany

[4] Isaiah 60:1

The mystic magi journey: discovering a new way of seeing

The word, ‘mystery’, Paul mentions four times in the text assigned for the Day of Epiphany.[1]He calls receiving God’s grace “the mystery of Christ.”

A mystery is not something that ought to scare us. Like how we feel when reading a whodunit and murder-mystery novels so popular. We have lived in a culture that sees mystery as something bad, something to avoid, something that is opposed to a life of faith. If something is mysterious, it can’t be of God.

That, what appears on the surface, at first sight, is division, discord, disharmony, a profound and inherent disconnection in our lives and in the world.

A negative view of mystery also implies that to know God means there is nothing more to know. To claim some cerebral notions of God—we call this doctrine—and to conform our knowing with others means there is no longer anything to learn. Change, growth, diverse thinking—the consequence of something that is difficult to understand—these have been an undesired mystery.

The journey of the magi suggests we need to take another look at “the mystery of Christ.” The prophet Isaiah, from another text assigned for the Day of Epiphany,[2]encourages us all to “lift up your eyes and look around … then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice.” There is apparently a great benefit in seeing anew.

Isaiah speaks as if this ‘seeing’ is more than a mere observation of what is immediately in front of you. This spiritual seeing is about perceiving a deeper reality. Some would say it is seeing with the eye of the heart, or the mind’s eye. Sight, here, is not just a biological function of the eyes, but involves deeper more subtle capacities within us.

From the perspective of faith, mystery means, “endless knowability.”[3]Mystery is not something we cannot ever know; or, conversely, some riddle that we must solve once-and-for-all. Rather, mystery is a journey of learning more, growing, a continual expansion of our awareness, knowledge and perception.

The reason Matthew includes the story of the magi in his rendition of the birth of Jesus is to describe what is true for anyone on the journey of life and faith. 

For one thing, we never arrive at the fullness of truth on this journey we are on. That was the credo of the old science, that somehow once we figure something out, it never needs to be revisited or rethought. This approach affected the way of the church; that is, once you are confirmed or become adult or affirm your faith or join the membership … well, you’ve arrived. You are saved. And you don’t need to do anything more. Or change, or grow in faith, or explore different dimensions of the faithful life.

To say, “I don’t know”, in response to a question meant there is something wrong with you and your faith or your understanding. To confess “I don’t know” according to the credo of the old science was an admission of weakness, that something was not just right, or complete, with your faith. And this was shameful.

And yet, Paul challenges such arrogance (ironically since he was an arrogant guy himself) by focusing our attention on the “boundlessriches in Christ” whose intent is “to make everyonesee … the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things.” [emphasis mine]

The magi of old studied the stars to gain understanding of God’s creation which included the boundless reaches of the universe. They sought the incarnation of God’s grace in Christ, and so followed the star. But when they arrived at the site of the nativity in Bethlehem—the apparent destination—was their journey over? Truly?

Far from it. Not only did they have to deal with Herod and his wiles, they continued by a different road. On earth, what is the destination of your faith? The destination of our yearning, searching, and endless knowing doesn’t mean the journey is over and done. And we have nowhere else to go. We continue on, seeking new expressions of God’s grace and God’s presence in Christ.

In a TV series called “See”, starring Aquaman superhero Jason Momoa, a post-apocalyptic humanity is blind. No one can see. Everyone is completely visually impaired (with few exceptions). The producers and actors do an excellent job of conveying to the viewer how individuals and communities arrange their lives to move and live without sight.

In a powerful scene, a ragtag group led by Jason Momoa is forging down a forest path, his sword cutting the air in front of them. It all seems to be a tranquil setting when suddenly he shoots out his arm to stop them from moving one step farther.

“What wrong?” another asks.

He shakes his head lifting his unseeing eyes ahead. “It doesn’t feel right. It is not safe.” Being physically blind has developed other, intuitive, senses – smell, the feel of the air, sound—to paint a picture of the truth in front of him.

As it turns out, they were walking into a narrow canyon ideal for an ambush. The ambushers, of course, were also blind. But as soon as they heard the subtle sounds of someone walking far below them—the scrape of a foot on stone, the crunch of dried leaves or the snapping of twig, they would aim their cross bows in the direction of the sound and shoot with deadly accuracy. Jason Momoa’s group was saved by a knowing that was deeper and richer than mere physical sight.

God has given us capacities beyond what we have known. There are unfathomable depths to our being in this universe and an immeasurable limit to our understanding. In describing a life of faith, Paul writes that we have confidence walking our journey of faith, “not by sight.”[4]There is more to it than a visual, observable certainty.

When someone asks you a question about your faith, and you find yourself saying, “I don’t know”, you need not say it as an admission of weakness. You can say, “I don’t know” with confidence because you are still on a journey of learning and discovery. Scientists today who study the stars will suggest with confidence that the universe is always expanding. New stars and solar systems are being discovered. We are endlessly knowing. The journey isn’t over. It never is.

And, what is more, scientists today will readily admit that there is indeed something at work in the universe that goes beyond the mere, yet important, crunching of numbers. Something they cannot put their analytical fingers on, yet something people of faith have been claiming since the beginning of time:

That our lives have purpose and meaning beyond the collision and interaction of molecules. That everything that happens in our lives is somehow intertwined, that there exists an almost imperceptible connection between ourselves, our past and our future, a connection that is leading somewhere, a connection that brings healing and wholeness to our lives.

A connection leading us somewhere eternally good.

[1]Ephesians 3:1-12

[2]Isaiah 60:1-6

[3]Richard Rohr, “Mystery is Endless Knowability” Paradox(Daily Meditations,, Tuesday, August 23, 2016)

[4]2 Corinthians 5:7