Thomas Traherne (1637-1674)
Thomas Traherne, whom we commemorate today, was a mystic, a childlike mystic. If his own lifetime had overlapped with J. R. R. Tolkien, or C. S. Lewis, or George MacDonald, I think they would have been very good friends. However Traherne lived more than two centuries earlier than these other three, Traherne born in 1637. He was the son of a shoemaker, and he went on to earn three degrees at Oxford. His university days during the 1650s were the best of times and the worst of times. Best was the intellectual stimulation. However this was a time of civil war and of religious conflict, actually less religious conflict and more agnosticism, which was certainly true for Traherne. For him, life was without meaning; he was listless, full of dread, deeply lonely. In his journal, we read about one sad evening, his being alone in a field, when all things were dead quiet. He writes, “a certain want and horror fell upon me, beyond imagination.”
“By this we know.” We hear this phrase four times in our reading from the first letter of John this morning. Knowing is fundamental to this letter, as are three interrelated questions: what we know, how we know it, and what we are going to do with that knowledge. As we begin this season after the Epiphany, as we recall God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ, these three questions can guide our own discovery of God in and among us now.
First, what do we know? From this first letter of John, quite a lot. We know that God is light. We know what love is. We know we belong to the truth. We know God lives in us. This is big stuff—the foundation of our faith, of our relationship with God and with each other. So big, though, that these truths can feel remote from our daily lives. What does it mean for you, here and now, to know that God is love, and that God lives in you?
Reflecting on how we learn, how we come to know, can help bridge these eternal truths and our daily, particular experiences. For John, we know by sense—by what we see, hear, and touch—by example, and by assurance from someone we trust. Each of these modes is familiar to us, and I’m sure each of us learns better in one way than another. I know I learn best by touch, by moving my body, and by holding, tinkering, and manipulating.
Preached at: Church of St. Mary the Virgin, NYC
A few years ago, while on pilgrimage in Great Britain, I had the opportunity of taking in a meal at The Eagle and Child Pub in Oxford. While the food was good, the actual reason for visiting The Eagle and Child was that it was a regular meeting place for a literary group known as “The Inklings,” of which authors C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein were members. Sitting in a cramped corner of this pub I couldn’t help but wonder if perhaps I was sitting at a table where Lewis and Tolkein might have sat, discussing literature, philosophy, religion, and theology. One of my favorite poems from Tolkein’s epic trilogy The Lord of the Rings kept playing over and over in my head. It begins:
All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.[i]
Indeed, this became my own personal mantra for the pilgrimage: “Not all those who wander are lost!”
While praying on this theme for tonight’s homily, I turned to the dictionary as I often do, to see what all the meanings of the word ‘wander’ encapsulate. The first definition might be synonymous with rambling: ‘to move about without a fixed course, aim, or goal.’ I do not imagine that inhabitants of this amazingly busy city of New York do much rambling. There are places to go, people to see, business to be done—all of which require a strategy for moving about these crowded streets. If there are ramblers, they might be personified as tourists—folks that seem to wander about the city with their heads pointed up at the iconic skyscrapers or down at their phones trying to navigate where they are going.
How does Jesus show us the nature of God? One resounding answer is: as Light. Reflected light, shimmering into the world we see and know, igniting into conscious awareness. The primordial light shining in the darkness of John’s Prologue; the light that replaces that of sun and moon in the eternal city of the Revelation to John; the light of Christ we kindle at Easter; the “light of the gospel of the glory of Christ.”
Philip says to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Philip is done with all the poetry; all the elusive and allusive imagery John’s Jesus has woven to evoke, to awaken, to captivate, to bestow the relational knowing of God found in and through himself. Philip wants a clear shaft of light outlining a straightforward vision. Before Jesus leaves them, Philipp wants just a single flash of definitive truth.
But this is not the way John’s Jesus reveals God. Instead, the words and the works of this Jesus are like the sides and angles of a prism. The clarity of a prism enables a beam of invisible, light to pass through. But it also refracts that light into something new: the visible color spectrum. “No one has ever seen God,” we read again in John’s Prologue. “It is God the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, who has made God known.” Jesus refracts the Father’s invisible light, scattering constellated colors that draw our eyes toward their source. It is the interplay of the pattern that beckons us – through dots we can connect, the words and works of Jesus that reveal the truth in the measure we can receive it. Receiving the light is the long slow work of conversion, not epiphany.
O God, by the leading of a star you manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth: Lead us, who know you now by faith, to your presence, where we may see your glory face to face; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
These wise men who had come from the East, who are they? The New Testament Greek name for them is “magi,” which means magicians, fortune tellers, wizards. [i] The Greek name magi also includes astrologers, and so it’s no wonder that they reportedly saw a certain star rising, knew its significance, and followed it.[ii]
The wise men came from “the East,” but whether that is near East, or middle East, or far East is only a guess. St. John Chrysostom, fourth-century archbishop of Constantinople, believed the three magi came from Yemen because, in those days, the Kings of Yemen were Jews. A very early Armenian tradition neither saw them as Jews nor as starting out together but rather meeting up along the way, each of them a king from a foreign realm, each of them following this star: one named Balthazar, a king from Arabia; another was Melchior, a king from Persia; and a third, Gaspar, a king from India. I am speaking of three magi, but we are actually not told how many wizards came to Bethlehem. Three is just a guess: three kings because of the three gifts so no one comes empty handed. The gifts were of gold, the most precious mineral on the earth[iii]; frankincense, a symbol of prayer, as the psalmist says, “let my prayer like incense be”[iv]; and myrrh, the fragrance of heaven, used in the anointing for healing and also in the anointing of the dead (ultimately Jesus’ own body).[v]
We are now two weeks into a season of the church called Epiphany. Having grown up in a different Christian tradition, I admit that the meaning of this period of the church year alluded me for quite some time. When I first came to the Episcopal Church, I had never heard of Epiphany. Like being a postulant and novice in a monastery, becoming acclimated to the richness of a new tradition can take some time. We learn by entering into the life slowly, absorbing little by little all that tradition has to teach us. There usually comes a moment when the nature and purpose of a particular practice will become apparent and make us exclaim: “Eureka! I got it!” While an epiphany seems like a sudden and random event, the truth is epiphanies happen after a significant period of time when a final tidbit of information gathered brings something into focus. While the ‘Eureka effect,’ (the sudden elation one experiences when having an epiphany) makes this event appear to be random, in actuality it is the end of a long process. Epiphany (from the Greek) literally means manifestation.
Feast of the Epiphany – January 6, 2019
The prophecy of Isaiah is revealed in Bethlehem. The early church saw today’s celebration as a revelation: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you… Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” The kings come. The three kings from foreign lands come to Bethlehem. The New Testament Greek name for them is “magoi” or, as we would say, “magi,” which means “fortune tellers” or “wizards.”[i] (The English word, “magician,” comes from the Greek, magi.) The Greek name magi also includes astrologers, and so it’s no wonder that the magi reportedly saw a certain star rising, knew it was significant, and followed it. What was this star? There’s been endless speculation down through the centuries, some of it based on the Zodiac, some of it based on astronomy.[ii]The Gospel according to Matthew makes neither explanation nor apology for revealing that the wise men had followed a star.
We warmly invite you to the final sermon in a new preaching series on following God’s call. On February 6, at 5:30 PM, Br. Luke Ditewig will preach on the gift of Community.
Invite a friend to join you at the Monastery at 5:30 pm on Tuesdays during Epiphanytide, as together we gather gifts for the journey.
All Are Welcome!
The Epiphany of our Lord Jesus Christ
Today in the calendar of the church we arrive at the beginning of a new season: Epiphany. Growing up in a different Christian tradition, I admit that the meaning of this period of the church year alluded me for quite some time. Like being a postulant and novice in a monastery, becoming acclimated to the richness of a new tradition can take some time and more often than not, we learn by entering into the life and slowly absorbing little by little all that tradition has to teach us. There usually comes a moment when the nature and purpose of a particular practice will become apparent and make us exclaim: “Eureka! I got it!” While an epiphany seems like a sudden and random event, the truth is epiphanies happen after a significant period of time when a final tidbit of information gathered brings something into focus. While the ‘Eureka effect,’ (the sudden elation one experiences when having an epiphany) makes this event appear to be random, in actuality it is the end of a long process. Epiphany (from the Greek) literally means manifestation.
When a man first comes to the monastery to test his vocation, you may be surprised to know that he does not get a large ‘how to’ manual on being a monk. Nor does he receive a week-long orientation in the essentials of monastic living. Much of what a postulant and novice learns is by observation, trial and error, and asking questions when they arise. When he sings the Offices with the Community, (regardless of his proficiency in music fundamentals) he learns a strange musical script with a four-line staff and peculiar square notes that when stacked on top of each other means they ascend and when written in progression means they descend. He learns that the bell rings ten minutes prior to each service although he may find himself sitting in chapel alone and confused for fifteen to twenty minutes when the Angelus bell rings at noon and no one shows up. There is often that awkward moment when learning to acolyte that he lights the candles on the altar at noonday prayer only to have them extinguished with an explanation that candles are not lit at the noon office. I sometimes joke that I’ve been here over five years and I’m still learning new things each week, although now they are more often epiphanies that dawn on me mysteriously, out of the blue. For me, our lesson this evening from John’s gospel illustrates how the experience of novice monks is not dissimilar from that of Jesus’ disciples.