Yesterday in our worship at St. Philip, we received the gift of a luminous Ephiphany sermon from Jungian Analyst Judith Slimmon.

With her permission, here is a copy of Judith’s manuscript:

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I was delighted when asked if I would give the sermon on this day of Epiphany, one of the oldest Christian feasts.   The word “Epiphany” is a beautiful word that has a range of meanings – it can mean an illuminating insight, an intuitive recognition of truth, beauty or love that moves us at the level of the soul.  In this Christian context it is a Holy word describing the manifestation of the Christ Child, the Son of God, to the Gentiles (as represented by the Magi).

As the story begins we are told that three wise men from the East have arrived in Jerusalem sometime after Jesus birth, following both a rising star in the sky and a story and a prophesy they had heard about the birth of the king of the Jews.

There is some confusion over who the Wise men were and when they actually arrived in Bethlehem.  The root of the word Magi in Persian refers to a religious caste that paid particular attention to the stars, gaining a reputation in astrology.  The Western Christian church has identified these Magi or Wise Men as representing the three ages of man and also three geographic and cultural areas.  They were:

Caspar, an old man from the region of India

Melchior, a middle aged man from Persia

Balthasar, a young man from Arabia

Who the Wise Men actually were is not as important as the fact that they represent “otherness”.  They were not from Jesus immediate family, nor from his clan nor even from his race.  They symbolize something to do with the larger world.

When the wise men asked Herod, the ruler of Judea, about this new king, he became very frightened, and rightfully so.   Herod was the ruler of the Jews.  He had been given this legitimate earthly power by the Romans and he would go to any lengths to preserve it.  Herod called his ministers together and they confirmed the prophesy that a ruler arising out of Bethlehem who would shepherd the people of Israel.  This represented a direct threat to Herod’s power, and he was determined to stop it.

Herod was wily and manipulative.  He met with the Wise Men and pretended to support their enterprise, indicating that he, too, wanted to pay homage to this new king of the Jews.

The Wise Men continued on their way, following the star that led them to Bethlehem and the Holy Child.  The most beautiful line in the reading describes their reaction upon arriving at the place they had been led to – “They were overwhelmed with joy”.  Joy is the most basic human emotion.  Overwhelming joy is a many-splendored experience that connects us to the deepest life of the soul.  When they entered the room to behold Mary and the Christ Child they asked no questions.  They Knew, and in response to this knowing, they simply knelt and paid homage, offering the Christ Child gifts.

Even the gifts that the wise Men offered to Jesus had a sense of their inner Knowing.  The gift of Gold symbolized the royalty of this newborn king.  While Frankincense, burned as an incense, signified the presence of a Deity.  And finally, Myrrh, which is used to embalm a body, symbolized Christ’s sacrificial Death.

The reading ends with verse 12: “And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”

The Dream

In the New Testament story of Jesus’s life there are a number of accounts in which God revealed directional signposts to his people through dreams.   Joseph, in a dream, was told to take Mary home as his wife, rather than put her away, as he was going to do in response to her unexplained pregnancy. In the same dream Joseph it told to name his newborn son “Jesus”.  Later, in a dream, Joseph is warned to take his wife and the Christ Child to Egypt to avoid the wrath of Herod.  And then after Herod had died, an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream, telling him he could safely return to his homeland.

Following the death of Christ, dreams continued to play an important role in the church.  Both Constantine and St. Augustine, early church fathers, were converted to Christianity as a result of their dreams.  In the 5th Century the bishop of Ptolemais wrote a book on dreams which was described by Morton Kelsey as, “the most thoughtful and sophisticated consideration of dreams to be found until we come to the modern studies of Freud and Jung.” 

And yet we find very little importance placed on dreams in the Christian tradition.  What happened?

During the 4th century St. Jerome, who was head of a monastic community in Bethlehem, created the Vulgate Bible, which became the authorized Roman Church standard.  Even though St. Jerome’s zeal for Christianity came to him through an important dream, he later changed his attitude toward dreams.  He deliberately mistranslated the Hebrew word “anan” as “observing dream”.  The Hebrew word “anan” actually means “witchcraft or practicing divination”.  So the new Vulgate Bible passages referring to prohibition of witchcraft became prohibitions against attending to one’s dreams.

This changed the course of Christian attitudes toward dreams in the whole western world.  This mistranslation was finally corrected in the Jerusalem Bible in 1966.

As a psychoanalyst who has probably listened to and grappled with  more than ten thousand dreams in the past 20 years of practice (not including my own dreams) I can certainly attest to the importance of dreams in our on-going psychological and spiritual growth and well-being.

In our waking lives, our minds are very busy with our place in the business of the day.  One of the functions of our waking ego is to leave out or ignore those aspects of life that do not fit in with our ego’s perceptions.  There is nothing wrong with this.  If our ego didn’t do this we would be overwhelmed with stimuli and not able to function.

However, One of the most important functions of dreams is that they compensate for this necessarily one-sided consciousness. As an example: There is Joseph, an older man with a young fiancé who becomes pregnant.  Of course his ego-self knows this will reflect badly on him and Mary, so he decides to solve this problem by “putting her away quietly”.  Then he has a dream that tells him what to do.

Attending to and bringing dream work into our daily life would be so much easier if our dreams showed up as Joseph’s did, with clear, directional assistance. As any of you who do pay attention to your dreams know, dreams tend to arrive as strange and mysterious interlopers, appearing to have nothing whatever to do with the day at hand.

Dreams do have a language of their own.  It is actually our first language, one that we share with humanity around the world.  This language is imaginal, metaphoric and symbolic.  It is only when we walk around and around a dream, exploring the symbolism of the images it presents, that the meaning of the dream reveals itself and enriches our lives.

Transcendent Wisdom/Ignorance Duality

So what meaning can we find in this story of Epiphany?  Let’s start with the Wise Men.  They are described as WISE.

In Christian theology wisdom is derived from the Latin “sapientia” and the Greek “Sophia”.  This kind of wisdom goes beyond the application of practical intelligence and knowledge to problem solving – like the wisdom of putting snow tires on your car before driving in the mountains in the winter.

The kind of wisdom that the wise men represent is transcendent wisdom and it lies at the heart of every religion.  It includes self-knowledge, interconnectedness, an understanding of one’s subjective experience and a basic compassion for the human experience.  This kind of wisdom is gained through an attunement to one’s inner life through listening, reflection, meditation and prayer. We might well call it the wisdom of the heart.  And, as we know from experience, this wisdom is hard won.   It is only through emptying oneself of one’s own ideas, opinions, wants and expectations that one can begin to hear the wisdom of the Heart.

Socrates may have given us the best definition of transcendent wisdom.  He says, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”

The three Wise Men, for all of their education and standing in their respective countries, were able to empty themselves of their own self-importance and embark on a journey about which they knew nothing except a moving star in the sky guiding them, and a prophesy of a king being born.  They trusted that some larger world event was unfolding.  An event that they did not lead but that included them.

They were able to listen to the wisdom of their hearts and to trust this wisdom, following the star wherever it led. This was indeed a very bold and courageous thing to do, particularly over 2000 years ago, long before planes, trains and automobiles.

The Wise Men were also open to overwhelmed joy when they recognized that the love of God had delivered them to behold such a wondrous event and the fulfillment of a prophesy.  They were humble enough to fall on their knees before this spiritual power that they recognized in Christ’s birth.

Herod, on the other hand, was clearly filled with his own need for power and control.  He was filled with self-aggrandizement and a fear that the birth of a new king was a threat to his earthly position.  This propelled him to order the slaughter of all male children under two years old in the vicinity of Bethlehem, hoping to eliminate this threat.  There was no empty place within him that, in stillness, was able to receive something other than his own prattle.

The Wise Men and Herod symbolize two opposite poles of human experience.  At one end of the polarity is Wisdom and at the other end is Ignorance. In all of us there aspects that are Wise Man-like and also aspects that are Herod- like. The spark of Divinity that is the Christ Child within us is born anew every year into this confusing polarity between the two.

In our own lives we all have times when we are filled with ourselves and our accomplishments.  Indeed pride in one’s accomplishments is a necessary developmental step in attaining maturity.

And yet it is important that this ego sense of importance is tempered with a sense of gratitude for the gifts we have been given.  It must also be tempered by a growing awareness of our rightful place in the family of things.

In Africa they have a word “Ubuntu” which roughly means, “I am because we are”.  This “Ubuntu” is about interconnectedness.   We are not only connected to other humans, but to the whole of nature, including the earth itself.  We are a living part of a greater whole.  It is a big challenge in life to find that rightful place that we are meant to occupy, and occupy fully, leading when that is a wise choice and following when we are being called to follow.

At the very center of this passage is, of course, the birth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who has been made manifest on earth to lead us on our own life journey.  The Epiphany of Christ’s birth was first made known to Mary, then to Joseph.  In Bethlehem it was made known to the shepherds in the fields and to the animals in the stable.  With the coming of the Wise Men this Epiphany was made known to the world.

So the Epiphanies in our own lives are first revealed to us, then often to our families.  But we also have the obligation to bring these Epiphanies in the outer world and to follow where they lead.  We have the obligation to shine this Light in the world, not so much to light up ourselves but to light up the world.  As I wrote this a song that I sang as a small child in church came to me, many of you will know it.

This little light of mine,

 I’m going to let it shine.

 This little light of mine,

 I’m going to let it shine, Let it shine, Let it shine, let it shine.    Amen

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