For our Epiphany worship yesterday we were blessed with a luminous sermon offering from Judith Slimmon. With her permission, I have posted her manuscript below.

Well here we are, at Epiphany of 2021 after having lived through ten months of a global pandemic.  In this relatively safe city of Victoria, we have, nonetheless, made significant sacrifices in our routines, our jobs, our family life, our social lives and our Christmas and other celebrations. Among these sacrifices is that our St. Philip church has been and continues to be closed and we are meeting like this, on Zoom.  Such a life of masked marauders we could not have imagined one year ago.

What I have found more disturbing than the threat of the Covid virus has been the myriad of strong reactions to this threat.  I have been disheartened by the polarities that have emerged in the face of fear in this unknown land.  We have seen the emergence of a host of action/reaction ideas and behaviors: masks as a safety precaution vs. masks as causing illness, science vs anti-science, doctors vs. politicians, vaccine proponents vs anti-vaxxers, laws and rules vs. individual choice, with each group vehement about the rightness of their position.

In the Epiphany story we find Herod trying to gain control over what he perceives as a threat to his life, a newborn king in the form of a baby in a manger.  While the promise of a Savior is filled with hope and possibility for some, it represents a threat for others.  Although this New Year heralds the hopeful possibility of a Covid vaccine that promises to end the pandemic threat, we are still squarely in the arena of the unknown.  We don’t know how it will unfold, how long it will take, whether it will work.  Threat and fear are still rampant within and around us.

Last year for the Epiphany sermon I talked about the idea of wisdom embodied in the figures of the wise men.  This year feels like the time to talk about something else.  So this epiphany morning, I want to focus on the ending of the reading in Matthew, chapter 2. In verse 12, we are told that the wise men were warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, as they had been instructed, but that they were to depart and “go another way”. .  So how do we “go another way?”

Well I was in introduced to another way from April to June of this year when a group out of San Francisco that researches Archetypal Symbolism joined with an Art and Psyche working group to develop a new project entitled, “Art in a Time of Global Crisis; Interconnection and Companionship”.  As I am a member of this group I was gifted with 50 images, one every weekday for 50 days, from artists and analysts around the world.  Included with the images were personal reflections on the meaning of the images during this troubled time. The images themselves, and the commentaries represented companionship, resilience and hope in the face of threat, fear and struggle.   This morning I am going to share a few of these with you, as well as some of my own.  The beauty of images is that they link us all to our common imaginal language and they connect us more closely to our hearts and souls than words do.

  1. The first image is entitled “The Last Egg”. In this image we see a young woman curled around the last egg, suggesting the end of the world as we know it.  She is hanging on, grieving and waiting for this egg to bring forth something new.  We experience both her despair and hope, in perfect balance.  Both of these emotions are so familiar to us during the global pandemic.

It is all too easy to focus only on the positive during this time of crisis.  How many times have I heard myself responding to the question, “How are you doing?” glibly, with the response, “Oh, I am just fine.”  Of course this is not the whole truth, not at all.

It is so important that we remember that hope is not to be confused with positivity.  Positivity simply denies the existence of despair – the antithesis of hope.  When we deny despair it does not go away, it simply is not given any space in our consciousness.  But hope does not deny despair, as in the sculpture, but continues to hope against hope.  Hope is captured in Jesus’s tender words to the 14th century anchoress, Julien of Norwich in the face of her suffering.  In a vision, Jesus gently tells her, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

  1. The second image is a painting entitled, “North Star”, in which we see four figures in a small boat, looking up into the night sky. These figures are not paddling their boat, nor do they have a motor they can start up.  They are doing the most unlikely thing – they are standing up in the boat and gazing upward.  The light of the moon has been eclipsed but we see the North Star within the eclipse’s circle, shining brightly.  These boat people know this star to be a dependable point of orientation from which they can get their true bearings and find their way in this unknown sea of life. On Epiphany the Wise Men followed the star of Bethlehem, not knowing what it represented or where it would lead them.  They trusted that this bright star was a dependable guide.

In this painting we also see many other jumbled and brightly shining letters in the night sky.  What are they spelling out?  What are they trying to tell us?  It is not at all clear.  This is so often the case in uncertain and troubled times where we do not have a clear direction, where we cannot depend on our past experience as a guide, and where our orientation is brought into question.   We are frightened and confused. Like the Wise Men, our inclination is to try go back the way we came, but the journey of life pulls us forward.  During this year the way forward is made all the more difficult as we have been bombarded with a myriad of frenzied snake oil messages:  “Follow me, no follow me”.  At the beginning of this New Year, the time of Epiphany, we may well ask ourselves, “What is the dependable, unchanging light in the darkness of uncertainty that we can trust and follow in 2021?

  1. The third image is a painting entitled “Sunlight in the Blue Room”, painted in 1891. In this painting we see a young girl, sitting on the edge of her chair, quietly crocheting with intense concentration.  On the blue wall above the girl is a framed image of a Madonna-like figure.  What is most striking in this image is the intense light flooding in the windows, illuminating the blue wall and the carpet as well as the back and hair of the girl herself. The girl herself is embraced by this light without being disturbed by it.  This painting reminds us that solitude in a small space is not the same as isolation.  Misser Berg from Denmark, who submitted this image, describes what she sees in the painting: “I see introversion full of life.  What I see is an ability to be.  To be protected, to be calm, to be contained.  This picture comforts me and gives me hope.”
  2. This fourth image, entitled, “Philosopher in Meditation is similar to the last one in some ways. It was painted in the 1600’s by the Dutch master, Rembrandt.  We are struck initially by the cold winter sunlight that floods through the window but provides no warmth.  An old man sits silently at the window, having turned away from the open book he was reading.  Then, on the right, we become aware of a woman leaning over and tending a fire that provides some warmth but no light.  Between the two is a staircase, enclosed in darkness, going somewhere, we know not.  Christophe Andre, author of Looking at Mindfulness”, poses this question to us with reference to this painting – “Shadow and darkness, a little light, a little warmth and a working mind – is that what our inner selves are like?”  I would add to this list an open heart and a little curiosity.

We live in a world where extraversion is highly praised and considered desirable.  The “movers and shakers” who are out in the world getting things done are lauded and emulated.  We are bombarded with images of success linked with never-ending action and activity.   This is the side of life that the pandemic has drastically curtailed. The reaction against this curtailment has been astonishing.

Yet, despite the glaring absence of outer life depicted in these last two images of the young girl and the old man, we have a sense of vast inner space, of peace and solitude.    The capacity to be, without external stimulus, without feedback or engagement with the outer world is a necessary condition for the soul.  The restrictions of the pandemic offer us the possibility of being with ourselves, exploring the dark staircase within that leads to who knows where, in our inner world.    

  1. This fifth image is probably my favorite painting of all time. Painted in 1935 by Victoria’s own Emily Carr, this painting is entitled “Scorned as Timber, Beloved of the Sky.”  I saw this painting in an exhibition a number of years ago.  As I stood in front of it I was transfixed and moved to tears.  I could not explain then what I saw, but now, some years later, I can give some words to this archetypal experience.  Emily Carr did a whole series of paintings depicting the devastating impact of large scale, clear-cut logging on the west coast.  She loved the forests and experienced them as a source of spiritual inspiration and a revelation of God’s love, so their annihilation was a source of deep anxiety for her.  She wrote this about the stumps:  “There’s a torn and splintered ridge across the stumps I call the ‘screamers’.  These are the unsawn last bits, the cry of the tree’s  heart, wrenching and tearing apart just before she gives that sway and the dreadful groan of falling, that dreadful pause….”. 

Yet in this painting, Carr’s anxiety is gone.  The mood is not despairing even though the environment she is depicting is devastated.   Emily Carr has transcended the devastation to depict this one tree, reaching upward to the vastness of the heavens, shimmering with the hope of renewal and regeneration.  By keeping this symbol of devastation and regeneration together in our consciousness, we can, perhaps, begin to imagine the possibility of generativity in the wake of the current pandemic.  Can we stay open to the possibility of renewal in our lives – a new way of being that incorporates something we have learned through this devastating experience?

  1. The final image in this series is entitled, “Adoration of the Magi”. It was painted by Giotto, Italy’s most famous painter of the 14th Century.   Here we see the Holy Family – Mary, Joseph and the Christ Child, with the three Wise Men from afar bearing their gifts and worshipping Jesus.  On the right side of the painting is an accompanying angel.  The abundance of haloes let us know that this is no ordinary birth.  We are in the realm of the sacred, the Holy.  For Christians this birth and its’ revelation to the world is central to our religion.  This was the moment when God revealed Himself anew in the world by taking the form of an infant, born to a Virgin, in a stable in Bethlehem.

For centuries men and women of faith in the ancient world had been waiting, hoping and praying that God would come to earth as a Savior to clean up the earth and right all that was wrong with it.  Eventually prophets like Isaiah began to articulate this longing with visions of prosperity for the poor, healing for the sick, freedom from enslavement, punishment for the wicked, and justice for all.  Father Ron Rolheiser says this about what they (and we) got instead.  “What did we get?  What did we get?  A helpless, naked baby, unable to feed himself.  That wasn’t the way anyone expected this to happen.  They had expected a Superhuman, a Superstar, someone whose muscle, intellect, physical stature, invulnerability, and invincibility would dwarf all the powers on the planet in such a way that there could be no argument, no resistance…”  Our expectations can so often get in the way of gifts from God.

What are we being led toward here, as the Wise Men of old were led toward the Christ Child?  We are being led toward vulnerability and helplessness rather than might and power.  We are being led toward embracing our human suffering rather than standing apart from it.  We are being led toward inheriting the earth when a coldness is melted in our hearts and we are brought back to our primal goodness by the presence of a baby.

May the New Year bring forth in us hope in the face of despair, dependable guidance in the face of confusion, solitude and inner peace in the face of loneliness, inner spaciousness in the face of outer restrictions,  generativity in the face of devastation and the rebirth of the Christ Child within our hearts.  Amen