I Am Running into a New Year, Lucille Clifton
i am running into a new year
and the old years blow back
like a wind
that i catch in my hair
like strong fingers like
all my old promises and
it will be hard to let go
of what i said to myself
when i was sixteen and
twenty-six and thirty-six
even thirty-six but
i am running into a new year
and i beg what i love and
i leave to forgive me
This is the first Sunday in 2008. In the Christian calendar it is the Feast of the Epiphany, when the wise men arrived in Bethlehem to bring their gifts to the babe in the manger.
What was their epiphany? What was their insight? What was it that they came to understand; to recognize and to appreciate?
“Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star appeared; and he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.’ When they head heard the king they went their way; and lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy; and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.’ Matthew 2: 7 – 12
The Feast of the Epiphany is an important day in the Christian calendar – tradition says that it celebrates the baptism of Jesus.
The book of Matthew tells the story of wise men, or magi (Zoroastrian priests); more popularly described as ‘three kings,’ who leave their kingdoms, follow a star, and find the baby Jesus with his mother Mary and they fall on their knees to worship him, and they give him the gifts they’ve been carrying. (There’s no mention that there were three ‘wise men,’ only three ‘gifts.’ Those gifts could have been brought by any number of ‘wise men.’)
This myth is one of my personal favorites; I’ll tell you why.
An epiphany is a seemingly sudden insight. (From the Greek, epiphaneia, manifestation: to appear; to show forth.) It’s an ‘a-ha’ moment. In Matthew’s story, it comes after a long journey.
It’s about the long human journey; it’s about the individual journey each of us is traveling through the years, and it’s about the collective journey of humanity’s evolution on the planet.
Theologically, it’s about the evolution of belief in a god who intervenes in history, creates the world and appoints humans to ‘have dominion’ over everything; a god who chooses favorites, is soon disappointed in his creation so he sends a great flood to destroy everyone but Noah, his family and two of each of animals so life on earth can have a new start…a step toward another kind of image or idea of the nature of the Divine.
The point is that sach of us evolves an idea of God. That is, we grow, develop and hopefully achieve a mature idea of God, or the Divine, or the ‘sacred.’ Hopefully the idea we have at this stage of life is characterized by a kind of ‘wisdom.’ We become wise, to one degree or another; step by step.
To evolve, religiously, is to grow in our understanding of the nature of life on earth, including an increase in scientific understanding – knowledge and information which helps us to preserve, protect and extend life – and it involved a growing wisdom about the nature of God, which includes a growing wisdom about the nature of the self and the larger Self of which we are a part. (The Hindu says, “I am the Self that dwells within the heart of every mortal creature; the beginning, the life span, and the end of all.”)
The process of this theological evolution often involves what the theologians refer to as the dark night of the soul – we lose our grip on the early, child-like idea we had of a father-like god in the sky; we stop thinking of God as an old man. Religious maturity makes that idea unbelievable.
As Paul said in his famous letter to the Corinthians: “When I was a child I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became an adult I stopped being childish.”
For many, the story ends there; the evolution comes to an abrupt and final end, and all religion, theology, and spirituality is consigned to the trash bin of our childhood. There are lots of 50-year old people who have an 8-year old’s idea of God that they stopped believing in at age ten.
For others, something new gradually emerges — a new realization of the Divine. It doesn’t happen all at once, like some brilliant break through, some moment of epiphany. It’s a gradual, maturing process. The three kings’ epiphany came ‘after a long journey.’ Years. Decades.
The story of the three kings, or wise men, in Matthew, is symbolic of this life-long journey, the process of change we each go through. It’s a life-long journey — an evolution.
The story is filled with rich symbolism. A king, for example, has control over a territory—his domain. Each of us has a kind of psychological domain – the mind. We have a vast accumulation of experiences, each of which has left an imprint, or influence on our thinking.
We say, “A man’s home is his castle.” The foundation of that castle or home is an individual’s life experience — our ideas and beliefs are built on our own experiences. We feel at home with our own ideas; we feel a certain security in our beliefs, opinions and values. But we can become imprisoned in that ‘castle,’ unable or unwilling to venture from it; a gilded cage.
Most of us are here, in this particular sanctuary because it speaks to us – we expect to hear things that are consistent with what we’ve come to think about religion. Our individual freedom to have our own thoughts and beliefs is supported here.
If something I say doesn’t seem consistent with your set of beliefs, you can disagree – or, if it gets uncomfortable enough you may even say, “That’s it. I’m outa here!”
As comfortable as you are with your own ideas and beliefs, you’re here, in part, to hear other people’s thoughts and ideas; you’re even willing to be challenged.
One of the things I like about the story of the three kings is that they willingly leave their kingdoms in search of something new — as new as a newborn baby.
I like the idea that they travel together, overcoming their different customs, sharing meals with new kinds of food – they find ways to communicate in spite of their different languages, and so forth.
The story of the journey of the wise men and their epiphany is about the inner journey, the spiritual journey. It’s not about a piece of geography – it’s not that kind of journey. It’s about the inner journey each of us is on right now. Right here.
It’s about our openness to change, our willingness to change. It’s about the courage to leave the castle we’ve built with all our old ideas and look at something new.
The three kings story has a satisfactory ending. When they arrive in Bethlehem they see the baby Jesus for themselves – seeing is believing – an epiphany; a new understanding. “I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I experience and I understand.”
So what is their epiphany? For me, it’s the realization that God is experienced by witnessing the love between a mother and child – the love between a father and child – or love in all of its manifestations.
The epiphany is that God is love – it’s as simple and as profound as that. Love, or God, is the creative force behind what we call human compassion; God is our human capacity to understand, appreciate and respect one another. It’s what brought those travelers together to share the long journey; it’s what brings us together here today.
That’s the epiphany; it’s a holy moment when we leave the old kingdom of thinking of God as ‘other,’ to feeling a sense of God’s presence as our own capacity to care.
Why should we care? Why should we care about those two children whose parents were killed in a fire in Bridgeport a month ago, to whom our share-the-plate offering is being donated today?
That’s not a rhetorical question. It’s the basic religious question. I maintain that it’s the Source of all true religion, in the most basic, generic sense, and it can be found in all the religions of the world. It’s the best part of the religions — we all know about the worst part of the religions; it’s what turns many thoughtful people away from ‘the religions.’
The point is that we do care. Is that enough theology for you? Maybe not. But I can tell you, and have told you before, that it is enough theology for me. And, I believe it is at the heart of all the religions of the world; it’s at the heart, the feeling level.
It’s the place where the wise men rendezvoused. They had to have a meeting place. I recall an inscription on the wall of the Ethical Culture Society meeting room: ‘the place where we meet to seek the highest is sacred ground.’
To have that epiphany, to find or feel the sacred, one has to leave the confines of one’s old kingdom. That doesn’t mean you stop thinking, but it does mean that you can get over the need to have everyone think or believe the way you think or believe, and still respect them; it means that you are open to change, growth, maturity…wisdom.
The power of healing and personal transformation is operating in the universe; that deep power is the source of love, kindness, generosity, and creativity; it drives social justice work; it’s at the heart of this human existence.
The ancient story says that they brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh; three kings, three different gifts. That’s another basic truth – we come from different places, differing ideas or beliefs, and each of us has a gift to bring, but not the same gift.
In an ultimate sense, each of us is a gift, just as life is the gift we’ve been given, so do we bring a gift.
There are a great many legends about the Wise Men, and all sorts of interpretations of their gifts. Gold was always regarded as a royal gift and as a royal color; incense is a symbol of prayer rising up to God, symbolized by the gift of frankincense; myrrh is an aromatic gum used in the ancient world both in medicine and in embalming. The gift of myrrh is a reminder of our own mortality – we have to face the fact that we will die, so, paradoxically, it’s a reminder to live as fully as we can in the here and now.
The meanings that keep emerging from the ancient story of the wise men who traveled together to find the Divine is summarized in Whitman’s poem, Song of the Open Road. We’ll close with a few lines from that poem:
Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.
Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune,
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms,
Strong and content I travel the open road.
The earth, that is sufficient,
I do not want the constellations any nearer,
I know they are very well where they are,
I know they suffice for those who belong to them.
(Still here I carry my old delicious burdens,
I carry them, men and women, I carry them with me wherever I go,
I swear it is impossible for me to get rid of them,
I am fill’d with them, and I will fill them in return.)
I inhale great draughts of space,
The east and the west are mine, and the north and the south are mine.
I am larger, better than I thought,
I did not know I held so much goodness.
Here is the test of wisdom,
Wisdom is not finally tested in schools,
Wisdom cannot be pass’d from one having it to another not having it,
Wisdom is of the soul, is not susceptible of proof, is its own proof,
Now I re-examine philosophies and religions,
They may prove well in lecture-rooms, yet not prove at all under the spacious clouds and along the landscape and flowing currents.
Allons! whoever you are come travel with me!
Allons! the inducements shall be greater,
We will sail pathless and wild seas,
We will go where winds blow, waves dash, and the Yankee clipper speeds by under full sail.
Listen! I will be honest with you,
I do not offer the old smooth prizes, but offer rough new prizes,
These are the days that must happen to you:
You shall not heap up what is call’d riches,
You but arrive at the city to which you were destin’d, you hardly settle yourself to satisfaction before you are call’d by an irresistible call to depart,
Allons! after the great Companions, and to belong to them!
They too are on the road — they are the swift and majestic men — they are the greatest women,
Let the paper remain on the desk unwritten, and the book on the shelf unopen’d!
Let the tools remain in the workshop! let the money remain unearn’d!
Let the school stand! mind not the cry of the teacher!
Let the preacher preach in his pulpit! let the lawyer plead in the court, and the judge expound the law.
Camerado, I give you my hand!
I give you my love more precious than money,
I give you myself before preaching or law;
Will you give me yourself? will you come travel with me?
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?