Into the thick darkness
A reflection on Isaiah 60:1-6 and Matthew 2:1-12
Over the Christmas break I found myself doing some research on the genealogy of my family. It was easy research because several family members have done extensive work on each of my grandparents and posted them on public sites through Ancestry dot com. One person, some distant relative I do not know, has traced my paternal grandfather’s mother’s family, back to the early kings and queens of Scotland. Apparently I am related to William, known as the Lion King of Scotland, who reigned in the 13th century as well as all the kings of Scotland back to Kenneth in the 9th century, and his family members back to the first century.
As someone who has spent most of my life outside of Utah and far from my family I value this research and the way it sparks my imagination.
I often wonder about my family members who left England and Scotland, traveling on rickety ships over turbulent waters, to come to this country. Whether it was family members escaping the Puritan controversy in England in the early 1600’s or family members seeking renewal of faith through the Mormon church in the 1800’s, it appears my ancestors were an adventurous lot, willing to take great risks to follow God’s call to them. This leads me to wonder about the DNA of religion - is it possible that what ever provoked my ancestors to follow their faith is also alive in me - that there is literally something that is part of my genetic makeup? Why did I discern a call to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church when all the rest of my immediate family members are either not religious or active in the Mormon church? What about you? What is your religious DNA? What journeys of faith have you or your ancestors made?
Questions like these are appropriate for this time of year, as we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany and the journey of the Magi. I love, in particular, the phrase from Isaiah this morning about being in “thick darkness.” The word for this comes from a Jewish term that is associated with the divine presence - being in thick darkness means to be in the presence of the divine, wondering how one is being called to respond to God’s invitation to follow. Surely the Magi had a sense of being in thick darkness?
The Magi travelled a great distance, guided only by the trajectory of a star shining brightly in the sky. But these astrologers or astronomers knew the significance of a bright star and its call to them. The Orthodox tradition understands there to be as many as twelve Magi, possibly men and women both, from places far from Israel.
Our Western understanding of the story tells us that there were three magi, based on the three gifts offered; gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Despite following a bright star, the Magi, however many of them there were, had no clear idea where they were going nor did they know exactly what they would find. Following God is often a journey into the unknown, a thick darkness, indeed. Journey’s into the unknown, especially when following God, are often mysterious, requiring us to take challenging risks which carry no guarantee that the outcome will meet our expectations.
I’d like say that everything worked out well for my family members who took the risk and left home to travel a continent away for their faith. But it didn’t always work out. At the very least they faced harsh weather, poor housing, difficult financial situations, the death of children, and the lack of extended family support.
All of my life I’ve thought of myself as someone who comes from pioneer stock - hearty strong women - adapted for hard work. It’s a bit startling to think that I might also come from a long line of queens and kings of Scotland, earls and nobles in England, whose children’s children ended up in Massachusetts and then Utah. I have a Roman Catholic, Baptist, Puritan, Church of England, Church of Scotland, Mormon, and Christian Scientist religious heritage.
Clearly, following God, one never knows how the journey will unfold. The Magi travelled far but when they encountered Herod the journey offered a fork in the road. What if the Magi had ignored the message they received in a dream? What if they had returned to Herod after finding Jesus? What if Herod had managed to kill Jesus as an infant? How then would God’s story have unfolded?
A journey into the thick darkness is always filled with risk, with forks in the road, with discernment, and decisions to be made.
As Christians we understand that God has chosen to work in and through human life. This is a risk God takes, choosing to work in and through human beings. We all know how fickle we humans can be. Anyone of us can easily change our minds, change our direction, and go against God’s desire, without even being aware of it. Anything can happen. However, story after story in the Bible reminds us that God perseveres, the Holy Spirit keeps working, until all things come together for the good. God puts God’s trust in us and hopes we will take the path that leads to hope, new life, and faith. God never gives up.
The trajectory of our lives has led each one of us to be here in this place on this day. Our combined religious DNA converges in this place. Thus, we are all here, a community of faithful people seeking to know God more fully in our lives, striving to live faithful lives. We come and gather, pray, share a meal, grow together as a family of faith. We are on a common course, a path of following God. Sometimes our shared journey is sure and certain and other times we are lead to take risks into the unknown.
I imagine each of us wonders how this year will unfold. What will God call forth from us in 2015? What risks are we being asked to take? What kind of stamina will it require? Will we have the fortitude to persevere? Will we have the courage to take risks? Will we have the wisdom to discern in such a way that we can keep open to the Holy Spirit but are still able to be recognize foolhardiness when it strikes? How might the opportunities, whatever may come, open us to new ways of seeing God?
Thankfully, whether you are a risk taker or someone who proceeds with caution, we face into the thick darkness together. MayGod’s light shine upon us and show us the way.