I was sad when I took the Christmas tree down this last week, so I played familiar carols as I climbed the ladder to reach the glittery star. The star came down without a fuss, but the garlands refused to go, remaining stuck in the brittle and sharp needles, so I worked them out gently. By the time I was finished, my hands and arms were scratched with the dead bits of gray-green, bits that once breathed life. I stacked the assorted boxes now filled with decorations in the garage and marked them “2013 Christmas.” I reached for a broom and began sweeping up, looking to Epiphanytide.
Epiphany in our culture is largely lumped into Christmas and forgotten. Most folks don’t wait until January 6 to celebrate the visit of the Wise Men who followed the star to the manger. Most jump to New Years and now buy cards (according to the stores) for Valentine’s Day.
But I have always loved the season of Epiphany, which bridges Christmas and Lent. Epiphany is the shining star itself – it is a time of discerning what Christmas means to us, what the full implications are of this extraordinary event in time. One of the most beautiful and concise statements of this illumination is in the Epistle to the Romans, the Anglican reading for this morning, the First Sunday after the Epiphany. St. Paul writes to the church in Rome:
“I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.” (Romans 12:1+)
I have been recently praying for discernment about a certain challenge in my life, and St. Paul reminds me that discernment only comes when the door is open to God. We present ourselves as a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable, for God’s service. We are told that this might mean something uncomfortable, non-conformist, even counter-cultural. For we are transformed, not conformed. We have opened the door to God with the offering of ourselves. Now God is able to transform us, for he can enter in. How does he do this? By the renewing of our minds. And when our minds are renewed – through Scripture, prayer, worship – we are given discernment. We begin to know the will of God.
Knowing the will of God is, I have come to believe, pretty much a ticket to happiness. The problem most often is not knowing, not seeing through the haze of our blurred vision, a fog created by our own blocking of God’s entry into our lives. We call this, of course, sin – the lists of ways we close the door, blur the vision. But we can clear the haze and open the doors. The first step is offering ourselves to God so that the light of that Bethlehem star can shine into our hearts and minds.
I don’t want to be like my dead tree. I don’t want my faith, my spiritual life, my life itself, to be brittle and sharp. I want the beauty, warmth, and love of Christmas – God coming among us, taking on our flesh – to stay with me. I want to continue the transformation that began in the manger. I want to renew my mind again and again so that I can discern God’s will, so that I can know happiness.
I was thinking about this in church this morning. The nave and sanctuary were like my fresh tree used to be, full of color and light and sweet fragrance. The red carpet led to the altar where candles flamed amidst red poinsettias. Light streamed down from skylights onto the medieval crucifix and tented tabernacle. As I returned from receiving the Eucharist, stained glass transformed the sunlight into jewels that danced upon the oaken pews. I had entered Christmas, was inside the Incarnation, inside the beating heart of God.
Christmas, I knew, would always be with me, but only if I chose to open the door, chose to be part of Christ’s Body, chose to be transformed with the renewing of my mind, chose to be living and not dead.