The season of Epiphany begins with a journey–the journey of the magi to where the Christ Child was. Guided by a star, we are told, they ventured forth from the comforts of home and familiarity, across unforgiving deserts, away from seductive tyrants, and finally to the peasant home where they found the child and his mother. And there they knelt and presented him with the gifts they had brought–gold, frankincense, and myrrh–and then went home by another way.
“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step,” the ancient sage Lao-Tsu said, and so indeed do each of our journeys begin, however long they may be –with one step. A child’s first step is usually cause for great celebration, especially when, much to their surprise, it’s followed by another step. Then, almost always, comes “the fall,” the sudden sitting down upon padded bottom, or the tumbling forward into a face plant. Luckily, the floor isn’t that far away.
We expect a child to fall–or fail–when learning to walk. In fact, it is in learning to get up again and again after a fall that we actually learn to walk–get a sense of balance, learn how big a step to take, how fast to go to keep up with our feet. It’s too bad we don’t keep that perspective on falling throughout our lives, letting fear of failure keep us from taking those first steps on any new paths of our journey–whether it’s stepping on to a little path to trying a new hairstyle or a new recipe, or a dirt road to a daily walk or maybe a run, maybe learning to play the piano, learning to ski, or learn a new skill, or something even more public, turning on to a main road, like volunteering to take on a new responsibility at work, let alone entering a new relationship or healing an old one, quitting a job you hate to start up your own business. “Learn to fail or fail to learn,” is a wise saying to remember.
“When you pass through deep waters,” God says through the prophet Isaiah, “I will be with you.” We should notice how that promise begins–when you pass through deep waters… The assumption is, you will. “…and through the rivers…when you walk through fire….” There is no such thing as life without challenge, without risk, without failure, without heartache and grief. Just as we’re guaranteed to fall down when we’re learning to walk, so we are guaranteed to face disappointment, obstacles, pain, failure, illness, loss, and death. It’s a package deal–you want to be alive? You get the heartaches and struggles along with it. “Why me?” is a waste of breath.
“When you pass through deep waters, I will be with you,” God says. “And through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”
Baptism, it could be said, is the first step on this journey with God–or at least a first defining step. It is the moment when we affirm who we are and Whose we are, as we set out on this journey of life. Luke says that for Jesus it happened just after he was baptized that he heard the Voice from heaven telling him, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” It was while Jesus was praying, Luke says, that “the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon [Jesus] in bodily form like a dove. And then the Voice..” “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
Jesus would need to know that, have that imprinted on his heart, because the deep waters lay ahead, the fire-walking, the crowd-crushing, the whip-lashing, the nails pounding, the agony and betrayal all lay ahead. “I will be with you….they shall not overwhelm you…you will not be consumed.”
So it is, without the feathers or the thunder, at our baptisms. We are claimed and named by God–”Do not fear, for I have redeemed you [God says to us]; I have called you by name, you are mine.” In the book of the prophet Jeremiah, we are told that it is even before our birth, so, before our baptisms, that God says– “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you; before you were born, I consecrated you.” So we are really affirming that knowledge and that love when we are baptized. We seal that claim upon us with the sign of water and spirit. And, though we do not talk about it in the midst of our celebration, implicit in this sign of God’s love upon us is the knowledge that the deep waters, the fire, the heartache lie ahead. The watermark on our foreheads will not keep us from them, but it may help us go through them.
Susan Sparks writes that the further we go from birth and that primordial blessing of God upon us , the “more we tend to forget that blessing.” Surely you have heard that little story about a young child sneaking up to his baby brother’s crib and whispering, “Quick. Tell me again about God. I’m already forgetting what He looks like.” Maybe our parents weren’t into “blessing us,” maybe they didn’t feel blessed themselves. Life beats us down, we face disappointment, failure, grief, until those essential words, ‘You are my beloved,’ “are muffled out. Our greatest blessing–[the bone-deep knowledge that we are loved]–goes missing…After that, [she says], it’s a slippery slope. Without the words of blessing in our ears, all we hear are the negative, critical voices of the world. We start to believe that we are not beloved, but unloved. And when we feel unloved, we become fearful. We lash out, we judge, we harm,…” [Odyssey Network, 1/4/16] We forget our human connection that we have with all of God’s other children.
Or, instead of remembering, knowing, hearing in some sense, that blessing voice of our original Beloved, we listen to other voices, who say they “love” us for other reasons–because we are “beautiful,” they say, or powerful, or successful at any cost, or because we are useful. More and more we crave the accolades of the world which praise us for empty things, just like we crave potato chips, trying to satisfy our hunger, and we forget Who originally blessed us. All those other voices will abandon us in the deep waters and the fire. In the waters of baptism, which are deeper than we know, we find our true identity, including but also larger than our individual selves. “For whatever we lose (like a you or a me) [poet e.e.cummings wrote] It’s always our self we find in the sea.”
So, for all of us who are on life’s journey–”whoever you are, wherever you are on life’s journey”–here is an Epiphany Blessing “for Those Who Have Far to Travel” by Jan Richardson–
If you could see/the journey whole/ you might never/undertake it; might never dare/ the first step/ that propels you/ from the place/ you have known/ toward the place/ you know not. Call it/ one of the mercies/ of the road: that we see it/ only by stages/ as it opens/ before us, /as it comes into/ our keeping/ step by/single step.
There is nothing/ for it/ but to go/ and by our going/ take the vows/ the pilgrim takes:
to be faithful to/the next step; to rely on more/ than the map/ to heed the signposts/ of intuition and dream; to follow the star/ that only you/ will recognize;
to keep an open eye/ for the wonders that/ attend the path; to press on/ beyond distractions/ beyond fatigue/ beyond what would/ tempt you/ from the way. There are vows/ that only you/ will know; the secret promises/ for your particular path/ and the new ones/ you will need to make/ when the road / is revealed/ by turns/ you could not/ have foreseen.
Keep them, break them, / make them again./ Each promise becomes/ part of the path; each choice creates/ the road/ that will take you/ to the place/ where at last/ you will kneel / to offer the gift/ most needed–the gift that only you/ can give–before turning to go/ home by/ another way. [from The Painted Prayerbook, and the VT Conference e-kit]
“You are my beloved Child; in you I am well pleased.” “When you walk through the deep waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you… For I am the Lord your God, I have called you by name, you are mine.”
May these words be hope and courage and strength for us for the living of these days. Amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark