A Homily for Epiphany
by Bishop Steven Marshall
In Matthew 2: 9-11, the ageless story describes a Star in the East guiding three wise men, or magi, to the place of the divine birth of Christ. Legends of the Celtic peoples tell that their druids and seers, through study of astrology and signs seen in the sacred fires, also foretold this divine birth.
According to medieval legends, the three wise men were named Melchior, Balthazar and Gaspar. Each of them came from a different culture: Melchior was Asian, Balthazar was Persian and Gaspar was Ethopian, thus representing the three races known to the old world. These three priest-kings and wise men brought royal gifts to the divine infant: gold, frankincense and myrrh. Melchior brought a golden cup, which, according to legend, was preserved by the Blessed Virgin Mary and was the same cup used in the institution of the Holy Eucharist. Balthazar brought a gold box of frankincense. Gaspar brought a curiously chased flask of myrrh, a royal embalming oil.
The gift of gold symbolizes the kingship of Christ, which represents our own true royal Selfhood and our giving of love and service as directed and commanded by that Self. The gift of frankincense symbolizes the Godhead of Christ and our own gifts of honor and reverence to our indwelling Divinity. The gift of myrrh is a prophecy of the death and burial of the earthly body of Christ, which represents our understanding and empathy for the suffering of humanity.
The word Epiphany comes from the Greek meaning “to appear” or “to be shown forth” According to Roman Catholic tradition, Epiphany signifies the first appearance of Christ to the gentiles in the story of the visit of the three wise men to the divine infant Jesus. As the three wise men represent all the known peoples of the world, this signifies an appearance to the entire world, not just a few who call themselves Christians. The Christ appears in many names and many guises throughout the world. In the Gospel of John, Jesus proclaims: “Other sheep have I that are not of this flock.” Similarly, there are legends of Christ appearing in the Americas and in Northern Europe in their respective cultures and religious symbols. The showing forth of Christ to the gentiles is not about converting everyone to one religion. So great is the gentle humility and compassion of Christ and Sophia that they put on whatever appearance and culture is necessary to be recognized by anyone who sincerely calls out for spiritual assistance.
The Manichaean religion recounts a lineage of many divine teachers and messengers of the Light: Seth, Moses, Buddha, Zoroaster and Jesus. The world’s religions represent the spiritual paths and trails blazed by those who have made the journey of the soul before us. They are those, such as can be described by the original title of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, who have been “there and back again.” These Messengers of Light, like the star in the East that guided the three wise men to the place of the divine incarnation, can give us divine guidance upon our spiritual journey; they can show us the way to the divine and royal Selfhood within us. In choosing a spiritual path and religious practice we must each follow that interior star and witness a light that bids us bring our own inner offerings of gold and frankincense and myrrh. Until we have this light, as well as the conviction and trust in the place to where it leads us, our journeys are in vain.
Epiphany means “to show forth,” “to make an appearance.” We show forth our divine light by living our own spiritual path as we are divinely guided from within, without recriminations or regrets. We are guided to the place of the divine birth, the place of the awakening of our true and royal Selfhood, the Christ within. We offer as gifts all that we have in aiding the divine work of redemption that has been set before us.
Each of us has a unique and essential part in the work of redemption and the restoration of wholeness. The Gospel of Truth advises us: “By possessing Gnosis, he carries out the will of Him who called him and seeks to do what pleases Him.” By possessing the Gnosis of Self-knowledge, we remember from whence we came, to whither we are going and what we are called here to do in carrying out our true will. Increasing the light in ourselves through our own spiritual and religious practices, benefits all others. Increasing the light in our own visible Church and strengthening the secret, universal and interior Church, benefits all other religions and spiritual organizations.
The evidence of the guiding star in our own lives may not be so fantastic as the Biblical story. True magic is a very subtle thing. A still small voice, a teacher in our dreams, a waking vision, or a kinesthetic feeling of numinous presence is all we may perceive in the way of guidance. Very often, these revelations are more disturbing than helpful at the start. Yet these sometimes, very subtle promptings and guidings can lead us closer and closer to the epiphany of the Light within us.
The Valentinians of Alexandria symbolized the appearance of the infant of light in a procession honoring the image of the Goddess Kore. In this Epiphany procession they carried an image of the divine child which they called Aeon. Holding a cup before the statue of the Virgin Kore, they would carry the image of the infant of light around the altar. According to the Panarium of Epiphanius:
“In many places they celebrated a very great festival on the night of Epiphany, particularly in the so-called Koreion at Alexandria. There is an immense temple there, the temenos of Kore. After watching all night, singing and playing the flute in honor of the sacred image (Kore), and celebrating a pannychis, they go down after cock crow, bearing torches into a kind of underground crypt, carrying up a carved wooden idol, who sits naked on a bier and has a cruciform seal on his forehead, two more on his hands, and two more on his knees, altogether five gold seals. They carry the god seven times around the center of the temple amid loud playing of flutes and drums and singing of hymns, and then carry it to this underground place. When they are asked what mystery this is, they say that at this hour Kore—that is the Virgin—has given birth to Aeon.”
In this procession, the image of the god is carried on a bier. In the Egyptian mysteries, the image of Osiris is carried in a chest on a bier. The wounded Fisher-King of the Grail romances is also carried out on a bier accompanied by maidens carrying the hallows of the Grail procession. Several modern Gnostics suggest that the image carried around the altar was not that of a god but that of a naked Goddess figurine, such as may be seen in the examples of early Greek or late Egyptian statuary. Whether the image of a god or a goddess, we have in this Alexandrian ceremony a deep and ageless mystery.
In the special Gnostic Epiphany Service, the procession with the image of the Light is begun with a verse from the Psalms of David: “Lift up your heads, O ye Gates, and be ye lifted up ye everlasting doors, and the king of glory shall come in.” The Gate and the Door are both symbols of the divine feminine and are traditional images given to the Blessed Virgin Mary. From the womb of the divine feminine the infant of light is born; she is the Gate through which the King of Glory shall come in. From the Writings of the Gnostic Fathers we hear this most inspiring proclamation. “And this is the most perfect beauty and star of the Pleroma, a perfect fruit, Jesus, who was also named Savior and Christ and Word and All, because he is from the All.”
That Star of the Pleroma goes by many names and belongs to all times, because it is “from the All.” The Star of the Magi does not have meaning or relevance within a geographically limited and historical setting in the past. The ageless story belongs outside of time, illo tempore, where it can still touch us in the present when we enter that mythic realm that is not a time and not a place. Gnosis is not about a belief in historical events but about Gnosis, experience, an intimate acquaintance with a transcendental reality. When we experience the wonder of this transcendent reality, then we can acknowledge the wonder, the glory, and the magic within the various myths and legends of all cultures. We walk onto an inner landscape where Gods walk and legends speak. We find that we are truly a being from above. We apprehend how we are called and who calls us. By possessing Gnosis, we know who we were, and are, and are to be. We enter the Repose.
The Repose of the Gnostics can be likened to passing through a veil suspended from above through which we pass from darkness into a place of light and freedom. The Gnostics have also described this state as an awakening from a fitful nightmare or recovering from a drunken stupor. The term repose is used paradoxically, as the Gnostics considered the bustling activity of worldly life to be a state of sleep or death to the spirit, while the repose of the Fullness they considered to be an awakening into a sublime life of peace and light.
In Jung’s The Seven Sermons to the Dead, he describes the star in terms of a light guiding the soul into this repose.
“In the immeasurable distance there glimmers a solitary star on the highest point of heaven. This is the only God of this lonely one. It is his world, his pleroma, his divinity… This star is man’s god and goal. It is his guiding divinity; in it man finds repose. To it goes the long journey of the soul after death; in it shine all things with the brilliance of a great light. To this One man ought to pray. Such a prayer increases the light of the star. Such a prayer builds a bridge over death. It increases the light of the microcosm; when the outer world grows cold, this star still shines.”
This star is thus the interior light of the Self, the light-spark of divinity in each of us, the star that guided the wise men to Bethlehem, the star that guides us to our own awakening and birth of the infant of light within us. So, as we celebrate the season of Epiphany, may that star guide us to that altar within each of us and prepare us for the showing forth, the Epiphany of the Light, “Till you stand where the One Initiator is invoked, till you see your star shine forth.”
Steven Marshall is the Bishop of Queen of Heaven Gnostic Church, a parish of the Ecclesia Gnostica in Portland, Oregon.