When I was 16, I was minding my own business at our church’s youth group one Sunday night. The priest – Tim – was talking personally about his faith in Jesus. As he spoke, I felt something like a warm shower moving diagonally inside my chest.
It was pleasant, but not overwhelming. It lasted about a minute or two, I think. I didn’t know what it meant. I still don’t know what it meant! But what it felt like was confirmation that what Tim was saying about Jesus was true.
Many years later, I read that the Russian Orthodox tradition talks about something called the “warming of the heart.” I thought: maybe that’s what happened to me. And John Wesley famously said that his heart was once “strangely warmed.” Maybe that’s what happened to me. Wesley, if you don’t know, was a priest in the Church of England who formed a Methodist “movement” that became the Methodist Church. Now, I didn’t feel any strong desire to become a Methodist! But I’m still not sure what my experience meant.
I hadn’t thought about that experience for years until I attended a clergy retreat led by Douglas Christie, a scholar in California. At the end of his presentation, he talked about an experience he had as a teenager when he saw everyone in front of him bathed in an inexplicable light. As he spoke, his voice choked and he teared up. It was still powerful for him over thirty years later.
Experiences of light are also common in the Christian tradition. St. Symeon and Seraphim of Sarov, among others, had similar experiences. They are common and also extraordinary.
Some of you art lovers may know Bernini’s sculpture “The Ecstasy of Teresa of Avila.” It’s based on an experience she records in her autobiography in which she has, well, a sexy experience with God or an angel. Traditionally this was called “bridal” mysticism, but what it really amounts to is a bunch of hetero-erotic and homoerotic experiences of the divine: sometimes with an angel, sometimes with God, sometimes with Jesus. In the Middle Ages, these experiences were such a norm that Church leaders said: “No no no! No spiritually erotic experiences with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and certainly not with his Mother!!”
Some people have spiritual experiences like these. Some don’t. Why? Who knows? It’s a mystery. But one thing is clear: if you really, really want one, if you seek one, you probably won’t have one.
There are many kinds of epiphanies, breakthroughs, awakenings, and illuminations. The Quakers call them “openings.” They’re like an “ah ha” moment, but deeper, less explicable, and more profound. During this Season of Epiphany we ponder these epiphanies, these ways God chooses to be revealed to us.
The Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – are based on epiphanies. The Old Testament talks about “signs and wonders,” a term I much prefer to “miracles.” It’s not that I don’t believe in such things (I do), but to me the word “miracle” implies that God is resting most of the time and wakes up every so often and does something spectacular. It also implies that there is a scientific world governed by rules, and every once in a while God decides to break a rule.
Then there is Martin Luther’s complaint that when people want a “miracle,” they always want a two-headed goat when God gives us the miracles of life and love every day. In our daily life, as part of our basic human experience, we always have access to the divine. Yet there are powerful breakthroughs that seem to come out of nowhere that can take our breath away.
In the Christian faith, the epiphany is Jesus, everything about Jesus: his birth, his life, his death, his resurrection, everything he says, and everything he does. It’s all one big epiphany. During the Season of Epiphany, we are invited to look and listen again and again to stories about Jesus, and to say “ah ha!”
Today we hear the familiar story of the Wise Men being guided by a star. God uses creation to guide them, enlighten them, and show them the way. They go first to Jerusalem and eventually get to Bethlehem, bringing their gifts to the baby Jesus. In what is a familiar plotline in the Gospels: excited outsiders find their way in, and anxious insiders are suspicious. You can tell the Wise Men are outsiders because they refer to Jesus as “the king of the Jews.” That’s a Gentile term, the same one Pilate will use at the crucifixion. First-century Jews would never say “king of the Jews.” They would say “messiah.”
What makes Herod and some insiders worried is that in Israel’s history, there is what some scholars call a tradition of “messiah-ing.” Power is not always inherited. Sometimes the people proclaim someone their king. That would be fine with the Wise Men, of course, but Herod liked power. On top of that he was a nasty guy. He had some of his potential heirs killed fearing that they might try to seize power. So we wasn’t going to hesitate to have a bunch of children in Bethlehem killed. The Gentiles, represented by the Wise Men, share none of that anxiety. Their experience is one of light in which their hearts are warmed by an awe-inspiring experience.
The Story of the Wise Men takes us to the heart of our faith. Many spiritual experiences and much of the Church’s structures have been called the “condiments” of faith. Experiences like a warmed heart or seeing an ethereal light or having an ecstatic moment: those are fine, but faith is not based on such experiences. Faith is not based on regular spiritual stimulation at all.
Still, many Christians get caught up in the condiments of faith and miss the whole point. Some evangelicals insist that each person must have a particular kind of “born again” experience, as if an experience is a be-all or end-all of faith. And that’s just silly. Episcopalians enjoy the beauty and mystery of worship so much that if something in the worship service isn’t right, if a candle isn’t lit, their Sunday is ruined. And that’s just as silly. Our faith isn’t about the condiments. It’s about something deeper.
In the 1990s, there was a revival of the practice of something called Centering Prayer. In Centering Prayer, you sit for twenty minutes in complete silence: not just saying no words, but seeking to have no thoughts. The point isn’t to give your attention to God (that’s beyond our control). The point is to give your intention to God, to offer God twenty minutes of your time. It’s not my favorite form of meditation, but I once went to a Centering Prayer Retreat at the Holy Cross monastery in California. During the retreat, someone asked Br. Roy: “what if I don’t have a spiritual experience?” He said: “in Centering Prayer, having a spiritual experience is counter-productive! You don’t want one!”
While the Christian mystical tradition reports many spiritual experiences, it also warns us about such experiences: they are only condiments. If something happens to you during worship or prayer or meditation – an “ah ha” moment or something – it doesn’t matter! The mystical tradition has a simple Rule of Thumb: if a spiritual experience doesn’t make you more loving, then it doesn’t come from God. If the Wise Men leave Bethlehem with warmed hearts, or seeing light everywhere, it means nothing unless they love more than they did before they began their journey.
To underline this point, the eighth-century Muslim saint Rabia said that she wished she could have enough water to douse the fires of hell and have enough fire to destroy Paradise. That way, people wouldn’t seek God out of fear or a desire for reward, but simply to find God. For, if we serve God from fear, we are slaves. If we serve God because we want a reward, we are mercenaries. But if we serve God simply out of love, then we are children of God.
In some ways, the Wise Men’s epiphany shows us how to do that. Their epiphany is like Jesus’ parable of the treasure: you discover something of great value and you sell everything else to get it. It’s the most precious thing you can have. No experience of the divine – not a sense of peace or warmth or light or ecstasy – is enough. Only God. For Christians, there are many epiphanies, but there is also the epiphany, and that is Jesus.
So the Wise Men lead us and guide us. And if we are wise we follow them, not to seek something from Jesus (what’s the baby Jesus going to give us? A diaper rash?) but to give something to Jesus. Not to have a particular feeling or a profound experience, but to meet a person. Jesus is more than all the condiments of our faith, more than the rewards, more than the feelings. What we really want, what we really desire, what we really need, what we really seek is Jesus.