This is a re-post of a blog I posted a few years ago- with a musical addition to savor!
Today is the feastday of Epiphany. It is one of my favorite celebrations of the year: the commemoration of the coming of light and a reminder that you can discover the sacred in the ordinary-- and maybe even in the awful. Having recently returned from a weekend at Bishop's Ranch, I carry in my body the memory that cows are not fragrant and delicate creatures. The manger of the Nativity scene was probably actually a cave where farm animals slept. Imagine finding God there.
This is exactly what the tradition of alchemy teaches also us: that the first step of the spiritual journey to transformation is the descent into the cave, the darkness, the blackness. The first step of the journey is the nigredo, when everything falls apart. We cannot begin the journey to our True Self until we've had a sufficient number of disasters, disappointments, failures and humiliations under our belt. In the symbolic lens of the alchemists, two of the first ingredients needed are actually excrement and a fire that reduced things to ash. They alone may provide the heat and intensity to transform your life into a spiritual quest. This is good news! When everything is shitty, when life stinks and everything is in ruins, you know have the raw ingredients to begin the Great Work. This may be an important and hopeful thing to remember in our collective moment in history right now. The potential for transformation is enormous.
In the Biblical story of Epiphany, three magi travel from afar expecting to find a new king. You can imagine their surprise when they discover that following the Light leads them to an out- of- the- way hovel where a woman has just given birth to an illegitimate Jewish boy. After giving their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (not exactly helpful gifts for a new mother, but symbolic of a leader who will master the realms of earthly power, priestly power and overcome death), the magi head home but are warned that they cannot return the way they have come. Life will be forever different for them after this encounter, and the old roads simply won't work.
The painting of Epiphany above can actually be seen as a map of the entire alchemical journey. On the sides, two long line of pilgrims descend through a gateway of a building that is in ruins. One by one, the seekers dismount their regal steeds, a psychological symbol of dismantling the ego (a delightful play on "getting off their high horse"). Now humbled, they encounter the ox and the ass, representatives of the lowly instinctual self on the way to genuflect to the Holy. Above the heads of the Holy Family is a peacock- the ancient symbol of spiritual transformation, beckoning us to learn the art of seeing the world not in black and white, but in a myriad of colors and possibilities, all shimmering with divine light. The Christ child is crowned with a halo in the colors of red and gold, signaling the end of the process: a new consciousness has been born (citrinitas) and union with the divine completed (rubedo).
Epiphany is not something that happened once in history to one set of people in the Middle East somewhere. It is something that is always true, for each one of us. If we treat the story as a dream, where each character represents an aspect of ourselves, Epiphany teaches us that the divine lies waiting to be discovered not in palaces of jewels and wrapped in fine linen, or in the fine horses of our Egoic self- no, it lies hidden where we least expect it: in the midst of darkness, fear, and even disgrace. In the cast off and unwanted parts of ourselves that we have had no room for in our busy lives.
The theme of illuminating light is a hallmark of the compositions of Morten Lauridsen. I invite you to listen to his glorious "Sure on This Shining Night", which you can find on youtube. In this season of Epiphany, may you, too, find a light within that guides you to unexpected new and glorious life- where you least expect it.