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  • Emily Corley

Epiphany: the Water Element

When I was a child, the feast of Epiphany was the day those three figurines of the African, Asian, and European kings bearing gifts joined the festivities in the crèche which sat beside our Christmas tree. In our house Christmas began in earnest on Christmas eve with putting up the tree and crèche. Our crèche was an old, sturdy stable fashioned of rough cedar planks with the bark still on the outside. We had figurines of Mary, Joseph and Jesus in a manger, a soulful donkey, a sheep and lamb, a recumbent cow, an angel in flight, and the three wise men, one leading a camel. We arranged them in the stable on a floor of hay, the angel hung by a hook on the peaked roof, and we set up a little light in the stable rafters to illuminate the scene. The stable backdrop was a large piece of wood painted dark as night which we decorated with fresh balsam boughs. It had another little light high up in the ‘sky’. That was our star, the star that guided the three wise men to the stable.

This was potent stuff for my child’s mind which roamed through time and night and story to distant lands fueled by the potent smells of balsam, cedar, and straw. How wonderful to play with the iconic figures of family as they interfaced with both the visceral earthiness of the stable and stable animals and the heavenly inspiration of angel, star, and Child! The advent of the three Magi and camel brought the whole scene into a Big World that stretched my imagination well beyond experience. Much as we were cautioned to not touch, I can still feel the play of those figures and see the expressions on their faces.

When tree and crèche were set up, the door to that room was closed and reopened after church on Christmas morning. Incredibly, Santa had brought presents and the baby figure of Christ was in the manger in the crèche. Twelve days later, on the feast of Epiphany, the three wise men arrived. Then Christmas was over.

The story of the three wise men is improbable in every way. Three kings set out on foot and camel from distant lands with instructions to follow a bright star in the sky. They traveled through the night following their star with intention to pay tribute to a newborn King of kings. One they’d ‘heard’ had been born. The celebration of this journey’s end is referred to as ‘Epiphany’.

Moving down through all the layers of childhood, celebration, tradition, religion, history, and culture, we can see how this story illuminates and informs our ordinary experience. It’s a story that takes us into the heart of the experience of the water element, the first of the five elements.

We are drawn into the ‘dark’ of the year, at least as it occurs in the northern hemisphere at the time of the winter solstice. This dark is nothing other than our ordinary experience in the dark, on every level. The dark of physical reality. The dark of emotional, mental, and spiritual turmoil. The dark of our ordinary experience of confusion.

In the dark, our vision is limited; we become quiet, attentive, we tune into subtle sensory awareness. Instinctively, our mind wakes up. The presenting emotion is always, always some degree of anxiety or fear, whether it arises simply as ‘awake’ (with perhaps excitement), or as panic or terror. Or it arises in the unusual, calm, vivid experience of the absence of fear.

In the dark we come face to face with the experience of not knowing what’s going on. We slow down. We gather information from our surroundings carefully until we are certain of them. Yes, this is the couch in my living room. No, the ground is not dry beneath my feet. We enter vividly into the experience of possibility, what might happen. We listen, look, smell, and touch assessing the possibility of danger and opportunity.

In the space of possibility, experience is the interplay between not knowing, exploration, and certainty. This dynamic shuts down when we panic. In panic, we don’t trust and our capacity to gather information stops. We freeze. We are afraid of being annihilated, perhaps literally.

Or it can move to profound calm and stillness. This happens when we have examined the situation and are certain about how things are, even though we may not be able to see or hear anything. We shift our awareness to inner seeing and hearing, accessing our intuition, gut sense, and accumulated life experience. We relax, engage our courage and bravery, allow our developing certainty to inform the choices we make. You might say, the certainty we develop in the moment becomes the light that changes the inherent dynamic from being confused to becoming clear. Our certainty is our star.

We can learn to consciously navigate the experience of fear and possibility. To do so, we must develop the skills necessary to sit in the dark (our confusion). We slow down, tune in, examine the situation, and gather the information necessary to understand it thoroughly. We allow our fear, however it manifests, to be in the room. We learn to become comfortable with it. We begin to realize we can continue to assess the situation and also be somewhat afraid.

From any perspective this is how faith arises. Any kind of faith: ordinary practical faith, scientific faith, spiritual faith, etc. Our faith is in direct relationship to how thoroughly we have come to understand how things are. This understanding becomes our ‘star’ and guides us through the dark.

In this story of faith, Epiphany, what are the ‘gifts’, the most precious gifts one might have received at the time: gold, frankincense, and myrrh? As we begin to examine our confusion (darkness) with courage (sitting with our fear without needing to fix or change it), we discover know how things really are. We develop a body of understanding that informs the choices we make. In ordinary life, wisdom is our most precious gift.

There is more potency packed into this story. Our focus here is the experience of epiphany. Epiphany is the arising of sudden insight that deepens our understanding of things. It is our capacity to ‘see’ how things really are. It simply arises in the right conditions.

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