Epiphany (tr) January 8 2017 Isaiah 60.1-6 Ephesians 3.1-12 Matthew 2.1-12
Many years ago then I care to remember, I was tackling Epiphany with a class of eleven-year-olds and decided that the best way to do this was to take them outside so that we could focus on a fixed point for a few minute, taking note of what we saw. So we all gathered around one of the many huge trees in the school grounds and reported back on what we noticed, whether it was a knot in the bark, a dead leaf or whatever – or something beyond, distant houses or cars. The idea was to come to an understanding that we can all view things differently, depending on our perspective and as such there can’t be a right or a wrong way of looking at things; and also, to consider the importance of taking time to scrutinise something, and in doing so to see things that we might otherwise miss.
What I didn’t realise during this exercise was that the entire A level Biology class was watching all of this from the warmth and comfort of an upstairs lab, and the teacher asked me later if we’d manage to catch the squirrel – for what else would we be doing encircling a tree? Apart from the light relief I obviously gave to his class, I think their understanding underlined the point I was trying to make completely!
The issue is that we do fail consistently to Lift up our eyes and look around as Isaiah urges us to do in our first reading: Lift up your eyes and look around…then you shall see and be radiant, your heart shall thrill and rejoice. And unfortunately the opportunities to grasp this fully at this time of Epiphany are lost more often than not because the Feast of the Epiphany has largely been swallowed up by Christmas. How many Nativity plays and Carol Services (including the quintessential Nine Lessons and Carols from Kings on Christmas Eve) feature the three wise men? How many cribs do we see with all the visitors, angels, shepherds, animals and Kings (invariably) crammed into the stable at the same time? Whereas we only need a scanty knowledge of the Bible to know that while Luke tells us of shepherds and angels, only Matthew tells of the Magi and this is after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, as we have just heard in the Gospel account.
Our European brothers and sisters have a much better understanding of all this – Christmas and Epiphany are clearly separated and Epiphany has its own distinct rites, rituals and traditions. Here, the wise man are packed away with the rest of Christmas, school terms end in mid-December and a New Year begins as if Christmas was last year’s news; that the coming of the Son of Man, our Emmanuel, was a one-off event, a charming celebration of a new-born babe, rather than the life-changing mystery that it is, the ultimate, transforming sign of God’s infinite love and grace.
Epiphany, as we know, means revelation, and as we explore together the manifestation of the Christ over the next few weeks leading up to the Feast of the Presentation, we learn a little more of God’s purposes – and of the part that we are called to play in advancing the Kingdom as we grow in our understanding. And the first of these signs is what we celebrate today, the visit of the wise men (not Kings – not even three), who travelled all the way from the east following a star which was to lead them to the child who has been born King of the Jews. We are told that, overwhelmed with joy, what they find as they enter the house (not the stable), is the child with Mary his mother, and immediately they kneel down to pay him homage. For here is God incarnate, the King of the Jews and yet the King for all people, Jew and gentile alike. The calling of the wise men reveals God for all people made in his image, a universal Christ, the light of the world, as foretold by the jubilant Isaiah: Arise, shine for your light has come.
In these dreary January days, that light and that joy is ours too. Liturgically, Christmas begins with the birth of Christ on December 25th and continues until February 2nd. In our hearts and minds, as we journey together in our discipleship, we grow in wisdom and understanding as Jesus did. We look to his baptism, his first miracle at the wedding in Cana, to discover more about his nature. God-with-us never goes away.
Like the wise men, we are on a never-ending journey of discovery throughout our lives. We travel afar, seeking the King. Sometimes, like them, we look in the wrong place: Kings are to be found in palaces, not stables; a group of children in a circle round a tree must be trying to catch a squirrel; the word looks at things this way, therefore that must be right. And yet if we persevere, if we keep the star constantly in focus, we will find the Christ-child, as we do in this Eucharist, and kneel down in homage, opening our own treasure-chests and offering our own gifts, not gold, frankincense and myrrh, as we will say shortly in our liturgy, but hearts and voices raised in praise of Jesus Christ, our light and our salvation.
St Paul in his letter to the Ephesians speaks of the mystery of Christ, the mystery unfolded for us in John’s inspirational Christmas gospel the light shining in the darkness, walking among us full of grace and truth. St Paul had his own epiphany moment, of course, and it’s no accident that we celebrate his Damascus road experience during this season, on January 25th. He tells us the mystery was made known to me by revelation….the Gentiles have become fellow-heirs, members of the same body and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
And as sharers in the promise, it is up to us to make Christ known in the world. The wise men recognised his divinity his holiness, his sacrifice, in the gifts they offered; when they returned home – this time listening properly and going the right way – we can be certain that they didn’t keep all this to themselves (How was your trip? Fine thanks, nothing extraordinary…). Being overwhelmed with joy means that their lives were transformed.
In his poem Journey of the Magi, TS Eliot speculates about their unease:
This Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
Like our eleven-year-olds gathered round the tree, whatever our perspective, let us resolve this Epiphany to strive to lift up our eyes and to look around, knowing that in St Paul’s words, we have access to God in boldness and coincidence through faith in him – Jesus Christ our Lord.
And above all, let us now be afraid in these dark days to be overwhelmed with joy. Amen