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Last time, I shared with you the story of Christmas Retold – Escape to Egypt, where we read of the terrible suffering that resulted from Herod’s fear and jealousy and love of power. This time, I have been thinking smaller, more hopeful, something that might help today, and tomorrow, and the next. We need to see the darkness, and the light.
Epiphany – the new season we enter on 6th January – can mean a sudden encounter with God, an intuition into the heart and meaning of things, a burst of enlightenment, an event which shows things as they really are at their deepest level. As a season, it covers some key turning points in the story of God wooing us, seeking us, expanding our always limited understanding as much as we can bear at any time. As such, it carries on from the Christmas narratives well. After all, the good news here is that God has come, God is with us. The Message tells John’s words like this:
The Word became flesh and blood,
and moved into the neighborhood.
We saw the glory with our own eyes,
the one-of-a-kind glory,
like Father, like Son,
Generous inside and out,
true from start to finish.
So, how might we see this glory? How might we experience this generosity and truth now?
One of the things that always strikes me about the Christmas narratives, including this one, is the great variety of ways they record people receiving a revelation, an epiphany, from God. There are dreams, visions of angels, and here, a star. There are other ways God seems to be at work. Elizabeth feels the child growing in her womb, and then feels the child dance. Simeon and Anna, too, are prompted and moved. In each case, the way the person senses, or hears, or experiences the promptings of God seems to be appropriate for them. The gospel writers seem to have slightly different emphases in how they record what these revelations from God are like – it is hard to talk about.
I remember once standing at the front of church and trying to give an account of what had felt a real encounter with the love of God, and been very aware that my words were so inadequate. I remember too how, many years ago, our church hosted firemen and their families from Chernobyl, following the terrible nuclear accident, and gave them a holiday by the sea. One of the firemen wrote a song. I wish I could remember it all, but the meaning of it, as far as I can recall, was –
I long to tell you about the love of God, what it is like to know the love of God, but my song cannot hold the meaning. It is like, when I go home from here, I will try to tell people about the sea, how wild and salty and cold it is, and all I have to show them is a bucket of murky water I have carried away with me.
All our words cannot carry the full meaning, but they can hint at it, stir up a hunger for such love and depth of encounter, and reassure each other that we are not alone when we think there is more than the surface, more than “getting and spending” (Wordsworth)
As we enter a new season, maybe it will help to look at the stories we encounter of epiphanies, of experiencing a revelation, a seeing clearly, noticing how varied they are. Perhaps God is seeking to gain our attention, and maybe that happens differently for different people at different times. It is easy to think there is a way we should do it, but it seems that God is unconstrained, generous, abundant. We need to be open.
My own experience of encounters with God, with new insights, is varied. I sometimes have little epiphanies in prayer and worship, reading the Scriptures moves me to a place where I can go deeper, but I also hear through nature, through poetry, through art, and – perhaps most especially – through the love and kindness of people around me, including strangers I encounter. It’s worth looking, I think, as we go about our days, doing our normal things, expecting that maybe our lives have something to teach us, to tell us about the love of God and the love of neighbour. Our lives can speak to us like parables, and they can contain moments of transforming beauty and clarity, that open us up to something far bigger than we can comprehend.
These Magi, probably Astrologers – we do not know how many, or what gender they all were – do not have a straightforward time of it trying to find the new king. God is not always found the places we expect. Who would look for a king in a small town away from centres of power and wealth? God tends to surprise us all by being in the small, the outside, the unexpected, the unimportant places. I chose the Witz picture (between the two extracts below) because it places the family in a fairly ordinary setting. Traditionally, they sit in the ruins of a Greek or Roman temple, showing how the old beliefs are crumbling and dying as something new and glorious takes place. This one is quite an early example of a more small-scale setting, but even so, it is rich in meaning and symbol. You might like to take some time to look at it carefully.
Herod’s palace was a desolate place to look for this new king. This child would indeed be a king of a different type. We can see, too, that although Herod used the scribes and the scriptures to find out information, he used that for his own ends. It did not lead to encounter, or worship, or knowing God. There is a lesson here, too.
As we look out for our own moments of epiphany, it might be worth looking for treasure buried in the dirt (Small Seeds, from Luke 17), and for unexpected people, such as a young girl, or an old widow, or a carpenter. Epiphanies can burst in on us whatever we do, but my experience is that small, daily steps towards seeing God work their slow transforming changes in us, and that for these, we need to be open, we need to engage in a quiet, contemplative way of praying and seeing as we live out our lives. And then, in that new light, we find our lives begin to change, we better learn love, and compassion, and patience, and joy. As we begin a new year, I am turning my attention to this way of thinking and being.
The Magi were doing what they did – studying the stars. And they noticed something.
There may be stars out there that would guide us, if we looked.
What might your stars be?
From The Bible Retold
They Followed a Star
Far away from Jerusalem, in a land to the east, wise men looked up at the clear night skies above the desert and saw a star rising. For years they had studied the movements of the stars and planets, and they had never seen anything like this before. They unrolled their charts and plotted its path.
“This means a new king has been born to the Jews!” they said to each other, as they gave hurried orders to their servants to prepare for a journey.
When these strangely dressed foreigners arrived in Jerusalem, they began to ask “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” Troubled rumours spread through the city, for there had been no proclamation of any birth.
King Herod the Great’s advisors approached him nervously.
“Your Majesty, strangers from the east have arrived in the city. They are searching for a child who they say has been born King of the Jews. They saw a sign in the heavens!” Herod caught his breath, and turned white with fear. He had been given that title himself by the authority of Rome, building palaces and the great Temple to spread his fame. What kind of king was coming to challenge him?
Then he asked his advisors “Where is the Messiah, the Anointed One, to be born?” The scholars unrolled the scroll of the prophet Micah, and read out loud:
“Bethlehem will no longer be
the least important of the towns.
For from it will come a leader
who will rule my people Israel
like a shepherd-king.”
“Bethlehem, eh?” murmured Herod. He gave orders for the wise men to be invited to the palace. He listened to their tale of the star with keen interest, nodding and smiling as if he were delighted at the news. He told them all about Bethlehem. “Go and find the child, then please send a message so I can join you in your worship. What wonderful times these are!” Herod hid his crooked smile.
As the wise men set off from the cool marble and mosaics of the palace, they looked up at the sky once more. And there was the star, guiding them to Bethlehem. They followed, and found the child with his mother, Mary. She was astonished to receive such guests – who bowed low, and spoke of her son with reverence, and unwrapped precious gifts to lay at their feet.
She unclasped the caskets one by one. The first shone, it was full of gold. The second opened to a rich, sweet smell. “The smell of the Temple,” Mary murmured to herself. It was frankincense, used in worship. The third contained an earthy, dark, resin. It was myrrh, more valuable than gold, used in burials, and for healing. Mary looked up at her visitors, and thanked them for these extraordinary, extravagant gifts as the smell of the incense and the myrrh hung in the air about them.
The wise men did not send word to Herod in Jerusalem, for that night, they were troubled in their dreams about him. They paid attention to the warning, as they had to the star. So they slipped away, avoiding the city, to cross the desert once more.
The Adoration of the Magi, by Konrad Witz
And from Prayers and Verses
The wise men brought you gold:
Let us use our riches to do good.
The wise men brought you frankincense:
Let our prayers rise like smoke to heaven.
The wise men brought you myrrh:
Let us seek to comfort those who are sad and grieving.
Let there be little Christmases
throughout the year,
when unexpected acts of kindness
bring heaven’s light to earth.
What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man
I would do my part;
Yet what I can, I give Him –
Give my heart.
Christina Rosetti 1830-1894
Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, Love Divine,
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and Angels gave the sign.
Worship we the Godhead,
Love Incarnate, Love Divine,
Worship we our Jesus,
But wherewith for sacred sign?
Love shall be our token,
Love shall be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign.
Christina Rosetti 1830-1894
From Frederick Buechner:
“Listen for Him
The question is not whether the things that happen to you are chance things or God’s things because, of course, they are both at once. There is no chance thing through which God cannot speak — even the walk from the house to the garage that you have walked ten thousand times before, even the moments when you cannot believe there is a God who speaks at all anywhere. He speaks, I believe, and the words he speaks are incarnate in the flesh and blood of our selves and of our own footsore and sacred journeys. We cannot live our lives constantly looking back, listening back, lest we be turned to pillars of longing and regret, but to live without listening at all is to live deaf to the fullness of the music. Sometimes we avoid listening for fear of what we may hear, sometimes for fear that we may hear nothing at all but the empty rattle of our own feet on the pavement. But be not affeard, says Caliban, nor is he the only one to say it. “Be not afraid,” says another, “for lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” He says he is with us on our journeys. He says he has been with us since each of our journeys began. Listen for him. Listen to the sweet and bitter airs of your present and your past for the sound of him.”
~ from The Sacred Journey and Listening to Your Life