Sunday 8 January 2017
The Revd Canon Alison Adams, Canon Pastor and Sub-Dean
Epiphany is one of those occasions in the liturgical calendar which people feel a huge need to ‘nail’ historically. Which star or comet? When? How could they have been led so precisely to Bethlehem? I don’t know about you, but I’ve listened to many a sermon justifying Epiphany on those rational, intellectual, scientific grounds. Ironic, really, because the wise men were doing exactly the opposite!
Don’t be fooled into thinking that, because they were astrologers they were into something wacky. Theirs was part of the mainstream intellectual culture of the day, and well-respected. In leaving academic ‘ivory towers’ to seek out the truth of this disturbing phenomenon among, to them, a backward and disordered culture, they laid aside their reliance on rational truth, as they knew it. And, in so doing, encountered God. This is indeed a tale for spiritually sceptical scientific rationalists – but not how they might expect!
As with all Bible stories, if we get too stuck into historical (or, in this case, scientific) accuracy, we easily lose God’s threads contained therein. Let’s remind ourselves that myth, in its deepest sense, is bearer of great eternal truths. And Biblical stories weave in and out of time, both eternal and chronological. Today’s reveals connections spanning across centuries of Hebrew culture, pointers to God’s amazing purposes with deep resonances today. Cultural dissonance, power coming from the East, bringing questions which threaten to destabilise the status quo. I can’t do justice to it all in one short sermon!
The phrase in TS Eliot’s poem about the Magi which has been resonating with me for some time now is ’no longer at ease in the old dispensations’. Returning home, they will never be the same again: the encounter has changed them irrevocably. But a deeper weight, too, in that phrase: they will no longer feel at home in their home society, both culturally and intellectually.
I think there are those of us who may also feel no longer at ease in our dispensations. Whether we call these old or new depends on our perspectives. Europe, British society, our own particular corners within it, families even… that sense of not belonging where we thought we belonged is shared by many in a fast-changing world, not all for the better. So I ask myself what wisdom have the Magi to offer us?
Apart from a different return route, we have little clues to what happened in the lives of these scholars afterwards. Tradition assumes their recognition of the Christchild to have led them into Christian faith, perhaps through encounter with eastward-travelling apostles. Some traditions mention martyrdom, while others have them the founders of tribes. Their magnificent shrine in Cologne Cathedral has considerable spiritual weight – a place of pilgrimage since the 12th century and, indeed, the reason why that imposing and compelling edifice was built. All, though, is tradition rather than solid fact, though, as I have already said, that is not necessarily unhelpful. Clearly, though, their key role was at that first Epiphany and not specifically in the development of the early Church.
Possibilities, therefore, to be explored here. What might have been their state of mind on that journey home, in the dawning recognition of the transformational impact of the crib? What effect on their subsequent lives, both professionally and relationally? How did others view them? What account did they give of their absence? I can’t answer those questions; but thinking along those lines can help us examine our responses to tectonic shifts in how, alongside God, we view our world (post-Brexit, post-Trump to name the obvious). Through mingling with the characters who populate the narrative of God’s interaction with God’s world we better understand and thus gain insights into the mind of Christ.
Those wise men applied their intellect and skill to the disturbance coming into their lives through an unexpected star. Following their gut instincts in packing their bags and setting forth, their political acumen stood them in good stead with Herod. Their spiritual antennae were receptive and they were clearly competent and practical people to have accomplished all this and returned back home. In short, their whole beings were focused, alongside being able to live with a high degree of uncertainty and not knowing what the future held. Good role models, I think, for today. We don’t necessarily need physical journeys, although pilgrimages can drill hugely into shifting sands and reveal Christ in unexpected ways. For example, on a personal note my last trips around Germany and Austria with my husband were a gateway we both recognised into, to use Eliot’s language, different dispensations.
In respect of the tectonic plates of our current global society I don’t know about you but there is a part of me that feels like inhabiting the multiple realities beloved by writers. Where somewhere there is a world, for example, where Clinton won and Trump lost. Or where, Harry Potter style, we can turn back Hermione’s time turner to save the beloved hippogriff, re-writing the outcome for the future. Contemporary mythology such as this, alongside developments in scientific exploration, such as the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat can encourage drifting into such fantasy, or at least pushing away the true stark reality. However, even in the Hogwarts world, part of the inscription on this gadget reads “My use and value, unto you, Are gauged by what you have to do.”
The tinselly romanticising of Christmas has now dissipated: walk around the stores and the goods which looked so attractive two weeks ago now look decidedly tawdry. Even the weather feels unsettled! Blue Monday looms, not least as people count the cost of the festivities. Trump will be sworn in. Here is reality indeed. Different and more chaotic than post-enlightenment rationalism, and not all explainable in terms of that rationality.
As Christians, we should recognise this time for growing up, laying aside compelling fairytale fantasy but grasping the reality of the God-event of Christmas. ‘Away in a manger’ belongs to the old dispensations but the dangerous power embedded in the birth of that infant belongs to the harsh new daylight of an uncompromisingly fragile world and global society. In our liturgical calendar since Christmas we’ve already remembered the first Christian martyr and the massacre of the Innocents. Shortly Candlemas (the feast of the Presentation) will point us unerringly towards Good Friday.
The wise men and Jesus’ parents, each taking care to move under the radar of power, knew the corrosive effects and dangers of human systems. Cooing at the baby, they faced reality, yet wholeheartedly admitted the presence of God, even amidst human brutality – an example to us to do the same. If we sit in our corners lamenting the state of the world, or hankering after an alternative reality, we are not doing justice to their witness. Nor are we serving the adult Christ that baby became. Work to be done, lives to be lived, through which a Gospel is proclaimed which is both old and new dispensations. While our politicians squabble over soft and hard Brexits, for example, how do we discern the shoots of God’s kingdom by healing the wounds of division in society? How are we, as Cathedral, fulfilling our calling, living God’s dream for us in this place? How do we, individually, order our lives to peer through the clouds towards the star leading us, like the wise men, both into the presence of Christ and out into his world?