Today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, from the Greek to reveal or make known things. This is something that our European friends make far more of than we do, and which for our Orthodox brothers and Sisters marks the day on which they celebrate Christmas itself. Here at the end of the initial 12 days of Christmas we mark the moment when the three wise men – we don’t actually know if they were Kings, sages, or astronomers. Importantly I think, they came from afar, and were not part of the story being unfolded or made known – in that sense they are surprisingly independent witnesses and participants. In Europe today is a holiday, in France little kings are baked into cakes, and much is made of the moment – it is a shame we don’t, indeed most Brits are only involved in taking Christmas apart, re-cycling trees and taking down decorations, oh and emptying fridges! We however shall keep our thoughts focused on the incarnation and its ramifications all the way through to Candlemass into early February, there is much left to think about.
I am always delighted when a building lends itself to the 3 wise men making a slow largely unnoticed journey around our windows over the course of the Christmas season. Arriving today at their destination, bearing both witness and gifts which themselves were both symbols, and a means of making known otherwise unknown things about the Christ-child, and about God himself.
This is an obvious but often overlooked point, because in reality Christmas isn’t so much a celebration of the birth of a child, as it is the sending by God to a needful earth his beloved and only son. This coming close, taking human flesh and life is an entirely novel and radical idea in human history. Moreover it can be argued I think that Epiphany, that making things known revealed in the gifts of the wise men, in fact is a process that is written throughout the entire Gospel and Christian history.
Among the new things made known so far are the kind of Kingship brought by this child- one of humility, forgiveness, mercy and love. Power in weakness, strength through service, nothing in this was obvious before Christ, and much of it remained either offensive or laughable to its first hearers. During the nativity story itself more is revealed, the quiet but firm acceptance of Mary and Elizabeth of their unexpected pregnancies and role in the work of God. The careful Jospeh holding onto the love he had for Mary, trusting too what the Angel told him. The choice itself of a young and as yet only betrothed couple, and the trying and troubled events of Christ’s birth, so far from the stories of perfection and orderliness many would wish to peddle about childbirth and family life, which for us all can be messy, challenging and require so much more than a boring romcom might have us believe. The initial witnesses, a young and confused couple, and rough shepherds who were far from the kind who appear on ‘countryfile’, and were not considered the sort of people you invited into your homes in Jesus’s day. But it is these unlikely folks who form the backdrop to this extraordinary story, as ever turning the world on its head in every way. Odd how religious folks can be the most eager to cling to so-called tradition and certainty, when scriptures, when it is truly understood, is full of the reality that we hear and read much and understand so little of the radical purposes of our loving God.
Then three men arrive, Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar, not Jews, but people from another country, outsiders playing a central role of affirming the identity of this Christ. A story that hitherto had been in insular and exclusively Jewish story, centered on a single people and a single country, now has different boundaries, it is for the world, and for everyone, and moreover outsiders therefore don’t exist. In our world where jet travel and the speed of the internet has made it virtually possible for people of every country and creed to both know each other and to meet each other, or to desire to have what others have, and explore this rich and diverse world in ways not thought of by many in former times. The movement of people’s due to economic aspiration, climate change and more is a reality that the world must learn to live with, believing that humanity is one, and all are created in the image of a loving God and valued equally, loved unconditionally, may well be a very good place to begin to think this through. The one-sided histories of exploitation and conquest that meant the rich North got richer, and everyone else suffered, not only have to be examined afresh in the light of these central Gospel truths, but without this we will never build and sustain truly global catholic and apostolic churches.
And those gifts, gold for kingship, but as we know this child’s kingship would be marked not by wealth and power, but by the riches that come from living for others, making the most of every life, caring especially for those who can’t care for themselves, and on this anniversary of the shameful events in Washington DC, it is about bringing people together not driving them apart, reconciling differences not leveraging mistrust, and telling the truth, not making play with lies and conspiracies. Frankincense, for me at least means that prayer that talking to and listening to God is at the heart of what life is meant to about, Our God seeks to be close to us, to be there by our shoulder, through our bad times, and our connection to God is our lifeline and the source of our strength. Prayer is a deep relationship to the divine, it is the central way of reflecting on the love of purpose of God, and the means by which we can allow ourselves to find the change we so often admit we need. And Myrrh, well like life it is doubled-edged, reminds us that life is both a tremendous blessing and a joy, and yet we are not given a life free from concern or worry, and not one that can be free of illness, still less of death itself. Myrrh was used to anoint the ill, but also to prepare the dead for their burials. Only this Christ-child, this ultimate gift of God brings a healing which was more than had ever been imagined, not just forgiveness, but through the resurrection of Jesus a forgiveness shared in the gift of life everlasting, what we call the fullness of redemption. And as we journey to Candlemass, let us not forget the power of light, our need of light in the darkness, without and within, our need for a guide to our feet, a solace to our hearts, a light that reveals makes known both our need of God and of change, and reveals the eagerness of God to guide us where we need to go.
Now if this amount of making things known that were hidden, isn’t enough to get Epiphany re-instated into our lives I wonder what would be?