For many, The Feast of The Epiphany is synonymous with Twelfth Night, last day of Christmas, decorations back in the box, Christmas tree relegated to the street corner awaiting municipal collection. Christmas tidied away for another year. The Christ child’s birth has been celebrated, shepherds have run ecstatic through the streets of Bethlehem, announcing the good news, angels have scared everyone then comforted them, the visit of Kings from the East bearing gifts has been hinted at. Like a medieval pantomime, the Christmas story has been played out, and now it’s time to put it back in the box for another year.
But for me, the Christmas Season runs from Christmas Day until Candlemas, February 2nd, so you’ll still see my tiny Christmas tree lit up on the dresser and the cards on the mantelpiece. I’ll have no truck with Victorian Twelfth Night superstitions about demons coming to lodge in the tinsel left up after January 6th and bringing with them bad luck!
For me, Epiphany marks the beginning of Act II of the Christmas journey, and the Epiphany Season is the beginning of the examination of the deeper meaning of those epiphanies, those manifestations of Christ’s divinity. They are important, as they lead us, ultimately, to Good Friday. And Candlemas, Christmas Act III, has hints of Good Friday, when Simeon warns Mary that her child, who is a light for revelation to the Gentiles, will be opposed by many, and that a sword will pierce her own heart also.
Of course, this year we have had a different kind of Christmas. It has felt a little less easy to rejoice, there has been sadness and sorrow in the rejoicing.
And so the Epiphany journey, with its travelling in hope and sometimes in cold and hardship, feels a bit closer to our own experience this year of the Christmas season, with our own troubles to contend with: the deaths of innocent people, the sharp focus on inequalities and hardship. And certainly, living through a pandemic – even in a supposedly affluent country – has given rise to our own epiphanies: the interconnectedness of all in a community, being shown that no-one is safe until all are safe, the importance of small acts of kindness.
Some say that the season of Epiphany is about journeys, others concentrate upon the manifestation of Christ’s divinity – God as human child, born in a stable and made manifest to shepherds and wise men. Later in this epiphany season Christ is revealed as God’s son at his baptism by John in the Jordan, and then as the Messiah come to change the world with his first miracle at the wedding in Cana in Galilee at the beginning of his ministry.
In the Gospel reading for Epiphany we read of the coming of the Magi with a narrative which has been much built upon in the telling and in the mythology of religion. The wise men, astrologers in biblical times, have become Kings in popular depiction; they have acquired names – Melchior, Balthazar and Caspar – they are said by some to represent the three continents that were known at the time:, Africa, Asia and Europe. Perhaps this mythological detail is an indication of the affection that has been felt for this gospel story down the ages.
All of these decorations of the story serve to illustrate the central message – at the Epiphany Christ’s universality is made known. This child was more than a Messiah for the Jewish people; this was God made man for all the nations, for all creation. This child will have a hard time in proclaiming and achieving God’s reconciliation with humankind, in procuring redemption and salvation for fallen humanity; the gifts (not mythology but reported by Matthew) of gold for a King, frankincense to proclaim his holiness, his centrality with God, and myrrh to proclaim his death and resurrection.
But cutting through the additions and decorations we come to the role of the wise men in all this, representing, I think, human endeavour. And we should, perhaps, be grateful for their ability to study the heavens, using their ancient knowledge of the signs in creation of God’s purposes, their willingness to leave their every day lives for a while and to follow a star, their wiliness in their tussle with Herod, their determination, not only to seek out the new King but to worship Him.
And as we concentrate on these wise men and their part in the story, we come to the great climax of Christmas – the journeying, the efforts of human beings to seek out the Christ, the search each of us must undertake to find and understand what God is freely offering us, the paradox of God made man, born as a child to a refugee couple in the humiliation of a cold and dirty stable surrounded by animals. How surprised the wise men must have been when they came to a simple stable rather than some palatial dwelling. But perhaps they were not surprised, perhaps during their journeying they had come to an understanding that what they were seeking was a manifestation that would change the whole order of things.
And perhaps we should also think about the differences between the shepherds and the wise men. The shepherds went straight to the stable, afraid, and returned to their sheep, rejoicing. The wise men take longer, they had further to travel. And in faith terms, some of us have ‘further to travel’, but there’s room in the stable for the shepherds and the wise men. Could the wise men have also ended their journey both with new and joyous knowledge about the true nature of this birth’s meaning and also with sorrow and sadness that they would not live long enough to see the manifestation come to fruition?
The essential message of the Epiphany is one which we must not only hear but also feel it and celebrate it, not as abstract religious doctrine in our heads, but as a concrete practical reality in our ordinary daily lives. A reality that heals and overcomes everything that divides and separates, like racism and sexism and nationalism. Because before God there are no minorities or migrants or refugees or foreigners. Therefore, just as God came into the world in loving concern for all, so we must be in the world with that same loving care for all.
T. S. Eliot’s The Journey of the Magi was written in 1927, the year he was baptised into the Anglican Church. Some have suggested that Eliot’s journey to Christianity and baptism is related to the poem’s journey, and the poem is the first of several that Eliot wrote on the theme of conversion. It is written as the remembrance of one of the wise men, and we can read it as an allegory of the Christian journey to faith and understanding, of living the Christian life against the backdrop of the sinful world.
In the final stanza, Eliot poses the question of birth and death – the birth of Christ within us marks the death of what?
“…were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; 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.
I should be glad of another death.”
Eliot’s question and the tone of the poem make me feel that perhaps for him the wise men were not overwhelmed by joy, rather by a sadness of being caught between two worlds.
So what for us is the meaning of Epiphany, if there is a birth and a death, what must we die to, if we are to be overwhelmed by joy? Our own self-absorption, our comfortable place in the world? Our reluctance to journey on, whatever we may find?
Jesus, born of Mary, be in our hearts and inspire us as we search for the true meaning of Epiphany for us in our lives in the world.