A sermon preached by Canon Ian Woodward, Vicar of the Close
Isaiah 60:1-6 Matthew 2:1-12
Before I share a few Epiphany thoughts with you, may I say how good it is to see old ‘Onion-Head’ as he is known back in his place again and we hope and pray he remains upright this time, at least until Candlemas. I think last year he must have sneaked into the vestry one night and got stuck into the Vino-Sacro.
Just over 50 years ago now one of the most famous and influential photographs ever taken was taken which triggered the opportunity for us to take a different look at ourselves – it was that amazing image of our earth seen for the first time from Space – from the Apollo 8 space craft taken by the crew of Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders. It wasn’t just a pretty picture with the blues of earth’s sky very visible; nor was it just because it was the first manned spacecraft to leave low Earth orbit, to reach the Moon, orbit it, and safely return to earth. It was much more about seeing our God created home in and from the widest and furthest possible sense for the first time. It was a life changing epiphany for not just the crew of the space capsule but for the whole human race.
Before they were launched for the first time atop that great Saturn V rocket, the crew had prepared for that moment encapsulated as the ‘Earthrise’ picture, and when it came, they read from the opening four verses of Genesis:
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.
And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.
And that is what we are marking today – the coming of God the creator’s light to the world in the form of the infant Jesus who would be worshipped by the poor and the wise and be our saviour of the world.
At its heart, the feast of the Epiphany is the Festival of the Incarnation which emphasizes the appearance of the long awaited Saviour and his manifestation to our world. To look at it another way, Jesus birth however lowly and the attendance of the heavenly host however grand; and the visit of the Kings or wise men and their deeply meaningful gifts were all, and are all, secondary to the simple purpose of helping us to better understand that herein lies our redemption, through which we are liberated to make God’s love known, and this world he created a better place whilst we are on it. Traditionally there have been three supporting themes at Epiphany: the gifts of the Magi; the testimony of the Father at Jesus’ baptism and the changing of the water into wine at the wedding at Cana. The Roman Church’s rites at Epiphany include an antiphon for the Benedictus and it weaves these three themes together in a nuptial image:
Today the Church is joined to her celestial bridegroom
For, in Jordan, Christ washed her sins away,
The Magi hurry with gifts to the royal wedding,
And the guests are made glad with water turned to wine
Today these themes continue to be associated with Epiphany, if not precisely on January 6th then on nearby Sundays, each identifying a significant aspect of Christ’s person and work – his earthly ministry.
The visitation of the magi from the East signals Christ’s manifestation to the Gentiles: the gospel was extended to all the nations of the earth, and not just to the Jewish community. Tradition has made the wise men of Matthew’s reading of the story into three kings; around the 6th century they were popularly ascribed the names Balthazar, Melchior, and Gaspar in the west and they later came to be depicted as representatives of the world’s races and of the different stages in the human life span from youth to old age. It’s a favourite subject of western artists and writers. For example TS Eliot’s Journey of the Magi, with its first line ‘A cold coming we had of it, the story of the sages and their gifts was seen to foreshadow the destiny of the child in the manger; the gold signified his royal dignity; frankincense the divine priest-victim in the sacrifice of the cross, and myrrh, his death, burial and Resurrection.
One hesitates to link John Betjemen and T.S. Eliot in the same context because their poetic styles are so different, and on a different plane too. But I think they do come together in their understanding of the incarnation. And I wonder if they ever met and if so what did they talk about? For Eliot’s account of the Magis’ journey, instead of a celebration of the wonders of the journey, the poem seems somewhat of a complaint by a grumpy Magi about a journey. The opening lines of Eliot’s poem come from a sermon preached by Lancelot Andrewes, the Bishop of Winchester, before James I on Christmas Day 1622. Andrewes' original text reads:
"A cold coming they had of it at this time of the year, just the worst time of the year to take a journey, and specially a long journey. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off, the very dead of winter.
This opening represents a recollection by the magi which sets off the reflections which follow. The speaker – a Magi says that a voice was always whispering in their ears as they went on their way and that "this was all folly". As Eliot has it, they seem generally unimpressed by the infant Jesus, and yet they realize that the Incarnation has changed everything. He asks, ". . . were we led all that way for Birth; or for Death?"
For Betjeman, dancing through the contrasts of Christmas from Hookers Green to Corporation tram cars; the Dorchester Hotel and red bunting in the Town Hall, and on to girls in slacks and hideous ties so kindly meant, to the certainty of faith that quite simply: Not all the steeple shaking bells can with this simple truth compare That God was man in Palestine and lives today in bread and wine.
Over the next few weeks we will have Jesus’ baptism and his first miracle at Cana and as we enter Lent and Easter and on to Pentecost and Trinity Sunday we should recognise that it is in this very reality of God come among us that holds our faith journey together and thanks be to God for this certainty in our lives. Amen