On Wednesday I was asked to go on the wireless to explain to the listeners of BBC radio Wiltshire about why we keep our Christmas trees and the Christmas crib up in the Cathedral for so long. Apparently on Tuesday there had been something of a debate raging over the airwaves about whether or not you’re supposed to take your Christmas decorations down on the evening of the fifth or the evening of the sixth, or indeed whether you can leave them up for longer. You will have gathered that I am in favour of leaving Christmas trees and Christmas cribs up as long as possible into January, and ideally to the feast of Candlemas itself. The health and safety considerations of a 32 foot Christmas tree drying by the day means that our tree will come down before then, but the crib at which we stationed on the way in to the service this evening will endure I hope until the evening of Candlemas.
Christmastide continues into the month of January but it takes on a different feel. This evening is really the hinge point, as we move from reflecting on the way in which Jesus is revealed as a baby to those very first witnesses, to shepherds, innkeeper, ox and ass, to the small fairly agrarian community of first century Bethlehem, and we began to think more about the way in which Jesus is revealed to the world.
And the visit of the Magi is the first of the stories we tell each other. We will tell other stories too during this season: stories of the baptism of Jesus, stories of water being miraculously transformed into wine, stories of the first confused and bemused people being gathered into a community which would become known as the disciples, and then finally the end of the season, back to the baby as we tell the story of Jesus 40th day of life.
It’s a wonderful season which I hope you will savour and revel in. For it is the season of revelation, of pondering and wondering about how it is that we see God.
One of the loveliest things about being a priest is pastoral conversation, which is the rather arrogant and smug term we use for sitting in people’s kitchens and chatting over a cup of tea. I have done a lot of that over the past few weeks, and one of the most interesting conversations I had was with someone earlier this week about whether or not people can really see angels. I was telling a story to them of a little girl who I was preparing for admission to communion, and I, in my parsonical manner, was pontificating about the Sanctus in the middle of the Eucharistic prayer and saying “Ah well, you see, this is the moment where we try to imagine that even though we are here on earth, we are being lifted up to join the worship going on in heaven where the Angels are”, and she just turned to me and said, “but Father Tom, I can see the Angels here”! Her witness, and I have no reason to doubt her, was that during the Eucharistic Prayer in that little parish church she could see the Angels around the altar at the Sanctus. Look for them this evening, and if you see them, let me know after the service whether they are more or less frightening than our papier-mâché ones!
What is really interesting about the account of the visit of the wise men to Jesus which Saint Matthew provides is that once again dreams are central to the story. Have you noticed that in Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus, everything happens through dreams? Luke is much more immediate. You know, he says “the angel Gabriel appeared to a virgin whose name was Mary.” For Matthew, in his story, everything happens through dreams. Joseph meets Gabriel in a dream. It’s another dream that tells him to flee to Egypt at the point where King Herod is planning to slaughter the young children in and around Bethlehem. And the wise men are led by a star, by some sort of confluence of astronomy, astrology, and faith, at least to the right country, although they have to rely on directions towards the end. And then the final line of the gospel reading we are told, “having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod they departed for their own country by another road.” Stargazing and predictions bring them to Jesus, and a dream points them down “another road” as they return. And that of course is the last we hear of them, at least in Scripture.
This season is all about how we discover, how we find, how we are led to, God. How we see the divine. And I think what we learn is that those ways are wonderful and various.
Why don’t you take this Epiphany season to think about that again? How do you find God? How do you see the divine? Or maybe the more properly theological question is how does God find you? How does the divine seek you out? Is it through the wonderful music offered in this place? Is is in the sacraments? Is it in the pages of Scripture? Is it through prayer? Is it through service to God through the local community, on the streets of our city as a Street Pastor, in visiting the sick and the housebound? In the way you care for an elderly relative, or a dying friend?
You’re here this evening. Why are you here? Why aren’t you in the pub, or in front of the television, or at an evening class? Something has brought you here. Something brings you back. I wonder what it is?
It’s interesting isn’t it that Herod’s reaction to the wise men is fear. He must be a spiritual man, old Herod, why else would he retain his own wise men to counsel him, and why would he take the Magi’s story as so much of a threat? But Herod doesn’t greet the news with wonder, he greets it with fear, and as we know from the way the second chapter of Matthew’s gospel ends, he greets it too, with massacre, murder, with blood on the floor and mothers screaming in the night.
How do we find the divine? And what sort of person does the divine find when it finds us? Saint Paul uses the word mystery three times in our first reading to describe the way in which Jesus Christ transforms the world. What we are seeking, and what finds us, is mystery. It is mystery and wonder and we don’t know how it works, and we don’t really know what it will do to us and with us, and how we will be different as a result .
What I think we can be sure of is that we will be changed. However it happens, by whatever method, we are directed from this place where we are now, to travel “by another road” as the glory of Christmas meets the glory of Epiphany, as the wise men join the shepherds in the Christmas crib, and as we join them to kneel in awe before the child who, we know not how, reaches into our lives with tiny infant fingers and sends us off into a New Year on a path we may not have anticipated, led by a star we hardly knew we could see.
The little girl I prepared for communion seemed quite perplexed when I suggested that we had to imagine that the Angels were around the altar. “But father Tom” she said, “I can already see them.” Take this Epiphany season and look for them yourself.