23rd January 2022
The Third Sunday of Epiphany
A sermon preached by Canon Anna Macham, Precentor
Sunday 23 January 2022, The Third Sunday of Epiphany
(Nehemiah 8: 1-3, 5-6, 8-10, Luke 4: 14-21)
Please scroll to the bottom of this page for a video of this sermon
Last week, our Head Verger, Esther, told me about an important Irish tradition associated with Epiphany, the season of the Church’s year we’re in now. This was a tradition that I’d never heard of, but one that appealed to me and to the girl choristers when I told them about it afterwards. In Ireland, the twelfth and final day of Christmas, January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany is traditionally known as “Women’s Christmas.” As a reward for their hard work over the Christmas season, January 6th was traditionally a day off from all housework for women, and a day when traditional roles were meant to be reversed in the home: men did the women’s work in the house, while women rested and gathered together informally.
The custom was that women made social calls to the homes of their friends and neighbours and enjoyed tea and the last of the Christmas cake. However, as it occurred on the very last day of Christmas, it was acknowledged by some that the treats the women enjoyed were the dregs or leftovers of the festive season. This was unlike the men’s Christmas, Christmas Day, when everyone enjoyed the first and finest of treats.
The custom of “Women’s Christmas” has largely died out in recent decades, presumably due to lack of need as gender roles have become more equal in recent times. But apparently, it’s now undergoing something of a revival in Ireland, with hotels advertising ladies’ afternoon teas and evenings out for the occasion, with the odd glass of prosecco thrown in for good measure- an acknowledgement, perhaps, that historically if not also in the present, women did most of the work in the home that, though often hidden, was essential to the smooth running of the festivities.
For me, the tradition of “Women’s Christmas” and its revival contains several important truths about Epiphany. Firstly, Epiphany is just as much a part of Christmas as the earlier celebrations, and of equal importance. We were powerfully reminded of this last Sunday evening, when as part of our Epiphany Devotion we heard a wonderful performance by the Cathedral Choir of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. Bach fully intended this Oratorio to be performed liturgically across the whole Christmas period, with the final parts that we heard of the Journey of the Magi and the Adoration of the Magi taking place on the Sunday after Christmas and the Feast of the Epiphany itself. So it’s highly appropriate that we heard them in the wider season of Epiphany, continuing the festive Christmas celebration of the incarnation well into January, surrounded by the Christmas tree and still wearing the white and gold robes of festival time.
Secondly, Epiphany is about the importance of acknowledging and including everyone, women and men, Jew and Gentile. The Magi, or Wise Men, were Gentile strangers, travellers from the East who- despite being foreign- were drawn to the Christ child in the manger. They couldn’t have been more different from the local peasant shepherds, the other group of people who came to witness this life-changing event of the birth of Christ. But they all came together, albeit from different paths via different routes and very different backgrounds and cultures, all rejoicing together in the birth of the child they’d all been waiting for, and worshipping him together.
The season of Epiphany is about looking into things in more depth, just as the tradition of “Women’s Christmas” shone a light on the deeper truths of Christmas and who was really involved. Last week, Canon Robert in his last sermon looked into the great Epiphany themes of joy and witness and mission. The week before that was the baptism of Christ, one of the signs of who Jesus really is, when the heavens open and a voice from heaven declares him to be God’s beloved Son. From there, Jesus was led into the wilderness, emerging 40 days later to teach in the synagogues of Galilee where everyone praised him for his teaching. And now, in today’s Gospel, he comes to Nazareth, the town where he grew up, to the synagogue where he worshipped, and to people who know him. And he reads from the prophet Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.
“Today,” Jesus says, “this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
These words, and Jesus’s comment on them, are the first recorded words of Jesus’ public ministry. Jesus has intentionally and purposefully chosen portions of Isaiah’s text to create a specific message. This message is often described as his inaugural address. Jesus is outlining his politics, describing the character of his ministry. He’s establishing his priorities and the direction of his work. From this point on in his ministry, everything he does will be grounded in this vision. His ministry will be revealed in healing the sick, casting out demons, forgiving sins, feeding the hungry and raising the dead. This vision is central to who he is and to his crucifixion and resurrection. It’s large and all encompassing. In it, no one is left out or gets overlooked. Everyone is included in this message of good news, of healing and inclusion. And, as in the book of Nehemiah before it, Jesus’ teaching to welcome the stranger and free the oppressed and feed the hungry carries strong connotations of community.
This week is Christian Unity Week, a week- or octave- of prayer that ends with the Feast of the Conversion of Paul on Tuesday. Since it was launched over a hundred years ago, the week of prayer has shifted in focus. Today, the World Council of Churches and the Roman Catholic Church, who issue special prayers for the week, are urging us to focus not just on what unites us, but also on acknowledging and accepting diversity. The aim is to create a space in which Christian churches of all denominations can come together not just to focus on what we hold in common, but to listen to our differences and to appreciate the giftedness and distinctiveness of other traditions, often through attending worship at a different church.
Recently here at the Cathedral, we were asked to complete a diversity audit, a priority for us in this new year being to think about how we can better welcome difference, and encourage and allow greater diversity to flourish, not just of those we attract and welcome as tourists, but as a congregation, especially how we can encourage and welcome difference in the areas of age and ethnicity. In a relatively large congregation like this one, it’s easier to gravitate towards people who are like me, or like us. Often we naturally surround ourselves with the people we want to be with. Anyone can form a club; it takes grace, shared vision, and hard work to form a community.
Speaking in the synagogue, Jesus is clear that our Christian faith cannot exclude others. To be one in Christ is to welcome the stranger in our midst, to celebrate our differences and to be united in community and relationship, Jews and Greeks, women and men, old and young together. Living in a community of the like-minded may be easier. Yet as members of Christ’s body, we are called to reflect the generous and merciful love of God. Good news to the poor, release to the captive, sight to the blind, letting the oppressed go free, declaring God’s favour. In this Epiphany season of deeper meanings and manifestations of Christ, can this vision of the radical, inclusive love of God be our deeper and guiding vision too?