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A sermon on the Feast of Epiphany in the Year of Faith

Posted January 3, 2013

Today is the day when the Three Kings arrive. As a small boy I always had mixed feelings about their arrival. On the one hand, it meant: back to school after the Christmas holidays. On the other hand, it was fun to have three new figures in the crib. There is a limit to the length of time small boys can contemplate Jesus, Mary and Joseph and two brown cows, before the excitement wears thin. Three new exotic arrivals were just what was needed to spice things up a bit. The trouble was that, after they had come all that way, no sooner had they arrived than they were put back in their box until next year.

Today’s feast is called Epiphany. Epiphany is a Greek word meaning ‘shining forth’. In the ancient world, the word was used to refer to the sudden, luminous appearance of a divine being. In the Churches of the East, the feast of Epiphany celebrates the day when God shone forth in Christ as the Light of the World: in other words, the feast celebrates what we in the West have already celebrated on Christmas Day. In the Western Church, the feast of Epiphany is, of course, distinct from Christmas. Its purpose is to celebrate not so much the birth of Christ itself, as the revelation of Christ to non-Jews and the influx of non-Jews into the Christian Church (thanks largely to the missionary work of St Paul). The story of the three kings in St Matthew’s Gospel (actually, not kings but magi, probably astrologers ‒ people who knew the secrets of the stars), who came from the East to Jerusalem, then to Bethlehem, prefigures that world-changing event. They came from afar. They found what they were looking for. And, as St Matthew puts it, ‘they rejoiced with exceeding great joy’ when the star they were following reappeared over Bethlehem.

Have you noticed that the story-teller says nothing about the journey itself? He is only interested in the travellers’ setting out in a distant land and their arrival in Bethlehem. And we too, when we see them arriving at our crib on the feast of Epiphany, have no thought for the long and painful journey they must have made. They suddenly appear all scrubbed up with shiny suits, as if they have spent the night in the Jerusalem Hilton before being chauffeur-driven to Bethlehem.

In his poem Journey of the Magi, the poet T. S. Eliot, one of the most distinguished literary figures of the twentieth century, has recreated in his imagination the journey of the magi that St Matthew himself has omitted to describe for us. I’ll read to you part of that poem.

A cold coming we had of it.
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times when we regretted [having left behind]
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities dirty and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Doesn’t sound very nice, does it? ‘Such a long journey!’ ‘A hard time we had of it.’ The luxuries we had left behind; the dirty, inhospitable places; the very dead of winter; the hard, uncomfortable journeys from town to town and from village to unwelcoming village; the night-fires always going out on us; the lack of shelters; and the constant temptation to think: ‘This is all folly!’

Is the poet just indulging his imagination? Or is he describing a real journey, a journey that he himself has experienced? He is describing a journey that he himself has experienced but not a journey in the literal sense. He has used the imagined journey of the magi to reflect on his own spiritual journey. He became a Christian at the age of 39. Journey of the Magi is the story of his coming to Christianity. It reflects the pain and disorientation, the doubts and temptations, which he suffered on his long and troubled journey away from the wastelands of a meaningless life to the light of Christ: a conversion which, later in the poem, he calls a ‘hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death’.

There are many kinds of conversion, as there are many kinds of faith, and Eliot’s conversion was evidently not of the demonstrative born-again type. He does speak of being born, but in rather surprising terms. This is how the poem continues:

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: 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.

On the one hand, it was certainly a real conversion because something new happened: ‘There was a birth, certainly, we had evidence and no doubt.’ And after his conversion he was no longer at ease in the society he used to know: ‘an alien people, clutching their gods’. On the other hand, it was all a bit of an anti-climax (‘it was, one might say, satisfactory’, he says elsewhere in the poem. ‒ That’s not exactly ‘rejoicing with exceeding great joy’, like St Matthew’s magi.) There was no self-congratulation. It was not the kind of conversion that brings the feeling of having arrived and of being henceforward satisfied and secure. ‘Th’ encircling gloom’ was not dispelled once and for all. Eliot’s conversion was but a painful step on his on-going journey of faith: there was definitely a birth, he says, no doubt about it, but for him it was a death; there was no blinding light, no total liberation. Faith had to continue. Perhaps more, cold, painful journeys lay ahead, even at ‘the very dead of winter’, ‘the ways deep and the weather sharp’, and many more unwelcoming villages; and after that there was the experience of living uneasily among ‘an alien people clutching their gods’. We have all experienced it, and we shall experience it again, for it is the on-going journey of faith. No one gets chauffeur-driven to Bethlehem.

Of course, Eliot did not find all this in St Matthew’s text. He has read his experience into it. St Matthew himself is not interested here in the on-going journey of faith, only in the miraculous and the supernatural, and the symbolism of non-Jews being mysteriously guided to Christ. But there is enough elsewhere in the New Testament to confirm Eliot’s experience that the journey of faith is often painful, often surrounded by darkness and doubt, ‘at the very dead of winter’, and often without the luxury of having a star appearing intermittently to reassure you that you are actually going somewhere (notice, incidentally, that Eliot doesn’t even mention the star!). The magi travelled through the dark and through the wilderness, and so do we on our journey of faith.

We too experience something of the ‘very dead of winter’ in our journey: sadness, discouragement, the tragedies of life, the pain of bereavement, the fear and loneliness of old age, the thought of our failures, the things we regret, perhaps terrible mistakes that we have made, worries about the past and worries about the future; problems that remain unresolved and perhaps can never be resolved; perhaps the bitter agony of illness and death that awaits us, or even worse, the pain and bewilderment of seeing a loved one suffer; the dread of separation; and sometimes you wonder what’s the point of it all. A hard time we had of it, indeed. And a harder time still we shall have of it, no doubt. That’s life.

But it is a life which we Christians live in faith, and faith is always driven by promise and hope. There was a star in our lives, whether shown to us by our parents, or discovered later in life, and even the sombre Eliot must have glimpsed it, for he knew his journey had a goal and he pressed on towards it through thick and thin. We glimpse the star and maybe we lose sight of it, perhaps for years, or the star is not much consolation when it is in the heavens and we are down here, where the ways are deep and the weather sharp. But faith tells us that the star is there, and is leading us to somewhere really lovely, Christ himself, who makes sense of it all and makes it all infinitely worth while.

One of the functions of our Sunday worship is to give us a periodic glimpse of the star, and indeed a foretaste of where it is leading us. We try to make our liturgy as beautiful as possible, so that all who share in it may be lifted for a moment above the camel men cursing and grumbling, and the night-fires always going out on us, and the lack of shelters, and the cities dirty and the towns unfriendly. This liturgy is given to us to keep the star shining in the midst of our pain and bewilderment. Come very close to God once again in this liturgy, for it will sustain you and gladden you on your long journey, all the days of your life, until at last the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.

Fr Tom Deidun

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