The Dean - The Very Revd Andrew Nunn
Isaiah 60.1-6; Ephesians 3.1-12; Matthew 2.1-12
‘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.'
We have a close relationship with T S Eliot’s poem, ‘The Journey of the Magi’ of which those were the opening lines. Eliot, as you probably know, was a great fan of the preaching of the seventeenth century Bishop of Winchester, Lancelot Andrewes. He was so taken with his words that he borrowed phrases from one of his Christmas sermons, delivered to the king and his court at Whitehall in 1622, and used them to begin this poem. Andrewes lies buried alongside the High Altar of this cathedral, hence our relationship.
But what both Andrewes and Eliot do with the use of these words is to remind us that the journey to the manger, the journey to adoration was a hard one. This was no stroll, no walk in the park, this was hard going.
399 years on from when that sermon was first preached, this Epiphany is also hard going. The journey we’re on is a tough one and there’s no denying that. However this pandemic is impacting on your life, however much the challenges are biting into your own sense of mental and physical wellbeing we’ve not had to deal with anything quite like this before – a cold coming we are having of it.
But those Magi kept their eyes on the star and their hearts set on the goal of their journey. The prophet Isaiah gives hope to each traveller in our First Reading
darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.
The veil is drawn away from the mystery of which St Paul speaks and we are drawn into this moment of epiphany as were those travellers as they entered what had become that holy house, where the child, God with us, was tabernacling amongst his people, in the harshness, the cold, the bitterness of the world.
Gold for a king, frankincense for our God, powerful gifts, but it’s the final of the three gifts, the myrrh, that causes us to stop, to be still and think. As Mary took the precious anointing oil that she was offered, oil which would be used as the body of her now swaddled baby was wrapped in the shroud of his burial, her heart must have missed a beat as the sword pierced it. This was a cold coming of truth, the sharp dead of winter into her hopes for her child.
What a cruel world it can seem to be, what harsh journeys we have to make, how bitter the cold of reality can be, how we too hanker after the
‘summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet’
of which Eliot writes as the dream of the past that the Magi have.
What horrors followed in their wake as they left by another route, the slaughter of the innocents, the cries of mother’s holding their babies, and the flight into Egypt of the family forced to become refugees.
This is a hard story but this is a hard winter. Yet the Lord will arise and the thick darkness will be dispelled.
Years later Eliot would write in another poem
“Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”
Yet the Epiphany is the manifestation of so much reality, of our lives, of the harshness of the journey and yet, above all, the reality of divinity in the midst, of God with us, the god of the gold, the frankincense and the myrrh. This is the journey we’re on, it’s hard but the Lord will arise upon us and his glory will appear over us – we have his Word for it, for ‘the Word was made flesh and lived among us’.