Sub Dean - Revd Canon Michael Rawson
When the Church of England revised its liturgies in 2000 it was suggested that as the season of the Incarnation lasts from Christmas Day until the Feast of Candlemas on 2 February, it would be a great idea to keep your Christmas tree up until 2 February
You might remember some very bald trees surrounded by a carpet of pine needles. Over the years the compromise has been to despatch the trees after the Epiphany but to keep the crib until Candlemas.
Such churchy customs are clearly at odds with a world that puts up Christmas decorations on 1 December and dismantles them on Boxing Day. I saw a tree discarded in the street as I walked to the Cathedral on that day. Whatever happened to the Twelve Days of Christmas which officially ended last night? The feast days celebrated during these days also add another dimension to the traditional story of the birth of the Christchild. On 26th we celebrate St Stephen, the first martyr to give his life in witness to Christ, on 27th John the Apostle and Evangelist points in his writings to Christ the Light of the World, the Word made Flesh who has come down to earth from heaven. The Holy Innocents on 28th pick up the slaughter of the boys under 2 by King Herod who sought to kill the Christ; and then closer to home the feast of St Thomas Becket on 29th commemorates his murder in Canterbury Cathedral in the twelfth century. These feast days strip away the glitter and tinsel of a fairy tale and firmly ground the birth of the Christchild in the nitty gritty of the real world.
Last Sunday we recalled the episode when the twelve year old Christ was seemingly lost; and was found engaging in theological discussion with the elders of the Temple. Today we return to Jesus the infant, though perhaps more of a toddler than a babe in arms and now in a house rather than a stable. Our crib services and even the depiction of the Nativity in our own crib tend to conflate the arrival of the Magi with the shepherds. But that’s rather unlikely given that King Herod killed the male children who were two years old and under in his desire to rid himself of the new born Jesus.
For many in the Christian world, the feast of the Epiphany is a greater feast than Christmas, with the giving of gifts associated more with the Wise Men than with Father Christmas. In Spain, the Day of the Kings is marked by children putting out their well-polished shoes in order to receive a gift. The Germans and French mark the feast with a Kings’ Cake, laced with orange and spices and containing a charm. If your teeth survive it, you are crowned as king or queen for the rest of the day. Orthodox Christians celebrate Epiphany with the Baptism of Christ and a blessing of the waters of lakes and rivers, as we too will do next Sunday with the Blessing of the River Thames. Epiphany literally means to reveal and in these coming weeks of Epiphanytide we witness Jesus being revealed as God’s Son through his baptism in the river Jordan, the miracle of turning water into wine at the wedding at Cana and today in the arrival and worship of strangers from the East.
We often talk about the Three Wise Men or Three Kings and yet it’s very unlikely that they were either kings or there were three of them. Much more likely there would have been a great caravan of wise men, and probably women. These Magi were seekers and explorers, travelling from what is exotically referred to as ‘the East.’ They were not Jews and they are often depicted by artists as having Far Eastern and African descent. They symbolise people from a very different background, culture and religion seeking the truth and journeying in faith and hope, following a star. They are looking and longing for something above and beyond their experience and knowledge. Not surprisingly their first port of call on arriving in Jerusalem is to look for the newborn king in a palace. For those with open hearts and minds, this child brings light, hope, peace and a new beginning. But for King Herod, he brings fear and challenge. In attempting to hang on to his own power he seeks to destroy the Christchild.
The contrast with the Magi, the outsiders, could not be greater for when they realise they are at their journey’s end they are ‘overwhelmed with joy’ and fall down in humility on their knees in homage. Just like the despised and marginalised shepherds, so the Magi are outsiders and don’t belong. And it is precisely because they see things through fresh eyes that seekers and enquirers may have insights that seasoned believers like many of us may overlook. The message of the angels to the shepherds and the star leading the way of the wise men reminds us that everyone is invited to celebrate the birth of the Christchild, but especially the outsiders and those who surprise us most. Jesus turned our world upside down from the very beginning and continues to do so. Each one of journeys to the manger throne on very different paths, for there is no blue print which all must follow. Every one of us is called and nurtured and cherished by God who longs for us to make our home in the divine heart. On their long journey to worship the Christ, the Magi would have enjoyed the openness, generosity and hospitality of their hosts, including the Holy Family. It was the fulfilment of a prophecy that the Messiah’s reign and kingdom is for all people and not just a chosen few. The Magi are the first Gentiles to recognise and worship the Christ. It was a source of scandal then and continues to be today for some people of faith. The experience of the Magi challenges us as a community seeking to be inclusive and welcoming of all. May we be open to the experience of others very different from ourselves, allowing them to see God through a very different lens from our own and celebrating their insights and gifts.
At the beginning of this new year may we reflect on the treasure that we have in our hearts and how we might share that with those who continue on the long and hard journey in search of God. As the light of a star encouraged and gave direction to those first explorers, so may we shed light on the path of those seeking truth and meaning in their lives, showing them the way home to God.