Epiphany 2015

Epiphany Sunday, January 4, 2015

Matthew 2:1-12

One of the pleasures I enjoyed when we had young children in the house is that it gave me the opportunity and excuse of rereading the books I loved as a child. Perhaps some of you are at that stage now with grandchildren.  A favourite of my kids at one point was “The Hobbit”. Many of you are probably familiar with the book. Of course, it’s a movie now, but they have clogged it up with so much nonsense, you might not recognize it.  It is the story of a small, unassuming little creature called Bilbo Baggins who sets out with a band of dwarves on a wild adventure to recover treasure from a dragon. The remarkable thing about the adventure is that Bilbo went at all: as a Baggins, he was a member of a very settled, comfortable, staid and respectable family who would never do anything so irresponsible as to go off on adventures. But Bilbo’s mother was a Took, and the Took’s were known to be an unpredictable, unstable family; and it was Bilbo’s Tookish blood which suddenly broke out in his fiftieth year, and led him to the most uncomfortable adventures.

I can’t help wondering, when I think of the Magi, the wise men from the East who came looking for the newborn king, whether they had Tookish blood, too. Because the remarkable thing about them, it seems to me, is that they came. There can’t have been anything easy or natural about this journey for them. They were comfortable, settled, and very respectable people in their own country: kings, tradition has it (probably higher nobility), and Magi, wise men, learned astrologers. People whom others looked up to for their wisdom and stability. Yet they have left behind a comfortable and stable life for the dangers and discomforts of the road. They would have had to face the incomprehension and contempt of neighbours and family, setting out on a journey without a specific destination, following a star which, it seems, only they could see.

It strikes me that they are a model for us, these mysterious strangers from the East, an image of the Christian spiritual life. Because we too tend to get settled in our ways, to get comfortable and unadventurous. We do this in our lifestyle, and that’s fine; it’s not necessary to go running off on new adventures all our lives, there’s nothing wrong with settling down. But we do this in our spiritual lives as well: we get comfortable and settled into our way of knowing God. And when we get too comfortable, this can be a problem. We stop looking for and expecting something new from God. And when that happens, our faith stops being a living relationship and becomes a matter of habit.

And that is why the wise men can be a model for us: it is a story of people who set out to look for Christ. People who aren’t afraid to leave what is familiar and comfortable to face the new and unknown. In this they are followers of Abraham, the great-great-grandfather of us all in faith, who left his home and settled existence, because God had promised him something better, and who spent the rest of his life living in tents. The Magi set out in faith, in the faith that they would find Christ in the unknown, where they have never been and where they don’t even know they are headed.

It’s a fitting story for the beginning of a new year. At the beginning of 2015 we are setting out on a journey into the unknown. We don’t know, any one of us, what the year will bring us. It doesn’t lie in our hands to choose what we will encounter in the coming year. There is one thing only we can be sure of: that God will be with us on our journey, and that we will find Christ, in whatever comes our way, if we approach it with the eyes of faith.

And so, as Bilbo Baggins discovered, adventures, journeys into the unknown, are not just for the young. They are part of human life, at whatever stage we may be at. One of the many legends that have grown up around the figures of the wise men reflects this point. According to this legend, the Magi were three different ages. They arrive in Bethlehem at the cave that sheltered the Christ Child. Each one enters the cave separately and each has a completely different experience of Christ. Melchior finds an old man like himself, who talks about memory and gratitude. Balthazar finds a middle aged man who speaks of leadership and responsibility. Caspar finds a young prophet who talks of promise and reform. They meet outside the cave and share how each had met someone of their own age. Then they return together to the cave and see in the manger on a bed of straw, a twelve day old baby.

At every age of our life we are not done with Christ. At each stage of our life we come back to him with different experiences behind us, different expectations. And these different experiences and expectations mean that we meet Christ in slightly different ways. At each stage of our lives we can still grow and mature in the art of loving our fellow human beings, the art of graciously meeting the challenges that life sends our way, the art of trusting God’s faithfulness.

We may look forward to the year to come with hope or with anxiety. For some it will be a time of new opportunities: the birth of a child or grandchild, the beginning of a friendship or even a marriage, new possibilities of work or education or retirement. For others, the shadows will loom large: the fear of sickness or debility; the anxiety of a marriage or other important relationship in crisis; the cloud of uncertain work prospects. We don’t know what the year will bring: much that worries us may turn out better than we fear, many of our hopes may be dashed. But we can meet Christ in whatever comes our way. Whether joy or sorrow or just ordinary everyday life — if we, like the Magi seek Christ in new and unknown places, if we look for signs of God’s faithfulness and love in every blessing and every challenge that comes our way, then we shall find him there.

And this is ultimately the meaning of the season of Epiphany. It is the time in the church year in which we meditate on and celebrate Christ’s appearance among us. We tend to associate Epiphany with images of light and glory, clear, intense, pure and heavenly: the star of the Magi; the words of Isaiah “Arise, shine, for your light is come”; the ceremony of Candlemas; the Transfiguration, which ends Epiphany in the new calendar. But while this may be the idiom of the season, it expresses a reality that is more down to earth.

God’s true epiphany is not in brilliance like as the sun, but in the babe in the stable. The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us. And it is in the flesh, in the struggle and passion and frailty of human life in the flesh – our life – that we most intimately encounter God. God has chosen to dwell among us: it is in our communities, in our difficult and awkward attempts to live with one another, to give and receive love, that God meets us with his love.

This the Magi had to learn, having come so far: that it is here, in the mystery of human life, not in the mystic and speculative realm of the stars, that God gives himself to us. May God grant us grace and open our eyes and hearts, that we may see and know God’s presence in each stage of our lives, and particularly in the joys and struggles of the coming year.