Epiphany : a vision for all the world

I was watching a recording the other day of a rather special orchestra playing Tchaikovsy’s 4th Symphony, and I found tears welling up in my eyes. Well yes, the music was very grand as Tchaikovsky’s music usually is, but it wasn’t that which moved me. No, it was the orchestra itself;         for this was the West–Eastern Divan Orchestra created by Daniel Barenboim, and the young musicians in this orchestra are drawn from most of the countries torn by war and hatred in the Middle East, from Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon Palestine and Syria. As the commentator said, “They play with such power because they believe so strongly in what they are doing.. creating beautiful music that transcends the sad divisions their countries face.”  Yes, it was looking at them, creating such beauty together that moved me to tears. And that beauty is a vision isn’t it? A vision of a world in which all men and women of every race and religion can see themselves as one family working together to make the world not just a place of peace, but a place of beauty as well, for us all.

 

This, as you have probable heard me say before, is the heart of the Epiphany message. The wise men traditionally represent all the nations of the world, coming to Jesus, and being united in and by him in a common pursuit for wisdom and light and peace. As we heard in our 1st Reading (Isaiah 60:1-6) The nations come to your light, kings to your dawning brightness” and as we sang in our Psalm “All nations shall fall prostrate before you, O Lord”

 But it’s easy to turn this great vision of peace and light into something awful ; an encouragement for Christianity to dominate the world – to have the idea, and impose it on others, that everyone should be a Christian, and then the vision of Epiphany would be realised. As you know, there have been times in the history of Christianity when this is just what so-called Christians have tried to do. I only have to mention the word “The Crusades” and remind you of how fierce Western soldiers ravaged the Middle East in the Middle Ages. It is no wonder that the so-called Islamic State – note the parallel! – calls us westerners, the Crusaders, and then seeks to imitate such ways, by trying to turn everyone into their kind of Muslim, killing their opponents, just like the Crusaders did.

We know from history that even when nations are all Christian that doesn’t stop war, does it?  Look at Europe where every nation once claimed to be Christian, and yet its people were ravaged by war for centuries. Look at Britain facing endless Civil Wars for hundreds of years! No. Peace is not achieved by everyone having the same faith, for the Epiphany vision is not one of Jesus as a great King imposing himself on us, but of a tiny baby drawing us into a vision of love and peace that lies within and beyond him. Remember that one of the temptations of the grown-up Jesus is to be the ruler of the world, but he sees that if he takes that path it is the evil one who will win, and so instead he takes the path of service and sacrificial love.

 So one of the great dangers we Christians face is to identify Jesus as like us in every way, to make him, as some have done, into a nice Western man with fair skin and blue eyes, the kind of man that we think of as good-looking. The reality is that Jesus almost certainly had brownish skin and brown eyes and looked distinctively Middle Eastern and was probably not particularly attractive. For it was his personality that attracted not his looks! Christians of every nation therefore, wanting to think of Jesus as like them, often depict him as looking like themselves. So in Africa you can find images of Jesus as black, in China as Chinese, and so on. In fact we have no idea what he actually looked like, and so depict him in one way or another, like this, not because that is what he was really like, but as a way of making a theological statement.

 Seeing this sort of thing is however good for us, for it reminds us that Jesus cannot be identified with any particular race. What matters is that he was human, not what his ethnic origin was. For if he were not really and fully human, if God had just appeared in human form without actually being human, then our faith is a waste of time. It is only by becoming a real human that God declares his utter oneness with us, despite all our terrible mistakes as human beings, from the way we kill one another to the way we pollute our planet. Despite all this, God is with us. He loves us and will never desert us, and it is that vision of all that is best about being human that is the vision we are called to proclaim. We may not be able to create superb music like those young musicians in that orchestra, but we can all do something to make the world a more beautiful and loving place. That must be our calling this year and every year and for ever.

 

 

 

 

 

 

                        

 

 

 

 

 

 

The in-breaking of God in time

Frances writes on this Sunday’s Readings :- Why is it that when any number of people were being baptised by John in the Jordan for the repentance of their sins, that of Jesus should be so significant? (Mark 1:7-11). It is made clear in the Gospels that John recognised something signally different in the person of Jesus, recorded in his statement “I am not fit to kneel down and undo the strap of his sandals.” John saw himself as lower than the lowliest of slaves whose duty this would have bee. So clearly there was that about Jesus which marked him out, made him different from the many others who were responding to John’s proclamation of the eschaton, of the in-breaking of God at that time. Whilst John recognised this imminence in Jesus, yet not really knowing quite what he was, what did Jesus himself make of the event?

There are moments in the lives of all of us which are ‘life-changing’, be they times of decision which will change our lives forever such as decisions about a particular vocation, or to marry, or to undertake a piece of work which will change us forever. What is it that shapes a person so that they give up their secure life to work with Ebola patients in West Africa; or indeed, to throw up a secure job in banking in favour of a much more precarious lifestyle? Or we might think of other life altering events, such as the birth of a child to a couple and the shattering change this wreaks on their carefully structured world; or less positively when one is struck down by severe illness or infirmity. Most of us who have been baptised in infancy will have no recollection of the event, it will only be later in life that its effects will come to have meaning for us. But for Jesus it seems to have been the great turning point of his life; the moment at which his self-understanding enabled him to appreciate definitively that his life was now going in a particular direction. Indeed, we are told that as a result of his self-abasement, after accepting baptism from John, Jesus experienced a moment of great clarity; affirmation from and communion with the Father, from which point his ministry began and the shape of his future life began, as he lived out and became the longed for redeemer of his people, Emmanuel, God with us. From this time perhaps he began to discover and be what he was born for, what he was meant to be. Certainly his baptism is a turning point.

Our reading from the Johannine Letters (1 John 5:1-9) is an exploration of the implications of this in the life of Jesus and in our lives too. John is at great pains to emphasise both the divinity and the humanity of Jesus in this great act of the salvation of the human race, and so he insists on the real humanity of Christ “Who came by water and blood, not with water only but with water and blood.” Clearly he is speaking of the real flesh of the Saviour and then he deliberately joins this to the divine initiative, “With the Spirit as another witness…the Spirit, the water and the blood.” At the same time however, for John that great writer on the Eucharist, this image of Christ is never solely one-dimensional as he reminds his hearers of the great meeting each of us has with the bodily risen Lord in the Eucharist. By the power of the Spirit we partake of the Real Presence of the risen and glorified Lord, who became human for our salvation and who continues to sustain his Church with his body. The fruits of this believing are for John to be seen continually in the behaviour of the Christian towards his fellow human beings, in which we become imbued with the persona of God, loving one another as he has loved us in Christ. For John this was no piece of erudite theology, but rather a vital and fundamental aspect of being a follower of Christ, and something which again called for a decisive and profound change of mindset, a real and bodily stepping out of the society in which he and they lived with its pagan values and morals into the wholly new life of the Christian; and in his day that really did mean being marked for life by the choice one had made.

This too was the situation Isaiah wrote of. (Isa 55:1-11). This is the work of Isaiah of the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BC, of a people deported as slaves hundreds of miles from their homeland, and living deprived of all the securities with which they were familiar. The temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed; their familiar patterns of existence shot to bits, as they lived in a foreign land with very unfamiliar customs and had to learn to be faithful to their God cut loose from all the normal supports they relied upon. It is in this dire situation that Isaiah writes to the exiles, speaking of access to God without the rich life of former times, “Buy corn without money, and eat…pay attention, come to me; listen, and your soul will live.” In this time of emptiness, he promises them God’s ‘everlasting covenant’, a covenant not of their making, but the gift of God himself, “The Holy One of Israel will glorify you. Isaiah calls on the people in exile not to rely on themselves but to push out into the unknown, to trust in God their redeemer, whose will is for their thriving and success, not their death and loss. It must have been a message of great hope amidst all the disaster and chaos and the loss of identity with which the exiles were threatened.

Perhaps the message we are meant to draw from the account of the Baptism of the Lord and all the readings is therefore one of hope and of trust as we enter a new year with all the fears and uncertainties that it brings. It also carries the promise of God’s abiding presence at those moments of decision which we all face.

 

Responding to the Light that is God

I want you to imagine yourself back into a world without electricity, a world where when the sun goes down the only light outside is the moon (if it is up) and the stars. Inside, the house is dark, except perhaps for a flickering candle (if you can afford one) and the light of the fire. If you awake in the night, you cannot simply flick on a switch to fill your room with light. So if you find the dark frightening, you can only huddle under the bed covers and hope and pray that the dark with all its fears will go away. Finally, finally, the long dark night begins to recede. It is morning, and as the sun rises, the light begins to come back and the fears you had while it was dark are hopefully driven away. You go outside and the world is gloriously filled with light. The mystery, that brings the light back into the world after the darkness of the night, has happened once again!

Having imagined that, then we can all have a far better understanding of all the words and ceremonies about light that are so central to our Christian faith, and to the Epiphany story. St John’s Christmas Gospel is the most famous passage on light. Jesus is described first as the Word. Listen to this again as if you were sitting in the dark and maybe more than a bit frightened.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:1-5)

Matthew in his Gospel today (Matt 2:1-12) tells the same story in a different way. He shows the whole world, represented in the wise men, coming to see God in the baby Jesus, by following the light of a star, and being filled in the darkness with delight as that star beamed down upon them just before they entered the house. Some people have tried to identify which of many star events at that time this can have been, but really it doesn’t matter to our writer. For whichever combination of stars or planets it was – and there are many – all of them, for a believer, are signs of the glory of God.

What is more important, is that Matthew wanted his readers to see the birth of Jesus as the fulfilment of the prophecy of Isaiah – our  1st Reading today (Isaiah 60:1-6) “Arise, shine out, for your light has come, the glory of the Lord is rising upon you, though night still covers the earth.”  And notice that this passage tells us that when the glory of the Lord shines on us, we are immediately meant to radiate, or reflect his light to others, and notice too Paul’s point in our 2nd Reading ((Eph 3:2-6) these “others”, with whom we are to share the mystery of God’s light, are not just OUR family or people, but everyone – even people we might call “pagans” – foreigners – people who are different from us, strange to us in one way or another.

Yes, as receivers of the light of the world, we are called upon to rise above the narrow evil thoughts of those who divide humans from one another by fear, or envy or greed. Our calling as Christians is much higher. St Leo the Great was Pope in the 5thC when Italy was in turmoil, when people, frightened by wars and unrest, could easily lose their sense of care for one another, and descend into the darkness of “every man for himself.” If any of you have heard of Attila the Hun. Well, Leo was around when that man of fearsome reputation was devastating Italy. So what does Leo say on Christmas day? Does he say – pull up the drawbridge, hide away in case the darkness gets to you, avoid any contact with strangers?  No! Quite the reverse. Like St Paul, he calls us to rise above the fears that come to us in the darkness, to have a greater vision of what our world can be like, and most of all what we can be like.

And so he cries out   “O Christian, be aware of your nobility – it is God’s own nature that you share ; do not then by an ignoble life, fall back into baseness. Think of the Head, think of the Body of which you are a member. Recall (and here it comes!) that you have been rescued from the power of darkness, and have been transferred to the light of God.!”

When the wise men enter the house and find Jesus the Light of the World before them, they do not simply kneel to offer their gifts, as our watered-down translation of the text has it, but they prostrate themselves, down with their faces to the ground as you may have seen Muslims do when they pray. Perhaps we Christians should reintroduce that practice in order to remind ourselves that the glory of God is not just something to be gazed at from afar, but is a light that should enter our lives and transform us.

In the coming weeks I am going to preach a series of Homilies on Christian morality. No, not going on about the bad things we should avoid, but much more important looking at the good life that we should be striving to live every day, even when we feel we are in the dark.  I watched the last Harry Potter Film a few days ago, and was struck by the way he, and those with him at Hogwarts, were prepared to struggle on even when the darkness surrounding them appeared to be getting stronger and stronger. Harry realises that he has to be prepared to die if darkness is to be defeated. Familiar theme? Yes, the author J K Rowling is a Christian, and that’s where her image comes from. The evil Voldemort seeks to destroy a defenceless Harry, but in so doing sows the seeds of his own destruction. We are called to be a light to the world in 2015 however dark things may be. That is the Christian calling.

Light in contrast with the dark

Frances writes on this weekend’s readings :-  Those of us who inhabit a world of artificial light often fail to recognise the significance of light in the ancient world, a world in which once the sun went down life became closed and the outside world was dangerous. They would in consequence dream of long term sources of light, even worship it and use it as their great metaphor for redemption, for salvation from enemies. Light represented what was good, God given, holy and a source of grace. When Third Isaiah wrote of the return of the exiles from Babylonia under the rule of the Persian Cyrus he saw this saving event in terms of light. (Isa 60: 1-6)  Light is his watchword, his exuberant and flowery praise song for his restored city, Jerusalem, which he sees as the beacon, indeed the centre, of a renewed world that knows no bounds. Jerusalem is now the key from which all will flow, ‘throbbing and full’ she will be the great commercial hub of the East, and from her light every other part of the world will be illumined; “The glory of the Lord is rising on you, though night still covers the earth”. His joy knows no end. Banished is the cold, the dark and the oppressive rule of tyrants. This was what his nation had always looked for from God, and Isaiah reminds them that this time of blessing has come as the exiles returned home.

 

Our Gospel too takes up this great theme of light. (Matthew 2:1-12). When Matthew came to write his Gospel, sometime in the late 80’s AD, he had seen and lived through exceedingly dark times, with the crucifixion of Jesus, the failed Jewish insurrection with its appalling consequences for the nation, and the separation of the Christian sect from Judaism. His Gospel would catalogue this revolutionary movement as it went out to the pagan world. For Matthew the great tragedy would lie in his own nation’s rejection of Jesus, as they turned their backs on the long-awaited Messiah, and doomed the people to yet more generations of oppression and fear. Matthew therefore picks up on Isaiah’s use of light as the emblem of the coming Christ child, and speaks repeatedly in our Gospel of the ‘star’, the asteroid in Greek, that dazzling light which will streak through the heavens, no mere physical phenomenon but God’s message to his faithful followers announcing the one who would irrevocably alter human history.

 

Matthew will make a subtle and continuous play on this image of the light which comes to us from God, this source of revelation, the disclosure of God in the tiny infant, playing with it in the contrast between Jesus and Herod. Now anyone who knew anything about the rise to power and the reign of Herod the Great would have immediately associated him with the reign of darkness. Herod was a foreign king, planted upon Israel by Mark Antony, and held in power by the might of Rome. His reign was a catalogue of vicious oppression, from the slaughter of some three thousand Pharisees to the his murder of his wife, the last of the legitimate Hasmonean dynasty and her offspring. Herod was a Jew in name only, and though he famously built part of the temple, he also patronised pagan gods, being responsible for the construction of the temple to Zeus/Jupiter at Baalbek and the construction of the great fortress city and port at Caesarea. Matthew would quite deliberately go out of his way to paint this tyrant in the blackest of colours, a dark force, needing to be overcome by the light.

 

Our Jerusalem bible translation sadly looses the impact of this great clash between light and dark by sentimentalising the next part of the story where we are told that the prophet wrote of “A leader who will shepherd my people Israel”. In the Greek original the word is ‘govern’, literally to assume hegemony over the nation, and was thus clearly a deliberate threat to Herod and his offspring and their power. Moreover, Herod does not ask the magi the ‘exact date’ of the appearance of the star, he asks when the ‘kairos’ – God’s in-breaking into human life – would occur. In other words, Herod recognised exactly the degree of threat posed by this baby and all that he stood for. This is made even clearer by the actions of the magi who greet Jesus not, as our text says, by kneeling to him, but rather by the full prostration, the proskunesis performed to the Great King. Literally, they worshipped him as God, and they returned home by a different way, deliberately snubbing the monarch in whose territory they were staying. Herod is shown to be redundant, and though we shall have the massacre of innocents, a parallel to the tyrant Pharaoh in the time of Moses, he will also draw the link between Jesus and Moses. Moses, the one who redeemed his nation from slavery in Egypt and Jesus, the saviour of the world. Our gospel then is very far from a pretty crib scene. It is a determined piece of political propaganda in which Matthew unreservedly lays all his cards on the table, telling the world precisely who it has received in the birth of the infant Jesus.

 

It can be no surprise that this great motif of light and illumination, or Epiphany would be such a powerful theme in early Christian literature. St John in his later gospel and letters would develop the theme of Jesus as the ‘light’ and well before the gospels were written St Paul would develop it too. In his Letter to the Ephesians (3:2-3.5-6) he would say that it was ‘by a revelation that I was given the knowledge of the mystery’ of God’s self-gift to the world in Christ, and he will proclaim that this unfolding mystery is now not for the Jews alone, but intended for pagans too, and that this means that God intends us all to be one. As the Greek text has it: “joint heirs” – a joint body and joint sharers of the promise in Christ. Truly, we are the illumined ones, those to whom the Epiphany or showing forth of God as man is revealed.

We are foreigners seeking the light

It’s easy to make a big mistake today, and to think of “the wise men from the east” (Matt 2:1-12) as exotic foreigners. Actually, of course, as far as Mary and Joseph were concerned, we are just as foreign as those wise men were. Indeed, unless we happen to be Jewish, Jesus would also have thought of all of us as “foreigners”. That’s precisely why this Feast is so important, and so distinct from Christmas; because these exotic foreigners represent us. Do you remember what Jesus said when only one leper came back to say thank you? “Has no-one come back …except this foreigner?” (Luke 17:18) You might be shocked at this, but it shows us very clearly how human Jesus was, and how much he identified with his own people, whilst holding to the greater vision of a time when all nations would come, like the wise men, to seek the light, as we heard in our 1st Reading today (Isaiah 60:1-6)

That’s one of the glories of being a Christian, that we can both be proud of our own heritage, whatever that may be – so I love being English despite the rain – but are even more proud that we have been transformed, by being Christians, into citizens of heaven. Thus, wherever we live, we can be at home and yet, like the wise men, are always foreigners who belong to a different land. In the early years of Christianity, a famous Christian writer Justin Martyr wrote about us just like this (Epistle to Diognetus Ch.5)

“Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. … They dwell in their own countries, but simply as immigrants. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers.” 

Working out exactly what that means for each one of us is not going to be easy, but it is something we should do regularly. Why? Because “the world” that we are part of, wherever that may be, is very keen on persuading us to be just like them. And of course, we want to be, for it is hard to be different; and yet we must be, if we are to be true to Jesus, to be one with him. I expect the wise men were made fun of back home, for setting out on their foolish journey. And when they came back home, I expect they were laughed at again for making such a fuss about one tiny baby, who most of the world simply ignored. Just like us you see!

 Might I suggest that we might become more like them by considering the gifts that they brought to Jesus?  Pictures often show them bringing great caskets full of gold, frankincense and myrrh, but given that the Holy Family did not then become incredibly rich, the actual gifs must have been tiny tokens, symbols of something much greater, and that must be the same for us. Anyway, let’s look at them, but the wrong way round, as I think it might help.

Myrrh was the ointment used to prepare a dead body for burial. It’s a vivid reminder of where this tiny baby would end up – dying on a cross and dead in a tomb. We are called then to offer Jesus our life even to the point of dying for him, as he died for us. But how do we do that? For some Christians today this is a frightening possibility, especially in Syria and Iraq at the moment, and in parts of Nigeria and Mali. But for most of us it must mean living a sacrificial life for others, caring about others and their needs above our own, just like that foreigner, the Good Samaritan, who risked his life to care for the man left dying in the road.

Frankincense is used in prayer and worship. It is a reminder that we must spend time in prayer allowing God the Holy Spirit to work in us so that we can be transformed into what we are called to be – citizens of heaven. We are not called to be like Christ, but to live “in Christ” – to soak ourselves in God, to make real the prayer, “Thy kingdom come.”

So finally Gold proclaims Jesus as King. It is so easy to allow things in this world to dominate our attention, isn’t it?  Our work, our home, our possessions, our money, our health and fitness, or our lack of it! How easy it is to turn our natural concerns into obsessions, to “worry and fret” and to forget about the really important things that we are called to be if we are to be fully human. How easy it is to be slaves to such things, and to forget that Jesus calls us to a freedom in which we use such things not for ourselves but to the glory of God and in the service of others.

Human solidarity

Frances writes on the Feast of the Epiphany :- This is one of those feasts where we can easily lose sight of the message amidst all the exotic glamour of the camels and the gold, frankincense and myrrh; where we fail to let the issues that it should raise come to the fore as we just look at the pretty picture.

There is no historical record of Herod’s meeting with the wise men, or indeed, of his massacre of the Innocents, though what we do know of him suggests that killing babies was just the sort of thing he would have done, and that the wariness of the wise men and their change of return route was eminently sensible. Herod was a foreigner, a pagan, from Idumea to the south of Palestine who had come to power in Judea as a result of war when the Romans conquered the area under Pompey. He was put in power by Mark Antony and maintained his rule by terror. History does record that he put over 3,000 Pharisees to death and that he killed his wife Mariamne, last survivor of the legitimate Hasmonean Jewish rulers.

Because of this, I was fascinated to see how, in our gospel, Matthew (2:1-12), has woven his epiphany story – the revelation of the Christ to the nations – against a backcloth of comparison and contrast which serve to emphasise the significance of the giving of this Jewish saviour to the nations.

We see there that the ‘wise’ men are not from the court of Herod, but from the distant and mysterious ‘east’. Herod and ‘all Jerusalem’ were perturbed by their message, and the writer assumes a ganging together of groups that would normally have been in very acrimonious relationships. The chief priests, Sadducees who were in charge of the temple and religious hard liners, would for instance not have been enamoured of Herod’s quisling Jewishness, despite his contributions to the temple; for they knew that he had also built a temple to Zeus at Baalbek. Ditto for the scribes, frequently Pharisees, whose persecution by that monarch was so well known and horrific. I also noted how the prophesy spoke of a true ruler being born to the now extinct Davidic line at Bethlehem and quite specifically not in Jerusalem.

As we read on in this gospel account and the giving of the gifts it also becomes apparent that the ‘gifts’ are symbolic, not real, for if they had been, we can be pretty sure that Mary and Joseph, would then have been set up for life and would have taken the first boat out of Palestine and never have returned, whereas the story tells us they escaped as refugees to Egypt and returned later to Nazareth living a simple artisan lifestyle. The point of the symbols is about a king, a God and his death and embalming. Given all this then, we begin to see that the visit of the magi is a highly political message, one which debunks the reigning monarchy and the Romans who put them in power, and poses serious questions about the chief priests and scribes: all those who would eventually be heavily implicated in the passion and death of Jesus. It appears that Matthew is painting a backcloth against which the entire saving life of Christ will be etched, and that it will be by way of foreigners and a life of struggle in difficult conditions that the Lord’s Christ will achieve the salvation that he brings. It will be achieved by non violence and the coming together of the nations. In the end, by our human solidarity, the only way we can save our planet.

We meet this too in our reading from Ephesians, (3:2-3, 5-6), with Paul’s insistent message of the revelation of the Good News through him to the pagans and his affirmation of our complete human solidarity. We are, as he puts it, parts of the same body, and nothing now can separate us from one another as we are in Christ.

Hundreds of years before all this, the prophet Isaiah (60:1-6) was writing to those returning to their ancestral homeland from exile in Babylon and imagined it as the time for the great celebration of good times for his people, as Jerusalem and its temple were rebuilt and the wealth of the nations flowed to it. He was of course speaking of an international Jewish diaspora and the restoration of the nation, and his hope was that all would turn to the God of Israel. He envisaged this by speaking of the return to Palestine of the gold and spice and incense trade which made it one of the great entrepot’s of the ancient world, funnelling products between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea and  the countries beyond and, of course, he was remembering that great journey around 1000 BC when Solomon entertained the fabled Queen of Sheba at his court, a time of unparalleled splendour. This scene is also taken up by the psalmists, as we see in Ps 71. Perhaps the most crucial lines are “For he shall save the poor when they cry and the needy who are helpless. He will have pity on the weak and save the lives of the poor.” The point being surely that the real glory of God and the splendour of his humanity is precisely when we all live together in harmony, and that is why Matthew crafted his wonderful story of the wise men who journeyed way out of their comfort zones in the great libraries and academic circles of the east, to fulfil what they knew was their only hope of salvation, and that of all humanity too.