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.