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.















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.