The Very Reverend Dr David Hoyle Dean of Westminster
Monday, 6th January 2020 at 5.00 PM
Epiphany, the tinsel and the Christmas lights come down, a few chocolates wait on the sideboard for the moment when firm January convictions fail and we are back to business as usual. Today, all the routines resumed, emails, meetings, a new ‘to do’ list (which, shamefully, incorporates an older to do list) and I put Christmas back in its box. In January, things return to normal; it is familiar. Epiphany tames all that festival extravagance.
I have been struggling to remember a poem for part of the day. My difficulty is that some of my books are here, some are still in Bristol and some are in boxes, in a storeroom somewhere south of Milton Keynes. The poem is by David Scott who is a priest who worked once at a retreat centre in the Lake District. In this poem, which is called Reading Party which I cannot quite remember, he pokes gentle fun at a group of clergy up in the Lakes almost certainly from London. They are smart and sophisticated types. You could meet them in my drawing room clutching dry white wine and discussing the respective merits of different theological colleges. They arrive in the Lakes, with soft leather bags and delicacies pushed down between the clerical socks to compensate for the hearty, wholesome Cumbrian cooking. Scott watches them as they struggle with the unfamiliarity of setting and landscape, those fells, all that water. The poem ends, I think,
It took a week for them to assume a theology of creation
Longer still to learn to skip a stone across the lake,
In a wonderful phrase, Scott suggests that as those wide-eyed priests struggle with all that mountain grandeur they search for something more familiar, something safer ‘to narrow down the glory. To narrow down the glory. Is that what happens tonight? Do we really put Christmas back in a box and settle for something more manageable.
Well no of course we don’t. We need to pay attention to what we are being told.
First, let’s tidy up the terminology. They were not kings. They followed a star remember they are astrologers, there is the hint of something just slightly fey here, a little bit alternative. It is Matthew’s gospel we are reading and we should remember, notice, that Matthew is keen on dreams. Mark seeks to grab you by the lapels and Luke really wants you to sit down, listen and take notes, but Matthew is the evangelist who hopes to take you by the hand to go and look at the stars. Something stirs here half-understood; there are hints and glimpses. The star only gets the wise men so far remember, they have to stop and ask directions.
Where astrology fails, prophecy comes good. At this point Matthew sticks out his jaw and becomes rather more robust. There may be dreams to be dreamt, but there is also a divine providence to reckon with.
And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will govern my people Israel - Matthew 2:6
It is Bethlehem the wise men must find. It was always going to be Bethlehem. When they arrive and finally present their gifts they may not know what they are doing, but Matthew does. They are fulfilling prophecy. We hear echoes of Isaiah and the Psalms
all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord - Isaiah 60:6
May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute, may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts. May all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service. - Psalm 72:10-11
It is a sophisticated thing we have before us here, Matthew is wearing together a story about three mildly new age travellers and the prophecies of God. We meet a tyrant (Herod) and we get drawn into the beginnings of a planned genocide. All the great purposes of God swing, like the stars, round Bethlehem.
So, no, this is not the night we put Christmas back in its box and get on with the business of life. Epiphany, the name tells you what you need to know. Epiphany drags us outside under the stars and ask us if we have the capacity to even imagine what has just begun in Bethlehem.
I began with that badly remembered poem because I think there is a temptation for us - well, there is a temptation for me - to make religion manageable. That Reading Party wanting to ‘narrow down the glory’, that is familiar to me. It is the desire to have a faith I can practice, as I might practice the piano, or riding a bike. The desire to tame a faith and add it to the ‘to do’ list. Epiphany night should give the lie to that. You will know I am sure UA Fanthorpe and the poem that says
his was the moment when Before
Turned into After…
And this was the moment
When a few farm workers and three
Members of an obscure Persian sect
Walked haphazard by starlight straight
Into the kingdom of heaven.
Timothy Radcliffe has written about Jesus being unconfined. He is making a point about the resurrection as it happens, but it will serve just as well for tonight.
Jesus is unconfined, or one might say uncoffined… a hole has been blown in the chain of events.
The Word takes flesh astrologers travel, prophecy is fulfilled and hatred and fear reach for the long knives.
Tonight is a summons to the imagination. Epiphanies are only needed, and can only be accepted, by those of us who know that we must seek what we lack. The day we become certain, the day we become sure, the epiphanies end. Even here in Westminster Abbey, in the midst of all this confidence, we are short of glory and looking to a Kingdom yet to come. Those astrologers, remember, went all that way and simply paid homage. They gave their gifts and they left. It is not at all what we expect of astrologers - no words, no horoscopes, no report, no memoir. Instead the silence that falls because the words are not strong enough, the words do not have the stretch, or sinew to serve.
We do not tonight, put Christmas back in a box, nor must we turn again to our routines with a sense of a job well done (wonderful as Christmas was in the Abbey). Epiphany is a summons to us to remember that Christ has come amongst us blowing a hole in the chain of events. If we would serve him, if we would really get to grips with epiphany we must look beyond our walls and our assumptions, be ready to journey out as magi did seeking what we still have not grasped and finding words for what we still cannot entirely name.
There are epiphanies to come.