It is good to see that the wise men have reached our nativity scene safely. I am always pleased that in Wincanton church where there is more space, we see the wise men travelling from the east end of the church as soon as our crib is set out. It seems fairly sure that they arrived in Bethlehem some time after the birth of Jesus, but their journey was long and slow, and I am sure they must have first seen the star at the time of his birth.
I wonder if you have ever used a satnav? Although they don’t seem to have been around for very long, they do seem to be almost everywhere now. They are as much a standard fitting in most cars now as headlights and windscreen wipers have been for as long as I can remember. Have you ever disagreed with one? I know I have when I am not convinced that it has chosen the best route, and I have to say that the more modern ones seem to be better natured than the originals. If I take a turning that my car does not agree with, it goes quiet behind the message ‘recalculating route’. An earlier model that I have used, would insist on an immediate U-turn to bring me back to its chosen path! The Wise men were also using satellite navigation, and probably the first ever recorded, but they did not totally follow it either and so they ended up in the wrong place as we heard in our gospel reading. I sometimes wonder what the discussion might have been like when the star deviated south from its path which they presumed was leading to Jerusalem, and how they reached the decision not to follow it any further. Whatever the reason they arrived at the palace in Jerusalem, which is a fairly logical place to start if you are looking for a king.
In the church we celebrate Epiphany almost as Christmas part 2. The feast of the Epiphany is one of the oldest in church history along with Christmas and Easter, and has been celebrated separately but close to Christmas since around the year 350. The celebration differs slightly between the Eastern and Western churches – we celebrate the visit of the Magi at this time, whereas the Eastern church celebrates the baptism of Christ. In both cases though, it is the revelation of the royal and divine nature of Christ that is the focus of the day. The official date for Epiphany is of course 6 January, which is the day following twelfth night or the last of the twelve days of Christmas, and that was originally the date for the giving of gifts. In this country that gradually moved back to New Year, and then again to Christmas, but it seems that the tradition grew from the gifts of the magi.
The separation of the two feasts of Christmas and Epiphany underlines their distinctions. In the first we celebrate the very humble and vulnerable birth of God to live as a man, and primarily to the Jewish people; in the second His manifestation to the world in the shape of the magi, and therefore to us as well. Neither of these could happen without the other – the second is impossible without the first, but without the second, the first would have little apparent meaning. As Simeon says in the temple, as we shall celebrate in a few weeks’ time, Christ was born to be a light to lighten the gentiles and to be the glory of Israel.
These two phases must also take place in us in the same way. Initially Christ must be born within us – as the start of our Christian lives, but we cannot and must not keep him hidden there. Our job is to be a part of the glorious Epiphany of God, the shining out of his light to all that we meet. The light that has enlightened us as gentiles, has to be shown and shone. We are to be the light of the world, and as Jesus himself later put it, you don’t light a candle to put it under the bed! To put it another way – the Epiphany must continue to happen through us.
Why is it then that we so often feel that rather than shining with the light of God, we are more often stumbling in the darkness of the world? It is true that we are living in dark times – we are in the middle of a global pandemic, there are wars and threats between nations, there is famine and poverty, and there are natural and climatic disasters which seem to occur more and more often. Wanting to do the right thing is becoming more and more difficult, and it can be depressing to realise just how little difference one person’s best efforts can make. But we should not, and must not let that stop us – it has always been true, and never more so than now, that it is better to light a candle than to rail against the darkness. No single one of us can end the evil of global poverty, but we can each add a small item to our shopping lists to leave as a donation for the food bank or the Lord’s Larder. We can all make the occasional donation towards those charities that we most support in order to fight against famine or homelessness. We can all look out for the Fairtrade logo on those items we buy regularly. I used to have my doubts about the efficacy of internet campaigns, but only this week I received a notification from the Children’s’ Society that the bill that will cut the cost of school uniforms has now passed into law. It has taken eight years, but it will at last make a difference. And just possibly the email that I sent to my MP and to Jacob Rees-Mogg made a tiny contribution to that. As Greta Thunberg says, nobody is too small to make a difference.
More importantly than all these things though, if we truly want to be a part of God’s Epiphany – we must remember that we most become like the people and things that we spend most of our time with. If we want to shine out with the light of God then we must make it our priority to spend time with him. Whenever we baptise a child in church, we give them the gift of a lighted candle with these words: ‘God has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and has given us a place with the saints in light. You have received the light of Christ; walk in this light all the days of your life. Shine as a light in the world to the glory of God the Father.’
The new year is traditionally a time for resolutions – perhaps we could make this one ours.