Through my own fault I missed the quiz at recreation on St Stephen’s day, so let me take this opportunity to create another quiz. The first question is: where will you find a horse that has a connection with the burial of Jesus, wearing high-heeled shoes? And then, three short extracts from sermons preached on this day in very different times and places: can you identify the preachers?
“In all the history of our Lord’s manifestation on earth, and especially in the account of his childhood, there is a wonderful mixture of openness and reserve. There is a veil over the brightness of his presence, through which he allows himself to be seen occasionally only, and not by all, but by a few only.” (John Keble)
And the second: “Let us hold both days, of the Lord’s birth and his manifestation, in equal esteem as splendid occasions for spiritual rejoicing, The Jewish shepherds were led to him by an angel bringing them the news, the Gentile Magi by a star pointing the way. This star confounded the futile calculations and divinations of the astrologers, when it pointed out to star-worshippers the creator of heaven and earth as the proper object of worship…” (St Augustine)
And finally, “The main heads of their errand are, first, vidimus stellam (we have seen his star) and, secondly, venimus adorare (we have come to worship him). First is their faith – in that they never ask ‘Whether he be’ but ‘Where is he born’ for that born he is, that they steadfastly believe. Then the ‘work or service’ of this faith, as St Paul says, the ‘touch or trial’ as St Peter, or the ostende mihi (show me) as St James has it. … The central text is of a star, and we may make all run on a star that the text and day may be suitable, and heaven and earth hold a correspondence. St Peter calls faith ‘the day-star rising in our hearts’ which sorts well with the star in the text, rising in the sky.” (Launcelot Andrewes)
Each of these sermons touches on themes familiar to us: the constant mixture of disclosure and hiddennness, – something developed particularly by late 19th theologians who explored the fruitfulness of kenosis, self-emptying, as a way in to understanding the Incarnation; and the extension of the boundaries, in the declaration that the mission of God in Christ is not simply for the children of Abraham, but for all people; and thirdly, the lesson the Epiphany has for us about the nature of faith and mission – what it does and doesn’t mean.
But you may also have been struck by the cover of the latest Mattheiserbrief, with that remarkable image of Balthasar, one of those wise men from the East. It is, apparently, part of a 13th century Spanish altarpiece, now in the national museum in Barcelona. What is really striking about the image is not so much Balthasar, though he looks very resolute and purposeful, with his large hand pointing up to the star in the top right hand corner. No, what is really dramatic is the horse – or rather the horse’s feet. For this horse is shod in the most modish, delicate, ornately decorated high-heeled shoes! Now another insight inserts itself into our reflection on the Lord’s Epiphany: incongruous. What is a horse doing in high heels? Is this something of what we know today as gender fluidity?
But the incongruity is really more fundamental. There is something outrageous about this journey, in the very dead of winter. These visitors do not belong; they are not supposed to be here. The shepherds belong: they may be poor and uneducated, but they are our kind. And here is a dimension of the revelation of glory that we see in the Epiphany that is not directly addressed by Keble, or Andrewes, – though Augustine comes close. In our generation, the magi are surely the many who are seeking truth and spiritual meaning, but who have no connection to the church. The challenge for us is twofold. First, it is to recognise how God is inviting them to draw near – what star is leading people to God today? And secondly, what do we need to do to unencumber ourselves, to free ourselves from the kind of trappings of religion that now constitute a barrier between us and the searching world without losing those practices, those skilful means that shape our faith?
Listening to William Temple’s biography in the refectory at the moment only underlines how much has changed in our lifetime. This is no longer a Christian country, if it ever was; and Anglicans cannot claim to be a worldwide church of the kind Temple believed it to be. But far from discouraging or depressing us, we are struck by our affinity with the times in which the story all began. Roman occupied Palestine was a difficult environment. The start reality of occupation encouraged dependence on a cultic version of Judaism that was seen to have less and less relevance for many of the population. Yet God was mightily at work: unpredictable, unexpected, exciting, veiled, ambiguous – but above all, present, in the midst of it all. And the divine generosity is revealed freely. So it is that shepherds go to see, summoned by angels. They may have been good Jewish shepherds, we do not know. What matters is that they went. And then those three who make their way from the East, a cold coming they had of it, at the very dead of winter, summoned to the presence of God among us by the light of the star. They are received, welcomed into the presence – and they worship. How? By kneeling and offering gifts, signifying the shape of human lives, and this human life in particular: gold suggesting status, a person of authority; incense, pointing to the presence of the divine; and myrrh, the reminder of mortality. And all is in response to the divine initiative. God acts: we respond. This Epiphany challenges us to be more alert for the signs of God’s activity; more ready to see God in surprising places; more wiling to venture beyond the safe space of our religious practices – and all because, as the second letter of Peter puts it, “the divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.” (1 Peter 1.3) In the world we indeed have tribulation – and we feel helpless. Before God we are truly helpless, but God has poured upon his love and light and life. So rejoice that this Epiphany marks the decisive turn in our understanding: this love and life of God is for all, and we are to play our part in welcoming others in. No wonder even the horses wear fancy high heels!