Guiding light in our darkness
Epiphany Isaiah 60:1-6, P 72, 1-7, 10-14 Matthew 2:1-12
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Subtitles are a give-away. Today we celebrate the Season of The Epiphany and the subtitle in the Book of Common Prayer for this principal feast of the Church is “The Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles” This emphasises that from the moment of God taking human form in the person of Jesus, the good news of Jesus Christ is for all people. It does not matter whether one is from the Chosen race of the Jewish people or is from any other race. It does not matter about gender or whether a person is wise or without education or opportunity. This revelation of God to humanity is freely given for everyone and it is for everyone to accept or not.
In the Greek text of the gospels very little is revealed about the Magi, referred to in the current translation as wise men from the east. The fact is we do not know whether they were all male, or if in fact there were three of them or more. The story that they were Kings is an embroidery and a non-scriptural addition to the narrative which came much later. The date for celebrating this feast of Epiphany goes back to the placing of the feast of the Nativity of Christ in the winter solstice; The north European pre-Christmas tradition of celebrating the birth of the Sun on 25 December differed from the Mediterranean and eastern tradition of having 6 January as the Solstice.
As often happens, the two dates merged into a beginning and an end of the same celebration. The western church adopted the twelve days of Christmas climaxing on the eve of Epiphany or “Twelfth Night”
The implication by the fifth century was, that this was the night on which the Magi arrived. The complications of dating became even more confused with the changing in the West from the Julian to the Gregorian Calendar, the eastern church refusing to play any part in such a radical change. So, this day remains the chief day of celebrating the Incarnation in the Orthodox Churches. 1 Our lectionary tells us that Epiphany is Thursday 6 January but gives us the option of celebrating it on 2nd January, the Second Sunday after Christmas. Our procession of wise pilgrims has been wandering in the Cathedral long enough. The sheep have gone with some shepherds to return again next year so there is no better reason for these wise pilgrims to arrive and present their gifts today.
Matthew’s linking of the star to the feast of the Epiphany is a nice touch. In ancient times the appearance of a star was sometimes seen as a sign, an epiphany or manifestation of something significant that had happened or was about to happen. The birth of a person of destiny, a cosmic or historic event. This motif is most appropriate for the Incarnation, but the star could have basically been used for navigation. Before the advent of modern guidance systems people relied on the stars to navigate their way over long distances on land and sea. We could imagine the Magi, in pitch black darkness, travelling along and relying on a tiny point of flickering light in the sky. At any time, it could disappear behind clouds, but the ancient peoples knew that the light would not permanently disappear and that if they followed a planned route based on a particular star they would eventually arrive at their destination. Their confidence in the star’s light enabled them to step out on lonely and unknown tracks.
Today I have a GPS System in my car, and I also have an app on my phone called “ Here we go” . This uses a Global Positioning System which I found very useful walking the narrow lanes in the old City of Jerusalem a few years ago. Just over a week ago in Sydney it guided my walking from North Sydney Station to Sawmillers Reserve on Sydney Harbour where we gathered with family for my brother’s birthday. All this helps to create the impression that we are in control, mapping everything to the last detail and arriving on schedule. Matthew’s story of the Magi, or ‘wise men’ following a star invites us to reflect on our lives, particularly our lives as disciples of Jesus. Reflection can challenge some of our modern assumptions and certainties. We believe that Christ is the light of the world and the guiding star in our lives. But if we follow this star as faithfully as we can, we will probably find ourselves on some surprising and even disturbing pathways. A journey of obedience to God’s call is not always a clear path.
Monastic tradition has written about the dark night of the soul, the spiritual journey in which even a tiny flicker of light seems at times to have been extinguished. Isaiah talks about the covering of thick darkness. And one has no choice but to sit in the darkness and wait for a glimmer of light that Isaiah claims is rising when he says “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.”
Our expectations of certainty may be challenged and like the Maji pilgrims when they arrived in Jerusalem, and proved to be wise, we may need to search and ask for directions, as they did. We may need to make decisions trusting the wisdom of others but decisions we need to make, even to avoid or refuse to make a decision is still to make a decision. To discover our vocation and the work we need to do as citizens of the Kingdom of God, “All we need to do is Lift up our eyes and look around” and we will discover the path of a magnificent future set before us even as we navigate our way through more COVID mutations and Changing Climate. Can we rely on the light of Christ to guide us? In the light of our Days and the darkness of nights, can we keep our Baptism vows to Shine as a light in the world to the glory of God the Father?
1 Exciting Holiness, Collects and Readings for the Festivals and Lesser Festivals of the Calendar of the Church of England. Canterbury Press 1997
The Reverend Canon Camellia Flanagan