Epiphany


I am in Berlin for a few days with my youngest son – a bit of a boys’ holiday. We managed to escape all the snow in England, but here it is freezing cold, foggy and snowing. It’s fantastic. And, contrary to the UK news media, nobody talks about the weather here – they just get on with it: it is just ‘weather’.

Anyway, we popped into the Berliner Dom yesterday evening so I could show Andy where I preached last September. He was impressed with the whole place and the enormous organ (over 7,200 pipes apparently…). But, while he wandered round looking at things (like the enormous pulpit under the enormous dome) I sat down quietly and looked around. And that is when I had my mini-epiphany.

It’s not great. I just noticed an enormous nativity/crib scene set up in a recess to one side of the ‘sanctuary’. The figures were… er … enormous. But, there was only Jesus, his family and the shepherds (plus, maybe, the odd cow – I can’t remember who else was there). Absent from the scene were the Magi.

Aha, I thought, they will produce them on 6 January and stick them where the now departed shepherds were – and this will prove how biblically and theologically ‘on the button’ the Germans are. But, no – I was wrong. They had gone one further and done something even more imaginative and thoughtful. Look at the photo below (I know it’s a bit dark, but my phone camera doesn’t ‘do’ dark…):

See them? They are on the opposite side of the church, peering out from the distant organ loft and pointing to the nativity scene in the distance. They are on their way, but there is time and space to get over first.

I just thought this was great – and very vivid. The Magi come late, but they are on their way, even if the people at the heart of the action don’t realise it yet.

I wonder if our churches might try this next year: have the Magi on the opposite side of the church through Advent (when they began their journey?) and Christmas – then bring them closer until Epiphany when they replace the shepherds. It’s a thought…

I know I am a day or two early for Epiphany, but I will be in Berlin from early tomorrow morning and not sure about my blogging facilities there. But, I’ve been thinking about Epiphany anyway and thought I’d add to what everyone else will be writing/saying about it.

TS Eliot said that the Magi had a hard time of it, getting from where they came from to Bethlehem. Evelyn Waugh has an interesting take on the journey in his excellent little book, Helena. (Helena was the mother of Emperor Constantine.) At the end of the book – and the end of her own life’s journey to and through faith – she concludes of the Magi:

Like me,… you were late in coming… How laboriously you came, taking sights and calculating, where the shepherds had run barefoot! How odd you looked on the road, attended by what outlandish liveries, laden with such preposterous gifts! …

Yet you came, and were not turned away. You too found room before the manger. Your gifts were not needed, but they were accepted and put carefully by, for they were bought with love…

You are my especial patrons, … and patrons of all late-comers, of all who have a tedious journey to make to the truth, of all who are confused with knowledge and speculation, of all who through politeness make themselves partners in guilt, of all who stand in danger by reason of their talents…

For His sake who did not reject your curious gifts, pray always for all the learned, the oblique, the delicate. Let them not be quite forgotten at the Throne of God when the simple come into their kingdom.

The older I get, the more sympathetic I become to those who struggle to believe that God is there or that he loves them. I am referring to those who don’t reject Christian faith out of some intellectually fundamentalist snobbery or wilful ignorance, but, perhaps even reluctantly, are full of questions and doubts and struggles with the integrity or reality of it all. Maybe Epiphany is really for them.

But I want to associate with them a character I have written about in Scandal of Grace (I think): Zebedee. Zebedee was the father of James and John, the disciples of Jesus. When his boys left their nets and went walkabout with Jesus, Zebedee must have consented to their going. Furthermore, he must have then had the responsibility of finding or hiring others to do the work his sons had now left behind them. In other words, he made their discipleship possible – and he paid the price for their commitment.

I have heard many sermons about discipleship in which people like Peter and Andrew and James and John are held out as the model for radical discipleship. I have never heard a sermon in which Zebedee is held up to be the model of most people’s discipleship: unspectacular and undramatic, keeping the show on the road and the cash coming in in order to allow the others to go off and do the ‘holy’ stuff.

So, at this Epiphany I salute the Magi-like searchers and the Zebedees of this world – who might just encourage those who journey, search, get easily distracted and just keep the routines going while others do the ‘glory’ stuff.

The world is in financial and economic recession. Israel continues its violence against Gaza – to what possible end? Mugabe continues to disregard the world’s horror at his corruption and scorn for his people. Climate change cannot be ignored. There is a lot going on and everywhere I go people are asking hard questions about the future.

I was in a church in Croydon this morning and tried to bring together the insecurities of the real world into which ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us’ and the one we inhabit. Wise men travelled to find what God’s own people missed and, at what we call Epiphany, allowed the light of a star to shine into the darkness of oppression, violence, paranoia and mendacity. (Read Matthew 2:1-12) We don’t know what 2009 will hold, but we do know there will have to be changes not only in the ways we live and the choices we make, but also in the values that drive us. The ‘blind growth’ view of economics is being weighed in the balance. And people feel very insecure about themselves, their ‘normality’ and the future of the world itself.

So, it might be timely to recall that Christian hope is rooted not in a system or a prognosis, but in a person. The God who came among us in Jesus of Nazareth is one who is unashamed to live with vulnerability and insecurity (a baby born in an obscure part of the Roman-occupied Middle East) and is unafraid to show the wounds of real life when the risen Christ holds up wounded hands and invites the world to touch them. This God is one who has refused to let the violence, destruction and death of the world have the final word – God has the final word and it sounds like ‘resurrection’.

This sober rumination has just reminded me of the great Beautiful South song that exposes:

A plastic world and we’re all plastic too
Just a couple of different faces in a dead man’s queue
The world is turning Disney and there’s nothing you can do
You’re trying to walk like giants but you’re wearing Pluto’s shoes

And the answers fall easier from the barrel of a gun
Than it does from the lips of the beautiful and the dumb
The world won’t end in darkness, it’ll end in family fun
With Coca Cola clouds behind a Big Mac sun.

Epiphany whispers light into a dark world and invites us to look for the God of substance beneath the veneers of security we crave.

This certainly puts into perspective matters such as the future of the Anglican Communion and those internal churchy matters which seem to fill some people’s lives and internet preoccupations. Having blogged the entire two weeks back in July/August 2008, I have just written a review of the Lambeth Conference six months on and it will appear on the Fulcrum website in the next couple of days. I will provide the link when I know what it is. But it all needs to be kept in sharp perspective as the sideshow it is to the real stuff of the Kingdom of God.