Saturday, January 09, 2021
Sermon for the Epiphany 2021
How have things been for you this Christmas time? I know many things have felt very different. For me, who first started singing in church when I was 8, it was quite extraordinary to travel through Advent and Christmas with barely a note passing my lips.It turns out that it is singing, even more than the presence of those I love most, that really makes Christmas happen for me. I wonder what it is for you? Is it attending Midnight Mass, and then coming out into the star-filled night and knowing that Christ is born once again? Is it joining your friends to worship God in a beloved building? Or getting out the boxes of decorations that link us each year with Christmases past? Perhaps its the smells – of pineneedles as the tree is brought in, or hot mincepies or the spicey steaminess of wine mulling on the hob? I wonder what we could leave out, and still have all the Christmas we need? Perhaps Christmas 2020, so radically different from all the years that had preceded it, might have been the year we found out. Music aside, I was startled by just how important it became to me to get presents to all the beloved people I would not be seeing as usual. The day after covid burst our Christmas bubbles I suddenly found it imperative to research ways to get parcels swiftly to London. Of course I knew full well that Christmas is not, and has never been, all about the presents – but somehow all my love and longing and sadness at separation needed somewhere to go and became focussed on the necessity for absent family to open something from me on Christmas day. When my email pinged to let me know that parcels had arrived safely I felt a joy which, I suspect, far outstripped that of the recipients who were, after all, largely getting the books they had asked for. So I’ve been thinking about gifts and giving as we come to this feast that celebrates the Magi and their intrepid journey to deliver the presents that came laden with added significance, but which must have seemed SUCH a disappointment to that beleagured little family in backstreet Bethlehem.. You will know the old joke, that wise women would have arrived prepared to clean up the house, and brought practical gifts including a casserole...but that’s not the point, is it. Those presents are there as pointers for us – to tell us something not about the givers but about the recipient. They are a set of clues pointing to the identity of the child. One of our unsung carols makes this clear as we see the child reflected in the gifts: as royalty, worthy to be crowned with gold; as one to whom prayers could be directed – Let my prayers rise before you as incense; as one whose mortality, as a body to be embalmed one day, was as much part of his nature as is his divinity. Matthew’s account of the coming of the magi is full of prompts for us, who travel so far behind them...but for those first travellers what was the point of their adventure? Were we there for a birth or a death, ask T S Eliot. Certainly the encounter would be life-changing...as it still is for us. When we come face to face with the reality of God as a human baby, our ideas about what matters most must be turned upside down. Those things which had seemed all important are revealed as trivial. The things we thought we knew are swept away as we enter a new reality. And yet, for us as for the Magi, that moment of encounter, of epiphany – of knowing that we are seeing the truth of God’s love present in a tiny child – will often come without fanfare or fireworks or wild excitement. Eliot tells us that “finding the place was, you may say, satisfactory”...It might seem a strange word but this encounter is truly enough, leaving them, leaving us, wanting and needing nothing more. God is here and we are here. The whole world contained in that moment of revelation. All our senses can desire, indeed. And that sense of having enough – or being content to be ourselves before God, exactly where we are may perhaps be a gift we can consciously take from the struggles of 2020. To know God is with us whatever life has thrown at us is to know that we have everything we really need. Certainly, though we cannot safely gather together to worship Christ in our Cathedral today there is no virus on earth that can prevent us from kneeling in love and awe exactly where we are, and exactly as we are, right here and right now. And – we can offer our gifts. But – what would he like? What should we bring? Another unsung carol, Peter Cornelius’s setting of “The Kings”, suggests an answer. “Gold, incense, myrrh thou canst not bring. Offer thy heart to the Infant King” Offer thy heart. What does that mean in practice for you and for me? Sometimes faith seem more of head than heart – which is nonsense, of course, because in some ways faith makes no rational sense at all. Nevertheless, its practice really can feel like a barren, intellectual exercise at times– and during the perplexities of the past year I have encountered many for whom that has been true, who have struggled to reconcile what they believed they knew about a loving God with their experience of grief and suffering. I have tried to reassure them that feelings are a very poor guide to reality, since they can be as changeable as the weather...so that the warmth of certainty can be as apt to vanish as the sun on a cloudy day. But, in the same way that we know that the sun still shines, even if we do not experience its warmth, we can know that those truths in which we believe continue their reality whether they FEEL true or not. But if faith is to make its way from head to heart, if we are serious about offering our heart to Jesus, what does that mean? One thing, I suppose, is that our hearts are places of honesty. If we speak from the heart, then we do so without any pretence or concealment. If our hearts are wounded, even broken, that’s part of what we bring with us to the Christ child. Always, surely, we bring our love – but to express that we may need to turn from the manger to meet Christ in yet more unexpected places. The Magi imagined that their destination would be a royal palace – that they would celebrate Christmas, if you will, amid all the panoply of majesty and power – but found themselves in an obscure back street with a deceptively ordinary family. They discovered what they could miss out and yet have all the Epiphany they needed. As we find ourselves at home once again, may we learn to recognise and to love Christ there...to offer him our hearts through acts of kindness to tiresome neighbours, frustrating delivery teams, exhausted checkout staff. If we can learn to love him in the ordinary and the broken corners of our lives and of our world then each of us will have all that we need to sustain our relationship no matter what the year ahead may bring. And that will be, you may say, satisfactory.