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The Epiphany of our Lord

Fr. David Curry

King's College, Halifax, January 11 AD 2001


“They saw...they came...they worshipped”


It may be, as someone recently remarked to me, that had the wise men been women, they would have gotten there on time and presented more practical gifts! Yet the gifts of the Magi have another purpose. They are profoundly symbolic: “sacred gifts of mystic meaning”. In short, they are gifts that teach. Both the gifts of the Magi and the journey of the Magi wonderfully illustrate something of the nature of the Epiphany.


Epiphany marks at once the beginning and the end of Christmas. We meet this evening within the Octave of the Feast of the Epiphany. With the story of the coming of the wise men from the east who brought gifts to the child Christ, it seems, thereby breaking-in to Bethlehem, Christmas is omni populo, for all people - and so there is the beginning of Christmas for the whole world. But with the break-out from Bethlehem which Epiphany also signifies, there is a new and different focus. There is a journey, both a journeying to Bethlehem and a journeying from Bethlehem to Jerusalem. And yet, the deeper meaning and significance of God with us is the critical lesson in the journeying from Bethlehem. Something of Bethlehem continues with us.


The mystery of God with us is the mystery revealed, the mystery made manifest. Epiphany is more than a day and a season. It signals a doctrine - a teaching. Indeed, the teaching that it signals is the teaching of God - God making himself known to us through the conditions of our humanity; God teaching us something about what he wants and seeks for us. We are opened out to the mystery of God with us. We are taught something about what belongs to the truth of our humanity from within the conditions of our brokenness. We learn, it seems, even from the little ones.


Christ is God’s “great little one” to whom the great of the earth - kings in their power and the wise in their wisdom – “come and worship”. The mystery of Christmas cannot stay hidden in some remote corner of the world; it must needs break out from the confines of little Bethlehem. In the coming of the Magi from afar (they are the prototypical come-from-away’s!) the whole world in its desiring to know is understood to have its place and its fulfilment in this story.


The wise men followed a star. As Lancelot Andrews observes, “Viderant, Venerunt, Adoraverunt”, they saw, they came, they worshipped. They acted upon what they saw. If Advent invites us to “come and see”, the emphasis of Epiphany is upon vision, upon what is seen and then followed. They entered into the understanding of what they saw and sought. There is a break through of the understanding for them and for us. And it changes everything. Like the Magi, we do not return in the same way. We are changed by the encounter with what we have been given to see.


Alistair MacLeod in his short story ‘The Closing Down of Summer’ tells the story of a group of hard-rock miners from Cape Breton who go all over the world digging mine-shafts. The story is told in the awareness of the passing away of traditional Maritime ways of life but with the strong desire, on the part of the narrator, to convey something of the meaning of his life to his family. The struggle lies in his awareness at once of the necessity and the difficulty of communicating an understanding of his life and his experience. How does one convey the substance of the tradition that defines you? He finds a quote from his daughter’s university text-book on literature, “the private experience, if articulated with skill, may communicate an appeal that is universal beyond the limitations of time or landscape”, and wonders how it applies to him. Mining as a metaphor for life would be trite and trivial if the images of “the breaking down of walls and barriers” in the hope of “breaking through” were only about the overcoming of various obstacles in the pursuit of our individual goals. No. What he seeks is a break through of the understanding which conveys the substance of the tradition of his highland identity.


MacLeod’s novel ‘No Great Mischief’ reworks many of the themes of his short-stories. And like them there is always the awareness, on the one hand, of the passing away of certain traditions and, on the other hand, the endeavour to convey the substance of those traditions. Something universal is understood and communicated through the articulation of traditions even in their passing away. And there is an interplay of traditions through the patterns of understanding that break through them and which connect to other traditions. The short story ends with a mediaeval English lyrical poem which, however fictional, nonetheless conveys something of the traditions of chivalry and romantic love. “I wend to death, a king iwis;/... I wende to be clad in clay”.


The title of his novel, too, is wonderfully ironic and instructive. It is a taken from General Wolfe at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham writing that it would be “no great mischief if they fell”, referring to the Highlanders. There is no great mischief in the passing away of a tradition, it seems, if its substance has been understood and passed down. For then it lives on. It suggests that there is something more than just the continuum of narrative traditions; there is something understood in and through them.


Far from threnodies of regret, MacLeod presents us with eloquent elegies of remembering, a remembering of the interplay of traditions through the understanding. They are like little epiphanies which ultimately belong and have their meaning in the greater epiphany which we continue to celebrate tonight. In other words, something universal is made known through the conditions of our humanity, in and through the passing down and even the passing away of the traditions which shape and define us.


The light which brought the Magi is the light of God in Christ. The light which has come into the world is the light which speaks to our desiring to know in the face of the awareness of our unknowing and uncertainty; in short, our darkness.


Epiphany signals the light of God as having engaged all the conditions of our humanity. It means no longer a judgment from above but from within. It signals illumination and restoration - the healing of soul, mind and body. Its lessons are the lessons of human redemption; the redemption of desire, the redemption of our knowing and the redemption of our being. There is light and healing from within the conditions of our humanity. The conditions of our brokenness and our darkness are addressed, not ignored. The miracles of the Gospel most especially belong to the doctrine of the Epiphany.


In John’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that he is “the light of the world”, not once but twice. In both cases, there is a direct relation to the ground, to the dust of our humanity, as it were. In both cases, there is animosity and division - a resistance and a refusal of the good that is wanted to be communicated. In both cases, too, that resistance is ultimately centred on Christ. The teaching that is Epiphany happens in the face of the deep darkness of human sin and folly; after all, “he came unto his own and his own received him not”.


The teaching is at once written in the dust of our humanity - as in the story of the woman taken in adultery to whom Jesus, writing we know not what in the dust with his finger, speaks words of forgiveness and grace and bids her “go and sin no more”, which we do know because of what has been written in the witness of the Scriptures. And the teaching uses the dust of the ground with the spittle of Christ to make a salve to heal the man born blind. Healing and illumination are just so closely united.


Something of the significance of Epiphany is captured in the window above the high altar here in the Chapel. It is the story of Child Christ teaching in the Temple at Jerusalem. There is a journey - a breaking out from Bethlehem and a going to Jerusalem. But God goes with us on that journey. It is the journey of illumination and healing, the pilgrimage of salvation. And the lessons are for all of us at every stage of our lives.


Jesus at the age of twelve makes the journey to Jerusalem. He goes with Mary and Joseph and he goes with us in the journey of the soul to God. He teaches us from within the conditions of our humanity that we are to journey in the humility of children under the tutelage of the wise, the learned doctors of the law in the temple. But Christ is something more, or better, something other. He is God with us. The wise and the learned sit at his feet in that wonderful reversal of roles where the Child becomes the Teacher. Such is the wisdom of God. Such is the break through of the understanding.


We are set upon a new foundation, the foundation of grace perfecting nature from the youngest to the eldest. The journey is the journey of the soul seeking understanding, like those wise men long ago. The journey is not by ourselves alone. It is the journey of God with us. And always, it begins and ends with worship, a kind of wonder at something understood.


“They saw...they came...they worshipped”