A sermon for the Epiphany

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his is a version of the Epiphany sermon preached by Jamie Howison at saint benedict’s table when we marked the feast together.  It is slightly expanded here, by the inclusion of a lengthy citation from the closing section of W. H. Auden’s long poetic cycle, For the Time Being: a Christmas Oratorio.

Well, so that is that.  Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes –
Some have got broken – and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school.  There are enough
Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week –
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted – quite unsuccessfully –
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers.  Once again
As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility, once again we have sent Him away,
Begging though to remain His disobedient servant
The promising child who cannot keep His word for long.
The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory,
And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware
Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought
Of Lent and Good Friday, which cannot, after all, now
Be very far off.

One more story to be told, one more glass to be raised, before we move back to what counts as normal during the cold winter in this prairie city of ours.  Oh, we stay in this season called Epiphanytide for another month or so, with its great themes of light in darkness and of new things revealed, but in so many ways once the Christmas season has passed, winter here is just cold and dark.  The burst of light and warmth and joy that is Christmas fades – was it really just twelve days ago that we marked Christmas Eve? – and we hunker down against the snow and chill.I wonder, would it have been so very different for the magi of whom Matthew writes in his telling of the gospel?  Wise men, star watchers, scholars, whose science had led them out on the road to try to find the king whose birth was signaled by the appearance of a new star?  They’d made their way to Judea – hardly the centre of the world – and had gone, quite sensibly, to the capital city to enquire at the palace as to the whereabouts of this child.They do find a king there.  Herod, the puppet king who holds the throne at the whim of the Roman imperial overlords.  Herod, a notoriously brutal figure, who had already demonstrated a willingness to hold his throne at any cost, including the murder of members of his own family.  Herod is troubled by any hint of a challenge, but plays a smooth game of power politics.  He calls his Jewish advisors, gets the inside information about kingship in Israel – the old scriptures point to Bethlehem as the birthplace of a promised king – and sends the magi back out on their search.

“If you find anything,” he says, “be sure to come back and tell me, so I too can go to pay him his due.”

Nicely handled, your majesty.

Well, they do go to Bethlehem, and they do find this child, but they do not go back to Herod.  Warned in a dream to just leave, they return home by another road.  Herod catches word of this, and sends his death squads in to kill all male children under the age of two, coinciding with the timing of the star of which the magi had spoken.

Nicely handled, your majesty.

But Herod does not get this child, for Joseph had also been warned in a dream, such that by the time the troops roll in the little family is long gone.

It is a dark and troubling story, really, all caught up in violence and plays for power and the politics of empire. But there is this moment in the middle of it which bleeds light.  Those magi – non-Jews, astrologers, scholarly travelers – find that they are suddenly pilgrims confronted by something unexpected.

“And they knelt down, and they paid him homage.”

This is a peasant baby, with his young mother and tradesman father, living in some temporary quarters in a nowhere town, and yet there are the magi, on their knees, offering gifts they’d imagined would have found a place in a palace.  What a strange epiphany – the word means “manifestation” or “showing forth” – indicating something revealed, something shown, that shifts everything.

And then, because of that dream, they are back on their animals, out on a different road, heading home.  As the miles pass, maybe they began to talk.  “What did we see there?”  As the hours on the road turn to days, and the days to weeks, maybe they wonder, “Was it really just 12 days ago?”  And once home, has it all changed for them?  Are they now restless with their old learnings?  Impatient with the sort of thinking that had led them to assume that a king could only be born in a palace?  Ever critical of the Herods and Caesars of the world?  Always longing to have time interrupted by something like new birth, true light, an epiphany?

As we mark our movement out of the great festal season of Christmas into the winter months that will carry us toward Lent, we should seek some companionship with those magi, asking along with them, “Now that we have seen this, what now?”

There is, I believe, nothing more potent to be offered here than to quote the closing lines from W.H. Auden’s long poem For the Time Being, a poetic cycle that explores these biblical themes and stories from Advent to Epiphany.  These are words which encapsulate so very powerfully where we now are:

He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.
He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.
He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.

On the roads of your Epiphanytide, may you encounter the One who is indeed the Way and the Truth and the Life, and in that encounter may you be undone by all that he brings to you.

Amen.

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