One great advantage still enjoyed (for now at least) by the Church of England, and which I believe it ignores at its peril, is that it is there for everyone – whether or not they happen to be ‘signed up’ members. We see that in the focus for national celebration and mourning provided by places such as Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral, and we had evidence of it right here as recently as Christmas-time. It was, after all, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, who once remarked that the church is perhaps the only organisation that doesn’t exist primarily for the benefit of its own membership, and this is surely a principle that the Feast of the Epiphany enshrines.
Sometimes it takes people from outside our own cultural groups and belief systems to reveal to us riches we are taking for granted. To most local people in that village setting of Bethlehem, a birth in a stable would be squalid, and a social disgrace, or at least, ‘unfortunate’. The main reaction might probably be to pass by as quickly as possible, without comment. We should not dismiss the ‘wisdom’ of the Magi, foreigners who had read in the Hebrew Scriptures references that completely passed-by Jerusalem’s own ‘religious experts’, and had looked for the child ‘born King of the Jews’ and recognised his star at its rising. They create a stir with their steady intent on finding this Messiah – scaring Herod (Judah’s official ‘king’), and surely discomfiting the leaders of the Jerusalem Temple, who feared their precarious tolerance by the occupying Roman authorities to be under threat. They are strangers, outsiders, who yet reveal to us all the divinity of Christ and the worship and the offerings he is owed. Closer to our own time, they bring to my mind the remarkable life of Simone Weil, who became a 20th century mystic. Born a Jew in Paris, and for most of her short life an agnostic, she became consumed by the love of God, and love for God, believing that ‘Christ himself came down and took possession of’ her. She never officially joined the church, and died of tuberculosis in her early 30s whilst serving the French Resistance in London during the 2nd world war; nevertheless her writings have proved an inspiration to Christians and atheists alike – perhaps an Epiphany in their own right.
Simone Weil’s life may have been short, but her spiritual journey was long and eventful, not unlike the Magis’, with many twists and turns and increasing intensity. In the wise mens’ gifts there is rich symbolism. The prophecy of Isaiah (as we heard) had foretold the bringing of Gold and Frankincense. For the Magi the Frankincense represented Christ’s divinity, and the Gold his kingship, but to both of these is added the extra gift of Myrrh – representing his destiny of death on a cross. Simone came to see the Passion of Christ as the only answer to the cruel pain and suffering of so many in the world about which she cared so deeply. Having sought for God and finally encountering him in Jesus Christ she, like the Magi, opened up her treasures – in her case, continuing to reject the comfortable middle-class pursuits and ambitions she’d been born to, and embracing yet more self-denial in a close identification with the poor and the afflicted, pursuing truth, love and purity of intention. Remaining un-baptised she could still write – with absolute authenticity – that ‘contact with God is the true sacrament’. Mindful of this we might find our own prayerful response to this Feast day in the conclusion of a poem on the Epiphany penned by the 17th century English priest-poet whose verse had so influenced her conversion – George Herbert:
O that his light and influence,
Would work effectually in me
Another new Epiphany,
Exhale, and elevate me hence:
That, as my calling doth require,
Star-like I may to others shine;
And guide them to that sun divine,
Whose day-light never shall expire.