These past few days, all over the world, Christians will be celebrating the Feast of Epiphany and will hear this passage from Matthew’s Gospel–the story of wise men from the East travelling from far away to kneel before the Christ Child. In the Orthodox faith, this festival is of equal importance with Christmas and Easter – a celebration of God made manifest. For the word ‘epiphany’ simply means ‘showing’ or ‘shining forth – manifestation’. But this is not only a feast of God revealing himself, but also a feast of us seeing, paying attention, noticing and embracing strangeness or unexpectedness. You have to be pretty broad minded to travel long distances, and, at the journey’s end to kneel, in all your finery, in dirty hay and worship a homeless child who is lying in a hay dispenser rather than a cot. What the magi saw in Jesus was something both extraordinary and very familiar – the glory of God shining in a child. The miracle was that they saw – they noticed.
If we take time to notice, if we learn to see, this glory is everywhere. It’s in the grand sunset and the muddy puddle, it’s in babies and children and adults, it’s in those we love, and those we don’t. It’s in the radiance of the moon and the sun, but also in the wind, rain and snow. The rich and famous and very alluring, and know how to look their best and literally sparkle, but the glory of God also shines in the poor, the unfashionable – maybe particularly in them. And maybe this is what the Magi had to learn- their wealth, education and status became irrelevant as they saw GOd’s glory blazing forth from this poor, homeless child.
The light which the Magi saw in the Christ Child is there in all created things – but we’ve stopped noticing. I think our, so-called primitive, ancestors saw it more than we do/ Think about the wonderful story from the Old Testament about Moses and the burning bush. In this story the remarkable thing is not that the bush was full of fire and light, but that Moses noticed and stood in awe and wonder.
The maji have more to teach us. These three strange visitors were probably adherents of the mysterious religion of Zoroastrianism. This was a religion of esoteric practices including astrology and magic – Magi is the same word as ‘magic’ and ‘magician’. In these three shadowy characters we find a story about people finding light far beyond that which was familiar to them, far beyond the boundaries of nationality or religion. This is a real challenge to us – we tend to be more comfortable in small worlds where there are certainties and familiar things. Epiphany points to something very different: there is Light beyond our familiar boundaries, even beyond our christian faith. It is possible, perhaps even essential, to find light in the unfamiliar and strange. If we find this startling it is perhaps because we have imagined God to be small and domesticated. In the words of CS Lewis regarding Aslan ‘ he’s not a tame Lion’.
It is enormously risky to seek and find light in that which is unfamiliar. What humility and wisdom it must have taken for these three strangers to pay homage to someone of a different faith – and please remember that Jesus was a Jew, not a Christian. This was a very different approach to that of Herod who, in his own way, recognised the Christ Child and responded with violence. This is the way we most often respond to those who are strange or to us, those whose power we see but do not understand – we lash out to destroy, rather than kneeling in homage.
What happened to the Magi? They disappear from the Gospel stories as quickly as they arrived. From our perspective they disappear into darkness. But I suspect that from their perspective disappearer into dazzling rather than darkness. It seems impossible that their lives would be unchanged by their strange encounter. Maybe they became less certain of their own religion, or at least of its isolated completeness? Maybe they learned to see Light and Wisdom in other faiths and in all sorts of people. Maybe they read the stars with more wonder, having seen the Light and glory of God in the child in the stable. Maybe everything they saw thereafter was infused with light and love.
Over the next few weeks our readings on Sundays will be about manifestations of God’s glory, about moments of enlightenment, glimpses of glory. Maybe we can take time ourselves during this time, to look for that glory, that light, wherever we go. I challenge you to notice God’s glory, to see the light, in Asda, and at work, or at home, and in other people especially those who are unfamiliar to us. May God help us to ‘see’ – to open our eyes to the dazzle and the glory, and be changed forever. AmenTweet