The Epiphany Pages

The meaning of the season, poems centred on the Epiphany,
and two sermons preached on the theme at St Faith's

Liturgical and Poetic Thoughts
for Epiphanytide

In the Western churches, the Epiphany (‘manifestation’) became an occasion to celebrate one element in the story of Christ’s birth, the visit of the far-travelled magi, understood as the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.

Matthew’s account speaks simply of ‘wise men from the east’; later tradition fixed their number at three, made them kings and recalled their resonant names – Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. In this perspective, Epiphanytide is an apt season to pray for the worldwide mission of the Church. The feast of the Conversion of St Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, appropriately falls in the Epiphany season, as does the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. In the Eastern churches, the Epiphany is, rather, the celebration of Christ’s baptism at the hands of John, when the heavens were opened and a voice from heaven declared Jesus to be God’s beloved Son. The miracle of Cana in Galilee, where Jesus ‘first manifested his glory’, follows immediately:

Manifest at Jordan’s stream,
Prophet, Priest, and King supreme;
and at Cana wedding-guest
in thy Godhead manifest.
(Christopher Wordsworth)

The arrangement of the Sundays of Epiphany in the Revised Common Lectionary deliberately draws out these aspects.

The season of joyful celebration that begins at Christmas now continues through the successive Sundays of Epiphany, and the festal cycle ends only with the Feast of the Presentation (Candlemas).The child who has been manifested to the magi at his birth is now recognized by Simeon and Anna, when he comes to be presented in the Temple according to the Law of Israel.

He is both ‘a light to lighten the Gentiles’ and ‘the glory of God’s people Israel’. But the redemption he will bring must be won through suffering; the Incarnation is directed to the Passion; and Simeon’s final words move our attention away from the celebration of Christmas and towards the mysteries of Easter.

(from the liturgical resource “Times and Seasons”)

  A Lesson in Humility

The wise men got it wrong.
It is much harder to receive
than to give.

Frances Copsey


may we not hoard,
but freely give
the gold of our hearts,
the myrrh of our grief,
the frankincense of our dreams,
to You.

Mary Palmer

  Winter Blessing

When sleet blinds you, hail drowns out voices
and snow hides your path,
may you discern in each flake
a star, image of the one
that guided the Magi,
and find that in the pain
of birth, death or change
there is a light
to guide you. 

Mary Palmer

  The Travellers

It was the light that struck me first.
The jeweled sea
clear as the Aegean.

The panoply -
the depth of colour that heightened a profound experience
and left me tired.

My senses were bombarded:

Soft white sand.

Whipping winds
whistling round the abbey,
snuffing out the pew candles on dark mornings,
reminding us of our insignificance within nature.

Rocks that geologists came and tapped
with their little hammers –
the third oldest piece of
land on Earth.

But more than this exotica were the people
who had followed their own starts.
Wise men and women who came from afar
and found a motley crew of fellow travellers
trying to discover the next stage of their journeys.

These pilgrimages stayed a little while
and sang their songs
and delighted in each other’s.

Travellers are rarely welcomed:
gypsies, asylum seekers, homeless folk, new age travellers,
people moving to a new town, disciples …
they sing different songs, new songs, fresh songs,
exciting and disturbing with their novelties.

Troubadour troupes that sing new harmonies
that echo in the memory
long after departure.

Pat Livingstone

  Epiphany 2002

By the time the Magi came
the decorations had been taken down,
the tree untrimmed, the baubles packed away.
Twilight gave way to starlight as they came:
Saturn was bright among the Hyades
and Jupiter from Gemini looked down.
Strange gifts they brought and urgent questioning:
“Where is the king whose birth you celebrate?”

We did not know. Our Christmas junketing
had scarcely left us time to think of him.
Gold as a present they had brought for him;
“A gift”, they murmured, “worthy of a king”,
and we agreed. Their other gifts, we thought,
were less appropriate. Incense and myrrh
bore overtones of worship and of death.

The first we’d left behind in Sunday School
and of the second seldom cared to think.
Their questions and their gifts disturbed us.
The king they sought we viewed with some unease.

Eager, we’ve been, to celebrate his birth,
much less so to accept his sovereignty.
To ‘love our neighbours as we loved ourselves’,
his firm command, we’d found too difficult.

“Go home”, we urged them, “by another way.
The world is little changed since last you came.
Still Herod’s hand is red in Bethlehem
and still for murdered children Rachel weeps.”

  The Three Kings

Three Kings came riding from far away,
 Melchior and Caspar and Baltasar;
Three Wise Men out of the East were they,
And they travelled by night and they slept by day,
For their guide was a beautiful, wonderful star.

The star was so beautiful, large, and clear,
 That all the other stars of the sky
Became a white mist in the atmosphere,
And by this they knew that the coming was near
Of the Prince foretold in the prophecy.

Three caskets they bore on their saddle-bows,
Three caskets of gold with golden keys;
Their robes were of crimson silk with rows
Of bells, pomegranates and furbelows,
Their turbans like blossoming almond-trees.

And so the Three Kings rode into the West,
Through the dusk of night, over hill and dell,
And sometimes they nodded with beard on breast
And sometimes talked, as they paused to rest,
With the people they met at some wayside well.

"Of the child that is born," said Baltasar,
"Good people, I pray you, tell us the news;
For we in the East have seen his star,
And have ridden fast, and have ridden far,
To find and worship the King of the Jews."

And the people answered, "You ask in vain;
 We know of no king but Herod the Great!"
They thought the Wise Men were men insane,
As they spurred their horses across the plain,
Like riders in haste, and who cannot wait.

And when they came to Jerusalem,
Herod the Great, who had heard this thing,
Sent for the Wise Men and questioned them;
And said, "Go down unto Bethlehem,
And bring me tidings of this new king."

So they rode away; and the star stood still,
The only one in the gray of morn
Yes, it stopped, it stood still of its own free will,
Right over Bethlehem on the hill,
The city of David, where Christ was born.

And the Three Kings rode through the gate and the guard,
Through the silent street, till their horses turned
And neighed as they entered the great inn-yard;
But the windows were closed, and the doors were barred,
And only a light in the stable burned.

And cradled there in the scented hay,
In the air made sweet by the breath of kine,
The little child in the manger lay,
The child, that would be king one day
Of a kingdom not human but divine.

His mother Mary of Nazareth
Sat watching beside his place of rest,
Watching the even flow of his breath,
For the joy of life and the terror of death
Were mingled together in her breast.

They laid their offerings at his feet:
The gold was their tribute to a King,
The frankincense, with its odor sweet,
Was for the Priest, the Paraclete,
The myrrh for the body's burying.

And the mother wondered and bowed her head,
And sat as still as a statue of stone;
Her heart was troubled yet comforted,
Remembering what the Angel had said
Of an endless reign and of David's throne.

Then the Kings rode out of the city gate,
With a clatter of hoofs in proud array;
But they went not back to Herod the Great,
For they knew his malice and feared his hate,
And returned to their homes by another way.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

  Journey Of The Magi

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.

Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of  vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped in away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no imformation, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say)  stisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death?  There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like
Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

T. S. Eliot


The Morning Star

A sermon preached at St Faith's on Sunday, January 4th, 2009 by Fred Nye

‘O come thou dayspring’ - ‘Fairer than the sun at morning’

Our Epiphany hymns sound like an astronomer’s anthem of praise to Venus, the morning star.  Venus, who heralds the dawn, far outshining in beauty any of her companions, and on a moonless night the only light in the heavens bright enough to cast a shadow.

It is typical of Christian symbolism that it took over this ancient and iconic pagan image, and turned it first into the star of Bethlehem, and then into a metaphor for the Christ Child. There is even a passage at the end of the book of Revelation where Our Lord describes himself in the same poetic language: ‘I Jesus….. am of David’s line, the root of David and the bright star of the morning’.

There are two stumbling blocks to true Christian belief and commitment, two ideas that are genuinely difficult to accept. One is the assertion that God really can intervene in the affairs of earth, and the other is that his love is so great that it includes everything and everyone in its embrace. But the image of Christ as the morning star proclaims just those two truths. His glorious new light dawning on the world is visible to everyone, illuminates everyone. ‘And we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.’

Full of grace and truth.  I find it extraordinary that in the ‘Arabian Nights’ story of the star and the wise men we are shown what to expect from these gifts of Grace and Truth. Again, Christians have seen layer after layer of meaning in the presents these strangers gave to the infant Jesus, presents from Arabs to a Jew who was himself the founder of the New Israel, the Christian church.

It is the last-named present, the myrrh, which provides the key to the mystery of the gifts. Myrrh was an exotic aromatic resin, certainly a present fit for a King. But for the disciples of Jesus down the centuries it has quite another connotation. At his crucifixion Jesus was offered, but refused, wine spiked with myrrh to try to deaden the pain. And St. John tells us that the wealthy Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes to anoint Jesus’ body as it was laid in the tomb.

So myrrh has come to represent failure, pain and death.  Or rather it reminds us that Jesus shares with us mortals the tragedies of failure, pain and death.  In the West we are so obsessed with success that we have lost sight of the fact that Emmanuel, God with us, can ever be found in the dark places of our lives. In Africa, it’s different.  Those of us at St. Faith’s who have had the privilege of visiting the poorest parts of  that continent will know that the people suffer from hunger, poverty, disease, deprivation and the worst forms of human abuse and insecurity. And yet they dance, they dance, men and women and children. They give and share, generously and sacrificially. And they tell you time and time again, and apparently against all the evidence, that God is good! Perhaps the worst form of evil is not failure or death or disease or poverty, perhaps it is despair. Once we recognise Emmanuel in the dark places of life, and of the world, we are given the hope and strength to transform them.

Incense, as they say, needs no introduction if you are a regular member of St. Faith’s and St. Mary’s. In the iconography of the Epiphany it stands for the Priesthood of Our Lord, reminding us that Jesus, like the sweet smoke drifting upwards, unites earth with heaven. Through his perfect human life, offered to God and to all humankind, he has transformed our whole relationship with our Creator and with one another. We are forgiven and reconciled, we breathe together the sweet air of heaven, we share with everyone on the planet the God-given breath of life. But it all comes at a price. Our Lord achieved our redemption, our reconciliation, by a sacrificial life, and a sacrificial death. And by his example we are called to follow him. There can be no peace between human beings without costly and self-giving sacrifices. That truth has to be recognised everywhere, from Mumbai to Darfur, from the Congo to Israel and Gaza.  But before we all get too complacent here at home let’s remember that so often our prosperity has been built on other people’s money, our trade on other people’s poverty, and that our comfort has so often been bought at the expense of global climate change and the ruin of our environment. In the end we will all have to give, to give rather than to take or to borrow, if human kind is to be reconciled and if the world is to prosper.

‘Gold the King of Kings proclaimeth’. In the gift of gold, Christ is recognised as King of Kings and Prince of Peace. His birth, life and death ushered in God’s reign, and earth became the realm of heaven. And through his life and death Our Lord has taught us that we, as the citizens of this Kingdom, have to keep only one rule, only one Law, the law of Love. Jesus accepted everyone he met as equally valued and loved by God his Father.  Jesus offered forgiveness and acceptance to all, to the respectable and well to do, to traitors and petty crooks, to strangers and foreigners, to the dissolute and the despised. Christians have always seen in the story of the Epiphany the welcoming into the Kingdom of even the most unlikely people - pagans and gentiles, strangers and foreigners with exotic and disturbing habits and customs - men and women with strange faiths and beliefs or with none at all. In the Kingdom of God all are welcome, all are loved, and all are equal.

‘O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness’. At the feast of the Epiphany we see Jesus revealed in glory, in the glory of vulnerability and self-giving. He is revealed in the dark places of the world and of our lives, in the costly reconciliation that brings peace between human beings, and in the scandal of holy love which is offered equally to everyone. In 2009 and beyond it is likely that we will have to cope with genuinely unprecedented crises and evils: the re-emergence of so-called holy wars: the collapse of capitalism: and the destruction of the natural processes which hitherto have preserved life on earth. No doubt the usual remedies will be proposed: more separation and alienation, more measures to preserve wealth at the expense of people’s lives and of the natural world, more troops and more bombings. But we need instead the gifts of Grace and Truth as found in Jesus, the morning star of revelation. And today we have seen the dawning of that star, and have come to worship Him.

Following the Star

CLICK HERE for a sermon preached at St Faith's on the Eve of the Epiphany, 2011 by Revd Denise McDougall

And an absurd cartoon to round the season off...

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