Monday, January 9, 2017

Epiphany Problems

Reflection: Epiphany and the Baptism of the Lord

Matthew 2.1-12

I find the Sundays after Christmas more than a little confusing.  This is the time when the Church tries to grasp the mystery of the Incarnation.  On the Feast of the Epiphany, when we celebrate the revelation of Christ to the non-Jewish world, the custom is that we pack up the Christmas tree and all the Christmas decorations, including the crib, and hurry them away – among them being the figures of the three Kings (sages, wise men) who, led by the star, are the gospel for the feast .  That particular detail really confuses me as with these figures stashed away for another year, Epiphany disappears from sight: the country goes on holiday; the choir is in recess; the Cathedral inhabits what feels to be a kind of liturgical limbo. 

It gets more complicated: we have not experienced Epiphany and immediately after that Feast of 6th January, on the first Sunday of Epiphany, we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus.  Chronologically it feels as if all sequence is lost – in a matter of days we have progressed from Christ’s birth to the beginning of his adult ministry.  Upon reflection I realise that this is an emotional impasse rather than a cognitive problem. The truth is that the desire for sequence and chronology, however understandable, is absurd and futile: we cannot tell the 'story of God' and none of the gospels fill in the gaps.  Our liturgical shift from the birth to the baptism is a thematic adjustment, a tightening of focus, as the church explores Epiphany and contemplates the revelation of who Christ is.

At the heart of Epiphany is the legend of the wise men or 3 Kings/sages who make their way to Bethlehem, led by a star.  These three men are ‘outsiders’ in the gospel narrative: they are not Jews, but their response to the star makes them ‘insiders’, the story grafts them into the gospel and, with them, all of us.  Even to think of them is to be influenced by extra-biblical sources, most notably T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Journey of the Magi.  Eliot shapes their story by presenting it as a journey, a gradual process of transformation, that is life-changing.  Elements of doubt, of hardship, and indeed of danger constantly accompany them.   In the first section we hear of the hardships, difficulty and doubt – note always the presence of doubt and uncertainty (a constant feature of the Christian journey) “the voices singing in our ears, saying / That this was all folly.”

The brief middle section of the poem concludes the journey at Bethlehem in ambiguous terms and without any great sense of triumph
“And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.”
In that deliberate understatement, that calculated sense of bathos, we find the collision of our humanity with the otherness of God.  Who is this that the sages have travelled half a world away to find?  It seems so little.  Can we discern God even when en-fleshed amidst us?  That is the nagging question that Epiphany presents us.  We have a talent for not seeing what we need to see!

This is also the question that the final section of Eliot’s poem engages.  How can one be certain of what has been experienced?  This is an epistemological question: how do we ever really know what we know?  In the poem the narrator looks back over time, mulls the questions over and concludes:
“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.”

In these terms we see that the journey into God changes us, there is a kind of death and no going back.  The Eliot's narrator traces a spiritual journey we all may make; a journey that may make what we previously considered ‘home’ seem alien.  In a word, Epiphany is an unsettling season that draws us far beyond our ‘comfort zones’ and into something new.

Which thought, that Epiphany draws into something new, seems to answer the questions I began with: showing us that Epiphany is thematically connected with the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, because Jesus’ baptism shows us who Jesus is.  Both incarnation and baptism are revelations that shock us into wonder: it is a ‘shock’ that God is revealed in human flesh to be adored by the sages; likewise the Baptism of Christ extends the shock of the incarnation – as the adult Christ 'fulfils all righteousness'.  Christ leads the way for us by submitting to baptism: he holds nothing back; he embraces our full humanity; by his immersion in the waters he symbolically embraces death; and by his rising from the waters he begins his ministry and invites us to follow him.
The Journey Of The Magi
A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'
And the camels galled, sorefooted, 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 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 information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

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.

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