The Epiphany of our Lord
Readings: Isaiah 60. 1-16, Matthew 2. 1-12 (view all)
May I, first of all, take this opportunity to wish you all a happy, safe and healthy new year.
The season of the Epiphany is one that’s traditionally linked to the visit of the magi to the young Jesus, with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. But the season lasts much longer than simply the services held around January 6th, the actual feast day. It also takes in the Baptism of Christ by John in the Jordan and the first miracle that Jesus did at the wedding in Cana. These events are as much part of the epiphany, the ‘making manifest’, as the visit of the magi. Epiphany is a rich season, that gives us time to reflect on the ways in which the true nature of Jesus was revealed. First, to the gentiles, the magi from afar, as king of the Jews; then at his baptism when the voice from heaven was heard declaring, ‘This is my Son, my beloved’; and finally at the wedding as water was turned into wine – the first of his signs, as the gospel writer John describes it.
Epiphany, then, confirms for us that Jesus is not just the new born king of the Jews, but the Messiah – divine as well as human, God’s Christ for the whole world, who comes to transform, to reconcile and to redeem us. As such, Epiphanytide (which will last until Candlemas on February 2nd) gives prominence to the heart of the church’s mission, which is to make manifest, make known Christ in the world. We do that through our worship together and our faithfulness, seeking God’s desire for us in prayer. We try to pattern our lives after the life of Jesus; giving ourselves in love and service to one another and to the communities in which God has placed us. And we work with others to be a voice for the poor, to stand up against the many injustices of our world and to ensure a long term and sustainable future for our damaged planet. All that is good and reflects well the five marks of mission that the Anglican Church across the world holds to. But there is another way.
The people who’ve taught me most about this are people with significant learning disabilities; some of the people that I worked alongside when I was Chaplain to the Deaf Community and those that I met during my short time in the Manchester L’arche Community on my sabbatical. The thing I quickly discovered in L’arche was that the people living there who have learning disabilities are utterly themselves. There’s no sense in which they try to be something they aren’t or put on a show for other the benefit of others or behave in ways that seek to please. For the simple reason that they don’t have the capacity to do that. In that sense, there is a genuineness and an authenticity about them that makes them a gift. Of course, they’re not perfect; none of us are. And they can be very challenging, as can we all be. But they’re trusting of others, take great joy in the simple things of life and, as I’ve said, are utterly themselves in the moment.
However, the thing that struck me most in those months I spent time with them was how laid bare I felt when I was with them. For I too was forced to be genuine, authentic and real. I discovered that the social niceties that ease our regular day to day conversation and skate around the awkward moments are not there. They’re unimpressed with any of the things that we might think important: our status, gifting or eloquence. The usual masks that we put on, even without knowing it, make no impression on them. In their company we’re invited simply to be who we are and nothing else.
In those months I learnt a lot about myself and about the ways in which we try and cover up our fragility and vulnerabilities out of fear and shame and a sense of inadequacy. But Christ is no more taken in by our pretences and cover ups than are people with learning difficulties. Christ longs for us to be free from all that because it’s the essence of who we are, the person he created us to be and not the person we think we should be, that makes us beautiful and a gift to others. And that can take a life-time for us to discover.
In Jesus, we see God taking on our flesh and living a human life with all it’s fragility and vulnerability, it’s failures and disappointments. It is this Jesus that we’re called to make manifest, to make known, through embracing the gift of who we are and offering that gift of ourselves back to him for him to use as he will.
As that wonderful Epiphany hymn puts it:
Vainly we offer each ample oblation,
Vainly with gifts would his favour secure:
Richer by far is the heart’s adoration,
Dearer to God are the prayers of the poor.