Epiphany, 6 January 2013

‘If you knew the gift of God...’ (John 4:10), said Jesus to the woman at the well...

I have sometimes wondered how and when the practice of wrapping up presents began (perhaps in China , with the invention of paper). As a child, the receiving of gifts had distinct stages. Some, at least, arrived by post - wrapped in brown paper and tied with string, usually in firm, geometric forms - squares and rectangles. Then, on Christmas Eve, they appeared by the tree, now in coloured wrapping and all kinds of shapes and sizes. The visual and tactile reception continued even at the authorised unwrapping: first there would be a time of feeling and guessing - what could this be? Of course, sometimes this preparatory phase was better than the reality: the present itself could sometimes disappoint.

On this feast of the Epiphany, a feast quite rich and complex enough in meaning, gift and response, we are suddenly like children round the tree faced with the familiar and the unfamiliar, the expected and the unexpected - and all confronting us in the guise of gifts to be received, given and shared.

As a community we want to give thanks for the gift of George, beginning another five years as Superior - and for each other and the process that has brought us to this point. We also want to give thanks for the gift of Jacob, whom we are encouraging to make temporary profession, that next step in the offering of his life with ours in the service of Christ. We want to give thanks for our brother Andrew, for the gift of his life and ministry, both before he entered the Community and after. The latter part of his journey from this world took a fair old while but his leave-taking finally wrapped itself around the feast of the Incarnation with the vigil and Requiem on O Sapientia and the burial of his ashes on this feast of the Epiphany: and that too is gift.

As if all that were not enough, we rejoice today with Jan who will take that most exciting, most unfathomable journey through the waters of baptism and emerge for ever marked as Christ’s soldier and servant.

On the twelfth day of Christmas this is beginning to sound as entwined and entangled as the events which Shakespeare turned into his twelfth night comedy. Perhaps this is not so strange. The gospel narrative which forms the heart of our liturgy is itself not as straightforward as is sometimes appears. Who is giving gifts to whom? What does this encounter tell us? Is the star truly an astrological messenger?

‘If you knew the gift of God,’ says Jesus...

Last Sunday we followed Jesus on his pilgrimage to the temple: today, we journey with the three Kings on their pilgrimage; representatives, we presume, of different peoples and cultures, who have been drawn together by the experiences of the road, by their shared pilgrimage. They cannot know quite what awaits them but they have brought their gifts, their treasures. Dorothy Sayers in her poem ‘The Three Kings’ imagines them representing humanity in every state of life: the first a youngster, a youthful, sad king singing sad ballads and bringing myrrh; the second is in the prime of life and he is a solemn priest, who offers incense with downcast eyes; the third is an old king, who brings gold - not money, but handfuls of gold:

Many a gaud and glittering toy, Baubles brave for a baby boy.

Thus, she marvellously weaves together beginnings and endings, hope and sorrow, loss and gain. In so doing, she also brings us back to our question: who is giving, and who is receiving?

‘If you knew the gift of God’...

Yes, we do give and receive presents - but the joy they occasion cannot be separated from the personal relationships of which they are symbols. The kings cannot, finally, offer anything other than themselves. The miracle is that God too offers Godself. Joining with the three Kings on their pilgrimage to the Lord of light, we are encouraged again to offer ourselves. It is central to the mystery of the Incarnation that God is present to us in this child and divine presence in the vulnerability of a child opens in us the desire to give, to reveal ourselves. It is not, as it were, God unwrapped that we see but simply humanity unwrapped. It is when we can dare to unwrap ourselves, reveal something of the self we prefer to hide, that we begin to discover what Matthew suggests those kings found. Again, there could hardly be a better way of showing our intent than the kind of unwrapping that will be necessary for Jan to meet Jesus in the waters of baptism.

Perhaps now we can begin to grasp something of the exchange, something of that ‘wondrous trafficking’ that is set in motion by God’s coming to dwell among us. God, the Lord of time and space, lies before us in the fragility of a child and so frees us to offer the self that we otherwise hide. In return, God fills us with his life, with power from on high, with the Spirit of truth and love. We, who come to worship the new-born king, are made into witnesses, into bearers of his glory. We who came hoping to offer a gift as a token of our love find ourselves face to face with a gift and, then, ourselves made into gifts - gifts which others may receive - it seems despite ourselves - and certainly with only the tiniest glimmering of understanding on our part. We meet today as the Body of Christ, those baptised into his death and resurrection. We would wish to offer ourselves in the service of the King of love but his grace has overtaken us: his grace prompted our desire and his grace has met our offering with a gift of inexhaustible richness, the gift of his own life and glory. So, in all humility, let us shine as the lights he has made us, witnesses to the gift of life in Christ.


Peter Allan CR