Sermon for Friday 6 January 2023
THE EPIPHANY OF THE LORD
The other day, I happened to flick through a copy of the Radio Times: in it, along with the obvious TV, radio and digital listings for the coming week, were interviews with celebrities, details of new series, and even an edifying message from a prominent clergyman. Purely out of curiosity, you understand, I looked at the horoscope on the back page. According to the astrologer, 2023 is going to be a good year for me: my job prospects are looking up, I’m going to come into a lot of money and, notwithstanding the death of someone close to me, I’m going to meet the love of my life. Well, you have to take the rough with the smooth, I suppose. If I believed in such nonsense, I ought to be feeling pretty pleased with myself but, as I don’t, it’s business as usual: I’d rather follow another star.
Today’s feast of the Epiphany is the day on which we celebrate the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus, and thus contemplate the manifestation of God’s revelation of himself to those beyond the Jewish faith – to the Gentiles, to you and to me. Through following the star to Bethlehem, those strange sages from the East represented all humanity to the Christ-child as they laid their gifts before him; they worshipped him on behalf of all those outside the Jewish faith who had gone before, and in anticipation of all who would follow in their steps. And though we never hear of them again after they departed for their own country, the Magi have something important to teach us, who also would worship the Christ-child, and seek to follow him today. For the Magi didn’t actually follow Jesus or, at least, not to begin with: they followed a star. ‘We saw his star as it rose,’ they tell King Herod, ‘and have come to do him homage’. Whether they were astrologers or philosophers, mystics or fortune-tellers, they indulged in that primordial human fascination with the heavens; and particularly that movement of the stars which still enthralls so many. And, whatever ignited their burning curiosity – dogged determination or divine inspiration – these strangers took it upon themselves to follow this new star that had appeared, which led them to Jesus. But I wonder if it was quite as straightforward as that? Before they reached the Christ-child, they allowed their experience and conditioning to get the better of them: seeking someone important – to whom they presumably thought such a significant star must lead – they went to the place where their pre-conceived ideas of power and status ought to lead – they went to Herod’s palace. They took their eyes off the star, followed their own flawed assumptions, and unwittingly contributed to the slaughter of the Innocents, those children murdered because of Herod’s envy, and fear that he might have a rival. The Magi took their eyes off the star, and relied on their own intuition, which led them into danger.
Only when they fixed their eyes back on the star were they led to Jesus: and they didn’t find what they had expected – not a palace but a manger, not laundered sheets but straw, not the sweet smell of scents and spices but the stench of the farmyard. What lay in the manger at the end of their journey was not something, but Someone who would change their lives. It is significant that the last words of our Gospel reading – and the last we hear of the Magi – are, ‘They…returned to their own country by another way’. T. S. Eliot puts into their mouths the words: ‘We returned to our places, these Kingdoms, / But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation’. A genuine encounter with the Christ-child, an infant born in a stable to an ordinary mother in an obscure town in the Roman Empire, may not at first seem very earth-shattering, but in reality it changes everything. The Magi knew that as they left the Holy Family, and so both literally and metaphorically ‘returned to their own country by another way’, no longer to follow a star, but the One to whom that star always leads, Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
And just as it was with those shadowy figures from the East, so it is with us and every human person: because a genuine encounter with Jesus Christ should always leave us at odds with what has gone before, dissatisfied with the past, and no longer content with old certainties, fabled half-truths, and lazy assumptions about God and his dealings with us. When we find Jesus, we too have an epiphany: a moment of absolute clarity when God is real to us, and we know that we are loved. Those moments – rare though they are – may occur during the liturgy, while listening to music, through the beauty of nature, and in our dealings with others; but when- and where-ever they occur, they should always leave us changed – converted from our old ways of living and being, to wanting to follow Jesus more closely, seeking our true fulfilment and purpose in him.
But that’s not quite so easy, is it? There are many stars out there competing for our attention – enticing us with their various attractions; yet none of these lead us to Christ, nor to his truth which alone can set us free. And so, on this feast of the Epiphany, it’s worth asking ourselves which stars we have been following, and whether they lead us to Christ or to Herod; whether they bind us or set us free. Do I follow the stars of celebrity culture and social media fame, causing me to make idols of others and promote an image of myself that is far from who I really am, and the person God has created me to be? Do I follow the star of my own ego, which leads me to feel superior to others, and to expend time, money and energy on the selfish pursuit of my own goals, to the detriment of my relationships, mental well-being and physical health? Do I follow the stars of the heavens and human fables, placing my faith and trust in superstitions and conspiracy theories rather than in the objective truth of God’s revelation of himself in the person of Jesus Christ?
If we are following stars that do not lead us to Jesus, but away from him and possibly even into danger for our souls, minds and bodies, then we need to question whether we ought to be following those stars at all. For in truth, Christ himself is both the star by which we seek him, and the One to whom we are led. The Exsultet at the Easter Vigil speaks of Christ as the Morning Star who never sets, the One who dawns on our darkness to lead all humanity to God. If the stars we are following lead us away from Christ rather than to him; if those stars cause us to harm ourselves and our relationships; if they lead us to the court of King Herod and all that he represents – greed, envy, intolerance, injustice – then we are not following the right star.
The false stars of worldly affirmation and gain will always promise us contentment and happiness, yet their pursuit will always leave us disappointed, however pleasurable the gratifications to which they lead. The Star who is Christ will also leave us dissatisfied: not with what we find in him, but with what has gone before, as the light of his star opens our eyes to God’s disclosure of his purpose for our lives in fellowship with his Son, whose light shows up just how dim and fleeting are the stars that vie for our attention and adulation; the stars that distract us from growing more fully into the humanity that Christ’s Incarnation has forever defined, dignified, and hallowed.
In the Epiphany, God reveals to us who he really is, dispelling our fantasies and fanaticisms, and pointing us to the glory that is our destiny – a destiny that we can only reach if we follow the guiding light of Jesus Christ throughout our lives. For the wise of today still bend their footsteps to those places of epiphany where his star may still be seen shining – places of encounter and revelation, where the Lord’s real presence is given due primacy and honour on his altar-throne.
Whatever this year will bring us, it will have nothing to do with the movement of the stars and the planets, nor any of the idols in which and in whom we frequently and erroneously invest our trust.So, may we resolve once again to fix our eyes firmly on Jesus, to walk in his light; and, changed by our encounter with him in this Mass, and all the other epiphanies by which he makes himself known and us loved, may we be inspired and determined to look at our lives afresh.We should find that we are not, in Eliot’s phrase, at ease in them.Fortunately, as the Magi bear witness, there is another way.
Fr James Hill