The Feast of the Epiphany

Matthew 2:1-12

Preacher: The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson

In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.

During the week before Christmas, we interred the ashes of two dearly loved members of our cathedral community. As we stood before the carefully dug holes into which the ashes were to be placed, we pondered the earthiness of the liturgy in which we were playing our part. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust”, we would say, acknowledging that we are made from the dust of the earth, stardust, don’t the scientists tell us, and will return therein. And we acknowledged that this reality could lead to a bleak view of human life especially when we are struck with the harsh truth that one we dearly love is not with us, to be company with us, anymore. H. Auden in a poem made famous, or perhaps more famous by the film “Four Weddings and a Funeral” expresses that bleak view. The poem “Stop the Clocks” mourns the death of one dearly loved.

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

The stars are not wanted now …put out every one …

W H Auden wrote another poem, “For the Time Being – A Christmas Oratorio” – this poem introduced to me by our Archbishop Geoff in his Christmas sermon at our Midnight Mass just a week ago. Archbishop Geoff drew our attention to W H Auden’s portrayal of the longings of the three wise men as they followed a different star, a star that God would not have put out. We will ponder those insights in a moment.

As we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany in our cathedral this morning, we hear again the reading from the Gospel according to St Matthew, the story of the journey of the three wise men, the magi, to the stable in Bethlehem. In the first chapter of Matthew’s gospel we are told the story of Jesus as one who continues the story of God with the people of Israel from their father Abraham through their greatest king David, to the one “in David’s line”, born in the stable in Bethlehem. Quickly, though, in this reading from Matthew’s second chapter, the gospel writer makes clear the revelation that Jesus is a king and a saviour for all people. The magi are foreigners, outsiders of the Jewish faith, masters of an ancient wisdom, of the reading of the stars. The star that these magi have seen at its rising is a sign sent by God. The magi are searching for truth and trust the prompting of this strange new star, follow with humility this unfamiliar revelation. They come to Jerusalem.

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus is born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men* from the East come to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising,* and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod hears this, he is frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquires of them where the Messiah* is to be born. (Matthew 2:1-4)

Immediately we are thrown into the reality of our world, a world in which this vulnerable baby that is to be Emmanuel, the God presence, is under threat. Herod is the character in Matthew’s story shedding light on another aspect of the bleak view, the view of power driven by insecurity and fear. One spiritual writer put it this way:

We know that [Herod] is a cunning political operator who is finely attuned to the lines of power in his world. When we dust away the layers of sentiment that have built up over the ages, we find in the Gospel a stark, austere realism about the world into which this child is born. It is a world of ruthless power and political treachery; it is world in which the poor have no voice and no history. It is a world of calculated violence; it is our world.[1]

When the wise men, warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, not to lead him to the holy child, go home to their own country by another road, Herod, possessed by fear and insecurity, has all the children under two years of age in the region killed. A world of ruthless power, a bleak world, indeed. As we look back, this New Years’ Eve, over the year that has past, we might think the character of Herod sheds his bleak light on aspects of our world.

After their conversation with King Herod, the three wise men know that political power will not lead them to the truth for which they search. When they have heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, travels the star that they have seen at its rising,* until it stops over the place where the child is. When they see that the star has stopped,* they are overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they see the child with Mary his mother; and they kneel down and pay him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offer him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. (Matthew 2:9-11)

Do they find what they are hoping for, these three wise men? For what truth are they hoping? That there is something wider, deeper, than the bleak view of human life on earth? That there is a presence, a love, a creating, redeeming, sanctifying one who calls to us from stars in the sky? That the truth “ashes to ashes, stardust to stardust” is held in love?

  1. H. Auden in “A Christmas Oratorio” portrays the wise men as following the star to find a way to be three things …to be truthful, to be living, to be loving.

Auden has one of the wise man say: “All we know for certain is that we are three old sinners, That this journey is much too long, that we want our dinners, And miss our wives, our books, our dogs, But we have only the vaguest idea why we are what we are. To discover how to be human now is the reason we follow the star.”

But we have only the vaguest idea why we are what we are …

And some days we too have only the vaguest idea why we are what we are, if we even have the strength to bring to mind that question.

And so we look up. And we find we are not alone in this. We find God calling out to us longing that we know.

One of my favourite things about the glorious celebration of Christmas that has taken place in our Cathedral this year was the singing of “The Three Kings” by Peter Cornelius by the Cathedral Choir with soloist, Assistant Director of Music Andrew Chatteton. Three times we heard this – at “Lessons and Carols” and at the Midnight and Morning Eucharist! This piece of music weaves a solo voice singing of the journey of the magi with the hymn “How brightly shines the morning star” sung by the choir. The interweaving seems to me to portray the life given to us by God – we journey human beings with finite lives that often leave us struggling, often seem burdened by a view that is bleak …but lives made and given by God, loved and blessed by God, lives in which shines a morning star that will never be put out.

As we embark on a New Year, we too journey hoping to discover, perhaps, how to be truthful, living, loving, how to be human now as W. H. Auden expresses it. And like the magi, we do not come empty handed. Peter Cornelius’ “Three Kings” ends with the soloist singing of the gift we bring – that really all we can bring is our heart.

This day is the one when we sometimes find ourselves encouraged to ponder resolutions for the coming year, an idea that can be driven more by guilt and a sense of failure, than hope in the God who loves us. Perhaps, instead, we might offer God our hearts, our very beings, the people and vocations we love dearly, the things with which we struggle. Perhaps instead we might pray that the God who places the brightly shining morning star in the sky will teach us, and all who live in our world, a little more about what it is to be truthful, living, loving …truly human now.


[1] I heartily recommend this website – “Pray as you go”. A daily reflection – in the Ignatian style – can be found there.