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Sunday 6 January 2019 – Matins
Jeremiah 31:7-14 John 1:29-34
Peter Cornelius’s anthem, The Three Kings, which we’ve just heard, takes me right back to my school days. I can remember the very first time I heard it in a darkened chapel with candles flickering, and being utterly transfixed by its simplicity, imaginative power and capacity to evoke wonder. In particular, as a relatively young boy, I was mesmerised by the sounds of the baritone solo wafting lyrically over the steady and solid harmonic accompaniment provided by the choir. I can still remember the name of the boy who sang the solo when I first heard it. To me, of course, he looked and sounded like a grown man, but I was also struck by the sense of vulnerability, precariousness and fragility of this solo voice. Perhaps without realising it, it spoke to me of my own vulnerability and, by association, that of the Magi making an arduous and perilous journey as they followed the leading of the star to the place where the Christ-Child lay. The combination of all these things said something to me then – and still does to this day – of the journey we’re all called to make through life into union with the one for whom our hearts seek and long.
There could scarcely be a more appropriate anthem than this for today, the Feast of the Epiphany, celebrating as it does the culmination of the long journey made by the Magi to the manger. Given that the Epiphany’s associated almost exclusively with the kings or the wise men, it might have struck you as slightly bizarre that neither of the two biblical readings had anything to do with them. Indeed, the second reading concerning the baptism of Jesus seems to have been appointed in the lectionary with the almost deliberate intention of ignoring them. Similarly, at Evensong today, at the end of which we shall make our way in procession to the crib in the Lady Chapel to present gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, the first lesson from the Prophecy of Isaiah has a definite case for being included, since it actually mentions gold and frankincense, but the second, the story of the wedding at Cana, where water was turned into wine, seems to be almost completely irrelevant. In the immortal words of the comedian Peter Kay: ‘What’s that all about?’
Well there’s actually a profound connection between the wise men, the baptism of Jesus, and the turning of water into wine at Cana. From the earliest days of the Church, these three things have all been associated with one another precisely because they’re all epiphanies of a kind: manifestations, revelations of who Christ is. The story of changing water into wine in the Gospel of John actually ends with the words: ‘Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory.’ We might not hear specifically about the kings or the wise men at Matins or Evensong, but at the celebrations of the Eucharist this morning, the story of the journey of the wise men to the Christ-Child was indeed included as the gospel reading. So at all three services on this day, these three events are held together in close liturgical relationship. They show us different facets of the Epiphany. Each points distinctively to something of what’s being manifested or revealed.
The baptism of Jesus reveals the nature of God as ecstatic love: Jesus awakens to his identity as the beloved Son of the Father, each of whom overflows in love for the other in union with the Spirit. The story of the water being turned into wine at the wedding in Cana speaks of the sheer zest for life, of the very fullness of life that pours forth from God in Christ, a fullness which isn’t just enough but more than enough: abundant, overflowing, unstoppable and uncontrollable. The story of the Magi speaks of inclusion, for they weren’t Jews but gentiles. The heart of this Epiphany is that it shows that God is for all, not just for an exclusive group by virtue of their birth, race, religion or status, but for all, so that all might know themselves to be included in the abundant love of God and enabled to live life in all its fullness. So while all three events celebrated today are indeed epiphanies, it’s on what we call the Epiphany, that is the manifestation of Christ to the Magi, the Kings or the wise Men, representing all gentiles, that I want to focus briefly as I draw to a close. And, in particular, I want to refer once again to the music we heard a few moments ago.
There’s something very evocative about that solo voice, which has to do, I think, with a sense of loneliness or, better perhaps, solitariness. Relationship is absolutely crucial to being human – and indeed to being God, too – but simply being with other people isn’t a guarantee against loneliness. It’s been remarked, hasn’t it, that it’s possible never to feel more lonely than in the middle of a crowd. Similarly, it’s possible be in solitude and yet feel completely in communion with everyone and everything, to sense that everything’s included. This solo voice speaks of something unique and deeply personal, and because it’s unique and so personal it’s also universal: the reaching out, the longing for union and fulfilment. It’s no coincidence, perhaps, that the last notes sung by the soloist to the words, ‘Offer thy heart’, form the musical interval of a major sixth, the interval which, in the hands of the composer Richard Wagner, for example, especially the minor sixth in his opera Tristan und Isolde, conveys that universal sense of yearning and longing for love. The human search is ultimately for love, and the Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles shows us that our yearning is met by God’s yearning for us in Christ. In him divine and human love meet, combine and are at one. To offer our hearts to God means having the confidence to be exactly who we are with God, and trusting, knowing that we’re loved as we are, that we’re included along with everything and everyone else in the abundant, overflowing, limitless love of God. This great Feast of the Epiphany invites and encourages us to travel with the whole of humanity into the very fullness of God, so that not one person, not one single thing is excluded now or ever.
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