Some seasons of the church are a bit more opaque than others. It's taken me a long time to 'get' Epiphany and I'm still working on it.
19 years ago tomorrow, at Epiphany (6 January 1994), I was in hospital having just given birth to my first born son two days previously. A special somebody visited and brought me a huge box of Lindt chocolates, possibly the best chocolates money can buy. I won't forget that gift in a hurry, and the significance of the journey that person had made to greet our tiny son for the first time.
Since the Epiphany chocolates my understanding of Epiphany has grown into considering the uniqueness of Jesus as revealed through the gifts of the Magi. Gold for kingship, frankincense for divinity and myrrh for burial. I have attempted to procure these things for school assemblies and bought attractive coloured boxes to represent them when it proved too difficult.
When I began to preach regularly I looked into the etymology of the word so I could get my head around it further. 'Epiphany' is from epi=forth and 'phan'=to show: to show forth. At Epiphany we see the mystery of God shown forth through Christ.
Further developments of an Epiphanic nature have seen me reflecting on funerals during this Epiphany: already one down and one to go. Two funerals of very different people, whose stories I tried to see in the light of Epiphany-tide. In one, God had clearly gifted someone and throughout their long life they had given those gifts back to the community in many positive ways. In the other, it was clear that the precious gift of love within marriage brings with it a terrible risk of loss. We can only give our grief back to God, as a gift in return.
Today I have been pondering the significance of Epiphany for the Gentiles, which perhaps brings me finally to the full meaning of Epiphany. This is why the Magi are involved - the ultimate representation of strange and foreign travellers coming before the Jewish Messiah. Christ is for all. How did their journey affect them? And how is my story also to be seen in the light of Epiphany?
TS Eliot's Journey of the Magi (1927) was the poet's attempt to articulate his own story of conversion, which felt like a birth, but also a death. He had an unhappy first marriage and would go and sit in churches to admire their beauty. In later years his visits began to bring him peace and something akin to spiritual refreshment. In 1926, on a visit to Rome, he knelt before Michelangelo's 'Pieta'
as if acknowledging a higher authority. It was a turning point. His biographer, Peter Ackroyd writes, 'He was aware of what he called 'the void' in all human human affairs - the disorder, meaninglessness and futility which he found in his own experience; it was inexplicable intellectually...and could only be understood or endured by means of a larger faith' (1998, p. 160). Eliot's faith grew and he was baptised and confirmed in the Anglo-Catholic church a year later.
Journey of the Magi is anything but a Christmas card cutesy camel trot into Bethlehem. It tells of a hard journey, physically ('A cold coming we had of it') and spiritually. Those strange travellers from the East had expected a normal birth scene - cuddles and smiles and innocence; but what they experienced in the presence of the Christ child felt like a death ('this birth was/ Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death'). They return to their palaces changed ('no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation/With an alien people clutching their gods'). It's as if Eliot is saying that converting to Christ had changed everything for him.
Epiphany: babies; gifts; birth; death; journeys, stories; realization; change. As a season, its meaning unfolds like a gift being slowly unwrapped, savoured and lived.