Epiphany 2020: a sermon by Catherine Rowett
And all men kill the thing they love,
By all let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!
Oscar Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol
Since Christmas we have watched a few major feast days whizz past through our haze of festivities. St Stephen’s Day on the 26th, St John the Evangelist on the 27th, Holy Innocents on the 28th, St Thomas of Canterbury on the 29th. Today we watch anxiously as the Wise men reveal to King Herod the thing that he most fears: that some child somewhere in his kingdom is set to rival him and become the king of this little kingdom of Judaea in his place.
Herod’s response is predictable. Pretending to be grateful for the news but secretly horrified, he asks the wise men to return and tell him where to find the child. The story in our Gospel today breaks off at the point when the wise men, wisely perceiving the risk, decide to bypass Herod and go home by another way. The rest of the story was told in the Gospel on the Saturday after Christmas, for Holy Innocents. We know it, but few of us come on the right day to hear it, so let me tell it how it is.
16 Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently enquired of the wise men.
Herod was afraid, because he perceived the new baby king as a threat to his own power. Unable to locate the right child—because what in the world is less obviously a threat to you than a newborn child in a small town full of newborn powerless children?—he slays every child that might conceivably be the one he so fears. So also, in the early days after Jesus's resurrection, feeling insulted and threatened by the righteous Stephen, the zealous citizens of Jerusalem took him outside the city to stone him. And there was Saul there, watching the stoning, and they left their clothes at his feet while they did it. Saul, who would go on to persecute the new followers of this faith: seeing in the stoning of Stephen only the elimination of a threat and not what he would later see, when the scales had fallen from his eyes, the murder of the thing he loved.
And so also did Henry II resent Thomas Becket, and his righteous adherence to the scruples that restrained the King, preventing him from grabbing power over the Church. And so also did Herod’s mistress Herodias fear John the Baptist, and Caiaphas and the Chief Priests feared the power of Jesus himself.
The strong fear the weak. The powerful try to silence the powerless. They want to rid themselves of something they have learned to fear. Herod thinks that what he should fear is someone coming to displace him, even a mere newborn. Caiaphas and the chief priests thought that what they should fear is the disruptive rabble rouser they see before them. They fear the one who challenges their power, their way of life, their confidence, their ability to lay down the law. Nasty middle aged men fear Greta Thunberg. Old millionaires and would-be billionaires fear Jeremy Corbyn.
Meanwhile, three wiser men make their way to worship the Christ child. Herod, the unwise king does not. While Herod tries to silence the child before he hears a word of what he will have to say, the three foreigners try to discover the truth about him and to take notice of what it means. Four awestruck men, seeing the world through different eyes. To the wise men, the babe in the manger is the awesome treasure they have travelled through deserts and over mountains to find: a thing to be prized, protected, loved and nurtured; the child predicted over centuries, the coming saviour who will cure us of our misconceptions and set us on a path to salvation. To the foolish, the babe in the manger is the threat to be feared above all, and the predictions about him sound not wonderful but scary.
The same scene, two different ways of seeing it.
Epiphany is that change of vision that turns us into wise men: the realisation that what you thought needed to be silenced is the voice you most need to hear.
Epiphany is realising that the young man you saw stoned to death outside the walls is the first martyr to the faith you will now spend your life proclaiming.
Epiphany is realising that when Christ broke the bread on the last night it was because his death was not a failure but a triumph, the overcoming of the very fear that was putting him to death.
Epiphany is when you realise that your fears were misplaced, and the things that seemed to threaten the way of life you held dear are actually the things that are most to be valued.
Epiphany is when you realise that the bridegroom has come, in the middle of the night, in the dark and in a stable, where you least expected him and while the foolish virgins were out fighting to keep control of the oil fields. Epiphany is when you realise that all the rest of the world has got it wrong and is away fetching oil for artificial lamps at the time they most needed to be aware of the starlight.
Because of epiphany we in this place live in a different world from our fellow human beings who pass outside these walls, unable or unwilling to lift the latch and find their sleeping Lord, concealed from the powerful in a smelly place where ox and ass are stabled. Where others see failure we see wonder. Where they see something to hate we see something to love. Where they see human degradation we see the incarnation, the ultimate sacrifice, the Christ who shares our life and death in pain and sorrow. Where they see threats to a materialist culture we see opportunities for a new awakening, for self-sacrifice and for Christlike service. Or so it should be if we are an epiphanic people: if we, like wise men from afar, can see in this world the baby footprints of our infant Lord, as he treads over and over again through the misery and the dangers, generation after generation, in the wars and tumults and injustices of the world we have made for ourselves instead of for him.
Let us not heed the voices of the powerful who try to tell us what to fear. Let us look instead for our little Lord. Let us see if we can see his little star glowing, even where others cannot see it. He is in the stable, where the homeless are giving birth in misery. He is in the boats where the poor are trying to cross the sea to safety. He is in the pram where the mothers are running from the forest fires. He is in the queue at the food bank. He is outside the school gate, being sent home with the wrong uniform. He is at the hospital desk unable to produce his passport. He is down there with the children on school strike, the little one at the back with a small sign saying “Take care of my handiwork. I made it billions of years ago and you are spoiling it.”
Let us be people of the epiphany. Let us live in a world lit up by the star, where the fearless learn to be fearless by hearing what the wise men say: by hearing that what we should fear are the powerful and what we should not fear are the ones who seek change. We must depose the powerful who kill the children of light. Epiphany is realising that the ones who are currently occupying the palaces, the board rooms, the private islands in the Bahamas: those are the ones to fear. We must find and follow the children of light. We must see with the eyes of faith. We must live in the epiphany.