Epiphany 2015

Epiphany is, to my way of thinking, the great feast of Christmas. With the revelation to the gentiles, the Incarnation of Christ becomes explicitly what it always was implicitly, the dawning of salvation on mankind. In previous posts, I have dwelt on the richness of the liturgy for the day, which weaves together the coming of the Magi, the baptism of Christ in the Jordan and the miracle of Cana — all of them manifestations of Christ’s divinity and his mission.

Today, it is Cana that first captures my imagination. That lovely miracle, performed out of sheer compassion for a young couple’s embarassment on their wedding-day — and, let’s be honest, the result of a little nagging from his mother — is a metaphor for the effect of grace on our lives. Jesus turns the water of life into wine; and, as with all his gifts, there is abundance and goodness, for he gives without stint. That doesn’t mean that every difficulty is magicked away. The young couple still needed to work at their marriage; the servants still had to beaver away at serving. Sweat and tears are part of our lot as human beings; but with the coming of Christ, they no longer separate us from God. He shares them with us.

The three gifts the Magi lay before Jesus are gifts we must find within ourselves. The gold of generosity may require some deep mining on our part. It is comparatively easy to give material things, but to give of ourselves, that is so much harder. The frankincense of prayer doesn’t come easily, either. A gorgeous liturgy may make us feel we are praying, but unless our minds and hearts are engaged, it may be more about us than it is about God. Conversely, those bleak and apparently barren moments when nothing very much seems to happen and we feel nothing but weariness and disgust may be very powerful prayer indeed. Then there is the myrrh of service which can be hard and bitter, a death to self in every respect. But where Christ leads, we must follow. There is no other way but his.

Finally, there is the baptism of Christ in the Jordan. That mysterious anointing by the Holy Spirit, that charge to the bystanders — for a moment we glimpse the inner life of the Holy Trinity and are lost in wonder and adoration. This great feast of the Epiphany marks our entry into the People of God. With the death of Jesus on the Cross, his Resurrection and Ascension, we will become something more wonderful still, his Body, the Church. But for us who are gentiles, it all begins today.

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Epiphany 2014

Adoration of the Magi

Epiphany dawns cold and grey here in England. There is a ‘Constable sky’ overhead, entirely lacking stars or sunlight. It is a useful paradigm of our search for truth and meaning. We would like everything to be either as plain as day, illumined by dazzling sunshine, or enveloped in shimmering mystery into which we could plunge deeper and deeper without ever finding an end. Instead, we spend most of our lives plodding through the drabness of the cold grey dawn, often stumbling over Truth without realising it or battling against God rather than surrendering to him. I suspect that the Magi’s own journey was rather like that: dull, tiring, full of wrong turns, seemingly hopeless at times.

But we know that the Magi are eventually led to the Child they are seeking and lay their treasures before him. We too must bring our gifts — the gold of generosity, the frankincense of prayer, the myrrh of service — and lay them before our Lord and Saviour. However dull the day, however out of sorts we may be feeling, we know we are confronting a great mystery. Today the gentiles are admitted into the family of God, and the Church heightens our sense of this by commemorating three great miracles or signs: the Magi are led by a star, Christ is baptized in the Jordan and water is turned into wine at the wedding-feast of Cana. In other words, today salvation has come to us all. How can we be gloomy knowing that?

Note on the illustration:
Andrea Mantegna (Italian (Paduan), about 1431 – 1506)
Adoration of the Magi, about 1495 – 1505, Distemper on linen. 
Unframed: 48.6 x 65.6 cm (19 1/8 x 25 13/16 in.)
 Framed: 71.8 x 86.8 x 3.5 cm (28 1/4 x 34 3/16 x 1 3/8 in.) Stretcher: 54.6 x 69.2 cm (21 1/2 x 27 3/8 in.)
 The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Used by permission under the Open Content programme — with thanks.

Personal note:
I’m scheduled to have some surgery this week and will be taking time for convalescence afterwards, so blogging is likely to be irregular for a while. I’m sorry, but I can’t enter into any personal correspondence at this time so please don’t take it amiss if I don’t respond to emails or messages.

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Feasts, Fasts and Fasting Diets

The rhythm of feasts and fasts is so central to the Church’s year and her understanding of the spiritual life that it may be worth gathering together a few thoughts on the subject. At the outset, we ought to distinguish between fasting in the traditional Christian sense and the popular ‘fasting diet’.

At its simplest, fasting means going without food and drink in order to remind ourselves of our creatureliness and enable us to focus on God more clearly. One might say that it has nothing to with us, but everything to do with God; and the fast of Jesus in the desert is the model for all our own fasting. The Lenten fast makes this very clear. The current discipline of the Church prescribes that on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday we should limit ourselves to one meal and two collations (snacks). This is both a penance (denying ourselves some good thing to show sorrow for our sins and ask grace for amendment in the future) and a preparation for what is to come. In the monastery, of course, the fasts are more frequent and more rigorous (for example, we fast every day during Lent, Sundays excepted) but the intention is the same. We seek the spiritual freedom that will enable us to follow the Lord more closely. Our fasting is meant to help us forget ourselves and our own comfort so that we are more open to God and others. The money we save is given to the poor. Any physical and psychological benefits are incidental. We might say that fasting as the Church understands it is essentially altruistic. The ‘fasting diet’ by contrast is primarily concerned with the health benefits for the dieter and, as a practice, has no larger end in view (though the individual may well have other motives for dieting in this way.)

When we come to feasts, the difference between Christian practice and secular custom becomes even more marked. The liturgical calendar highlights different occasions that throw light on our understanding of the central tenets of our faith. Sometimes, these seem to put us at odds, or at least out of step, with the people around us. During Christmastide, for example, we are still celebrating when others have taken down their Christmas decorations because it is Epiphany, rather than Christmas Day itself, which opens the way of salvation to gentile Christians. The greatest feast of all, that of Easter, is ushered in by a fast so that we feel in our own bodies the movement from darkness to light, but it is a feast that has very little razzmatazz surrounding it. The great mystery of the Eucharist is a feast in which we share by means of a morsel of bread and a sip of wine transformed into the sacred Body and Blood of Christ.

As we approach the last few days of the Christmas season and the thought of Lent begins to appear on the horizon, perhaps we could spend a few moments reflecting on the nature of feasts and fasts and the way we ourselves live them. The Rule of St Benedict is written around the feast of Easter. Everything is referred to that, and the joy and spiritual gladness that should accompany our every action should ensure our lives have a continual Lenten quality. As our American friends would say, go figure.

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Epiphany 2013

Epiphany Crib
Epiphany Crib

 

The Solemnity of the Epiphany is one of those feasts, rich in imagery and allusion, one never tires of it. Last year I wrote about the figures at the crib and the gifts we find within ourselves (see here); the year before, about the Magi’s quest for truth (see here); and so on and so forth.

The Magnificat antiphon at Vespers (Evening Prayer) speaks of three miracles or wonders associated with this day: a star led the Magi to the manger, Christ was baptized in the Jordan and water was turned into wine at Cana. These correspond to the revelation to the gentiles, the revelation to the Jews and the revelation to the disciples. If that were not enough, there is also a remembrance of the Church’s espousal to Christ and the solemn proclamation of the date of Easter. More than enough for us to ponder as we contemplate the Christ Child in the manger!

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Epiphany Sunday 2012

I wrote about the history of this feast and the Magi’s quest for truth last year: the entry is here. This morning I should like to spend a moment or two thinking about the new figures at the crib. The Magi, who have been moving round the oratory with a little help from Quietnun, have finally reached their destination, hobbled their camels and opened their treasures. Our crib figures come from southern France, so there ought to be a few more local characters joining the throng. The garlic seller is there, with his bulbs of garlic strung around his neck: a pretty offering for the new-born Jesus. Right at the back stands one without a gift. Barthélémy is so poor he has nothing to give, so he brings his joy and offers that.

We all stand before God with empty hands. The treasures we offer must be found within ourselves. It may well be that we cannot find the gold of generosity, the frankincense of prayer or the myrrh of service in our lives, but if, like Barthélémy we can find traces of joy and gladness, let us offer those. ‘God loves a cheerful giver,’ and never more so than when the gift we give is ourself.

Happy Epiphany!

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Epiphany 2011

The Three Magi
The Three Magi

Readers of Colophon may remember that we used this image of the Magi for our post about Epiphany last year. The Autun sculptor has captured beautifully both the mystery and the humanity of these three seekers after truth. I particularly love the tender way the angel is wakening one by touching his little finger as the other two lie fast asleep. One can imagine him whispering, “Get up, this is the way!”

Often we resolve problems or come to a deeper appreciation of things by not explicitly attending to them. Sleeping on the problem, going for a walk, playing something on the piano or weeding a flower-bed: all are tried and trusted methods of allowing our minds to break free of the constraints we put upon them when we are trying to work something out.

For the Christian there is another and more effective way of breaking free of these constraints, and that is prayer. Not prayer as instant solution or easy way out, but prayer as quiet, persevering seeking after God. The Magi loved truth and undertook an enormous journey in pursuit of it. They found what they sought where they must least have expected to find it: in a small child born in an obscure part of a Roman province. We often seek truth in odd places and can be disconcerted to discover that it lies much nearer home. May Epiphany reveal to you the wonder of him who is Light from Light, our journey’s goal, Jesus Christ our Lord.

(If you wish to reread the Colophon entry for Epiphany 2010, the best way of doing so is to go via our web site and click on the archive for January 2010. At the moment the JS-Kit comments script is making things work very slowly, so we need to decide whether to  drop the comments, which we are reluctant to do, or find another way of archiving them. We’ll take our own advice and sleep on it.)

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