St Francis, Terriers - Epiphany (06.01.2017)

Tony Dickinson

Journeys, particularly dangerous journeys, have been among the top stories on the news media for more months than probably any of us cares to remember. We have watched refugees from civil war in Syria – and from other conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Africa (north and south of the Sahara) – making the desperate journey across the Mediterranean or the Aegean, and wept over those, especially the children, who fail to make it. We have followed the survivors as they trudge across Europe in the hope of finding safety. We have rejoiced when hearts and homes have been opened and railed against the governments who have closed their hearts and their borders in the face of such overwhelming human need. And, if we are honest, we have shared at least something of the mixed feelings of officials and politicians (and many ordinary people) towards those of a different culture and a different faith who have arrived among us. So we can to some extent identify with the situation in tonight’s gospel. Those strangers who arrived in Jerusalem may not have been numbered in thousands or even hundreds – though they may well have been more than the traditional three – but they were of a different culture and a different faith, and their coming, and especially the quest on which they had come, was a threat to the precarious peace of Herod’s kingdom.

Their quest may not have been so desperate as the quest of those who have fled Syria, but it was a long and difficult journey. The heart-land of the magi was south of the Caspian Sea a long way east of Bethlehem. Preaching before King James I on Christmas Day 1622, Lancelot Andrewes described the way they had travelled. “It was not hard by, as the shepherd’s (but a step to Bethlehem, over the fields): This was riding many a hundred miles, and cost them many a day’s journey… This was nothing pleasant; for, through deserts: all the way waste and desolate. Nor (secondly) easy neither: For, over the rocks and crags of both Arabies (specially Petraea) their journey lay. Yet, if safe: But, it was not; but exceeding dangerous, as lying through the midst of the black tents of Kedar, a nation of thieves and cut-throats; to pass over the hills of robbers; infamous then, and infamous to this day. No passing without great troop, or convoy.”

Then there comes the passage made famous in our day by T.S. Eliot as the opening his poem “The Journey of the Magi”, which Radio 4 fans may have heard read by Jeremy Irons on New Year’s Day: “A cold coming they had of it, at this time of the year; just, the worst time of the year, to take a journey, and specially a long journey, in. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off, the very dead of winter.” But, the bishop continues, “all these difficulties they overcame, of a wearisome, irksome, troublesome, dangerous, unseasonable journey: and for all this, they came. And, came it cheerfully, and quickly.”

They came – and overcame those difficulties – because they were committed to the journey. They had recognised the “star which they had seen at its rising” (whatever that may have been). They had recognised it as the beginning of something new, something rooted in the culture and history of Israel, but something so urgent and universal that it drew them, as Bishop Andrewes said, “many a day’s journey” to pay homage to a poor baby in a feed trough.

They were committed to the journey, a journey which turned their world-view upside-down. At first they had taken it for granted that the child whose star they had seen at its rising would be found in a royal palace. They, like most of us, lived in a “top-down” world. As Richard Rohr says in his meditation for today, “Most of religion… defines reality from the top down. It begins with a transcendent God up there in heaven, and then we try to explain everything down here in relationship to that transcendent God. But what Jesus actually taught was something much more akin to ‘from the bottom up’.” Hence the baby in the feed-trough. Hence the whole of Jesus’s ministry. To quote Fr Richard again, “Jesus taught us to find God incarnate in this world, in our neighbour, in the Eucharist—that is, in the ordinary elements of this earth.” The gifts which symbolise power, gold, incense and myrrh, are laid at the feet of a child being nursed by his mother. That is disturbing, and so disturbing to Herod that he sends troops to search for the child in order to destroy him.

They were committed to the journey, however long it took, however far it took them out of their comfort zone, however much it cost. At the end of his poem, T.S. Eliot puts these words into the mouth of his wise-man narrator:

“Were we led all that way for

Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,

We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,

But had thought they were different; this Birth was

Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,

But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,

With an alien people clutching their gods.

I should be glad of another death.”

Eliot’s magi have discovered a costly self-emptying, a “hard and bitter agony” which has left them “no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation”. Their top-down world has become empty and unreal. Does that mean that their journey has become equally pointless? No. Thirty years before Eliot’s poem, Henry Van Dyke’s novella “The Story of the Other Wise Man” also links the journey of the magi to “another death”, the crucifixion of Jesus, and brings together two acts of self-emptying. As a more modern American writer, Brian McLaren, puts it “Rather than seizing, hoarding, and exercising power in the domineering ways of typical kings, conquistadors, and religious leaders, Jesus was consistently empowering others. He descended the ladders and pyramids of influence instead of climbing them upwards, released power instead of grasping at it, and served instead of dominating. He ultimately overturned all conventional understandings of . . . power by purging [it] of violence—to the point where he himself chose to be killed rather than kill.” He invites us to commit ourselves to that same journey, the journey down which is also the journey up. To him, with the Father and the Holy Spirit…