Sunday 8 January 2017 - Epiphany - Eucharist - Stephen Holmes
Epiphany 2017 – Mt 2.1-12
+ ‘On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.’
Christmas doesn’t stop on Boxing Day. Today we have got to the visit of the three kings, or three wise men and, if you listen to what we hear and sing today, you can’t miss it. It is the feast of the Epiphany, a Greek word that means manifestation, when the baby Jesus was shown to these mysterious astrologers from the East. It symbolises the inclusive nature of Christianity. The three, they don’t say how many there are in the gospel but they do bring three gifts; these three were traditionally from Asia, Europe and Africa (unless you are a Mormon the Bible doesn’t know America) and they represented the whole world coming to worship Jesus. This story is so important that you can move the Epiphany from the 6th January to the nearest Sunday so more people can experience it.
But I don’t want to look at the mysterious three (as I don’t want to look at the famous five or the secret seven). If you come to the Epiphany Carols this evening you will hear more about them (the 3 kings). We just listened to their story surrounded by jolly alleluias, and that is right because the inclusive nature of our faith is something to celebrate; but if you think back it wasn’t necessarily like that. A young girl, perhaps a teenager, certainly not married, got pregnant and had given birth. This wasn’t in the comfort of her home but, according to Luke, miles away because the political authorities demanded her man be registered in the census in his ancestral home. There were no rooms in the hotels so this happened in a barn and the baby was put in a feeding trough. One modern picture actually puts the nativity in a bus shelter. Luke tells us shepherds were guided to the holy family by angels and Mary ‘pondered these things in her heart’; Matthew tells us about the Magi or astrologers and he says ‘they saw the child with Mary his mother’ and they worshipped him, but he doesn’t say anything about Mary’s reaction. No pondering. Luke’s Mary is active, saying yes to the angel, singing the Magnificat and telling Jesus off when he gets lost in Jerusalem, but Matthew’s Mary is silent. What went on in her head?
Imagine what it must have been like. Giving birth in a shed far from home, with strange visitors when you are recovering. We don’t know what Mary thought when the Magi arrived and started giving strange gifts. In the picture on the front of our service sheets she certainly looks puzzled. What do you think went through her mind? It wasn’t a time for rational thought, and I’m not sure what rational thought would have made of three astrologers with gold crowns, so perhaps she would have relied on her intuition.
I have a family interest in Sherlock Holmes and he said some interesting things to Watson in the New Year episode of Sherlock: ‘Intuitions are not to be ignored, John. They represent data processed too fast for the conscious mind to comprehend’. This is a vision of the mind as a sophisticated computer, which is useful but is not the only way of looking at intuition. For Plato, we already know things from a previous life and intuition is more of a remembering. A form of direct knowledge like intuition is the goal of some Buddhist techniques and in Jewish and Islamic mysticism intuition is sometimes seen as a prophet-like illumination from the mind of God. The psychologist Carl Jung was interested in this but saw it is a means of perception via the depths of the unconscious and classified people as either working from intuition or rational judgement – intuitive, introverted types being ‘mystics, prophets or cranks’. So, does that form of knowledge called intuition come from within or without, is it a quicker form of normal knowing or does it come from hidden depths in our soul?
Or more concretely, if you have just given birth in poverty and three magicians arrive with strange gifts, do you hide behind the manger or do you have a feeling that it all makes sense? We don’t know; but the calmness of Matthew’s Mary and the message Joseph had received earlier from an angel suggests it was the latter. If we add this aspect to the story, our first reading may give us a clue as to how Mary had this intuition. In Isaiah, the Lord God appears in Israel and kings and camels, gold and frankincense come to him. Mary, as a good Jewish girl, would know her Scripture and the signs attending the arrival of the Messiah. In Luke’s story, where she gets an angelic visit, she knows intuitively how to respond to the angel and her song, the Magnificat, is a mosaic of Scriptural quotations. Mary was able to respond to the angel and the astrologers because she was prepared. She didn’t know what was going to happen, but her attentiveness to God and intelligent listening to the Bible prepared her to respond to the unexpected.
So what about us? How do we prepare to meet an angel, or even to make an important decision? I am very keen on rational thought based on evidence, it’s what historians do (or at least how they start), but whenever I have had to make big decisions I have got nowhere from thinking them through. Likewise, prayer hasn’t provided answers. What seems to usually happen is that the thought and prayer starts off a process that chugs on in the subconscious and suddenly bursts out unexpectedly in an intuition that can be tested against rational criteria and acted upon. Do you work like that? The intuition doesn’t come from nowhere. Whether it is from divine illumination or the mysterious processing of the subconscious mind, it is an unexpected epiphany into a mind prepared. Mary’s mind was prepared for the angel and the three visitors, and our minds can be prepared if we form ourselves in the world of the Scriptures and submit to the discipline of waiting for God in prayer. It only takes ten or fifteen minutes a day sitting silently with the heart attentive to God, perhaps using a short Bible verse to bring back the mind when it wanders. Contemplation is a gift greater than gold, frankincense, or myrrh. Take up or renew this practice as a new year’s resolution and you may well find that when the magicians arrive you are prepared.