“Wise men from the East came to Jerusalem where ‘he who has been born king of the Jews’. We have seen his star in the East and have come to worship him.” So Matthew, alone among the Gospel writers, records that extraordinary visit of the wise men, which we celebrate today. Epiphany.
Ever since I was little I have been fascinated by this story. The thought of the strange, Oriental figures following a star. I have often wondered what it is that caused these men, who must have been wealthy, respected, no doubt comfortable – what made them leave their homes and go on this dangerous journey into a strange land. T.S. Eliot in the Journey of Magi imagines how difficult the journey must have been: “A cold [?] we had of it. Just the worst time of the year for such a long journey. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the very dead of winter.”
He imagines they must have thought of turning back: “There were times we regretted the summer palaces or slopes, the terraces and the silken girls bringing sherbert.”
Yet, Matthew tells us, they persevered and reached their goal. They came to Jesus, and bowed down and worshiped him. And then he says, “they departed to their country by another way.” Back to the summer palaces, the silken girls and sherbert? Yet how could they ever be the same again – for they had seen the Christ and they had believed.
T.S. Eliot, at the end of his poem writes, “we returned to our palaces, these kingdoms, but no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, with an alien people clutching their gods.”
God had broken into their comfortable lives and profoundly disturbed them. They had known they had to leave everything behind and follow that star.
And so, the Bible and the whole history of the Church is a continual story of this God breaking into people’s lives, disturbing them. Look at Paul: I am quite happy thank you very much – I’m proud that I was circumcised on the 8 th day, of the people of Israel , of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews, a pharisee, a zealous persecutor of the church – as to righteousness under the Law I am blameless.
But God found a chink in his armor of pride and self-reliance – and he broke through – so bright was Paul’s Epiphany that he was blinded by it. And for the rest of his life he suffered because of it. He left all his security behind and followed his Lord into a world of risk, uncertainty, suffering, beatings, shipwrecks, imprisonment and death. Yet, he says in the Letters to the Philippians, everything I had before – status, wealth, education – I cont as worthless because of the surpassing worth of having Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of everything – but I consider all that as rubbish if only I can have Christ.
History is strewn with such people: St. Anthony of Egypt , St. Francis of Assisi , St. Benedict, and maybe some of us here: all who were living a comfortable, untroubled existence, until they experienced the Epiphany of God in their lives. And, like the first disciples, they left everything and followed Christ.
They weren’t masochists, somehow punishing themselves, as some kind of penance – they changed their lives because they’d seen something better. They had glimpsed something or someone so wonderful that every thing which had seemed so important to them before was no longer important. As Donatus put it: “Christians are a quiet and holy people who have disovered a joy a thousand time better than this sinful world.”
The Letter to the Hebrews, Chapter 11, describes the same thing with all the great figures of the Old Testament, from Abraham onwards, who obeyed God’s call, and left behind their old existence and country because of the things promised by God. “They were not yet in possession of them, but they had seen them far ahead.” For here we have no abiding city, but we seek they city that is to come.”
What about us? Have you had experiences of God which have broken into your life: Moments of transcendence and meaning for you. They can be very disturbing. They can start making us feel guilty, or uneasy – make us ask difficult questions about our way of life. For some people, such experiences of God so threaten their lives that they refuse to listen or respond and as a poet put it “they seal up their souls.”
Yet God will not allow us to live our lives on the purley materialistic level – he will carry on disturbing us, challenging us, making us feel uneasy, makingus long for a homeland beyond the familiar. Job says to his friends, “O have pity on me, for the hand of God is upon me!”
The writer Castile said in a sentence which has always meant so much to me, “The misfortune of man has its source in his greatness: for there is something infinite in him, and he cannot succeed in burying himself completely in the finite.”
But by God we try! In that poem by T.S. Eliot, when the wise men return to their land, changed by the encounter with God, they say “We returned to our palaces, but no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, with other people clutching their gods.” Those wise men had seen something so great that they were changed, no longer completely at home – and to return home and see those people clutching their gods – no, they must have felt –they aren’t going to help you – they’re an illusion: you’re called to be children of God – your hope is in him, your life is hid with Christ, he is your life and your light and your salvation.
When you have grasped that, you cannot return to the old ways. When God disturbs you, breaks into your life – just when everything seemed nice and comfortable – be thankful – for that is God’s Epiphany to you. It is the source of our greatness and our dignity as children of God, that God won’t let us be comfortable with the familiar, the materialistic. We have here no abiding city. But we seek a city that is to come. We are on a pilgrimage, a journey towards God.
My prayer for you in 2004 is that God will come to you and challenge you and disturb you, but only that is done to you so you may become more the person that God wants you to be – because then, and only then, will you know the answers to your longings – the the peace of God which passes all understanding.
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