Happy New Year!
As Christmas and New Year celebrations draw to a close, Twelfth Night approaches and festive decorations are put away for another year, and as many of us return to work or are simply left wondering how to consume a mountain of leftover turkey, there can be a tangible feeling of “What next?”. With daylight still at a premium and the beginning of newspaper mutterings about how to beat the dreaded January Blues, not to mention the main political parties stepping up their rhetoric in an election year, many will be diving for their duvets if the question is posed. However, the liturgical answer to the question “What next?” is the slightly unheralded season of Epiphany.
After the patient waiting of Advent and the joyful celebration of Christmas, the relatively short period of Epiphany is sometimes the forgotten season in the Church’s year. It is when the Church marks the time when the Magi from the East visited the infant Christ, kneeling before the child and presenting him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. But with the Magi often present in our crib scenes, and our next door neighbour’s pre-yuletide mastery of We three Kings of Orient are on their recorder, I suspect that Epiphany has often become neglected in its own right, or at the very least subsumed into Christmas.
But it would be a great shame if Epiphany escaped our attention. There is plenty which is relevant and important in this brief narrative after Jesus’ birth. Remember that this was a period of extraordinary political and social tension. Mary and Joseph had been forced to Jerusalem by a census which was likely motivated by a desire for higher taxation, and which certainly fuelled resentment of the Roman Empire. This was an overcrowded and busy Bethlehem, in which King Herod ordered in troops to seek out and murder every child under the age of two. There was no oasis of peace into which Jesus was born. It was a melting-pot of anger at the establishment, social disharmony and panic. And, as a result of King Herod’s infanticide, Jesus and his family became refugees, fleeing to Egypt for their own safety.
Amidst this turmoil, the Magi make a pilgrimage to kneel at the feet of the Christ-child, making offerings of precious gifts, which reveal the reason why this baby is so special. Gold marks Jesus out as the King, the sovereignty of God in human form, who will lead the oppressed people into freedom. Frankincense recognises Jesus as the Great High Priest, the divinity of God made flesh, who will lead the church in prayer and worship. Myrrh, foretelling the death of God on Earth, which will open the way for all humans to gain eternal life.
These are costly gifts, which point to the costliest gift of all, that God chose to limit himself and become like one of us. That God gives up all that he has simply to bring us back into his loving embrace.
But this episode also shows us something else beyond these gifts. The Magi are outsiders, not from Jewish heritage, and yet they are the first to tell the world about the specialness of Christ. God’s sacrifice and God’s invitation of love are not for a small group of people, they are for everybody. Jesus and his family become refugees by seeking freedom in Egypt, the place from which Moses had led the Israelites out of slavery. When Jesus is on the Earth, no place or people are beyond redemption, all are set free.
What next? Maybe we have gifts to offer which will show the world who Jesus is. Maybe we can learn to see Jesus in the downtrodden victims of a turbulent world. Or maybe, after the highs of Christmas, all that is left is to do is kneel with the Magi in wonder and awe at the feet of our Saviour.