Saturday, 5 January 2013

Epiphany sermon

On this Feast of Epiphany, a number of themes and images crowd our imagination.  We have a return to the end of the Infancy Narrative of St Matthew’s Gospel book, which we have heard before, oftentimes, as the penultimate reading in the Service of Lessons and Carols just ahead of Christmas Day.  It tells the story of the Magi, those figures who travel from the East in pursuit of the significance of their spotting of a new heavenly body; the star which leads them - via the corridors of power in King Herod’s palace – to the manger-side in the humble stable of Bethlehem.  They travel, guided by a new light, to better see God’s reality.  What starts out as a rather esoteric exercise in stargazing ends up face-to-face with the reality of God as One who shares fully in all the messiness, mixed with the wonder, of our humanity.
The themes of seeing clearly and of light are integral to this Feast, and the other scripture readings draw our attention to this, also. 
The passage from a late section of Isaiah’s prophetic work announces a hope and trust in a redemptive promise from God:
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.  For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses' arms.
(Isaiah 60:1-4)
Thus far, a prophecy which Matthew rightly interprets as being fulfilled in the particular journey of the Magi which brings them to see the infant Jesus.  But, Isaiah makes it clear that it is a broader promise than just that; it is a promise to God’s ancient people, the Jews and (I shall establish in just a moment) it is – broader still - a promise to each of us who read the text, trusting in God’s promise:
Then you shall see and be radiant... (Isaiah 60:5)
The reflection from the letter written to the Ephesians in the name of St Paul makes this clear.  What was a promise to God’s Chosen People is now seen to be for us Gentiles, too:
Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ,  and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things;  so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 3:8-10)
To repeat: “to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God.

I want to lead us in a particular reflection about how we see and don’t see, about how we deal with reality and conjure with illusion and denial of reality, in our own times.  From the Magi, we derive the same root idea for our term ‘magic’, and I want to suggest that we are an intensely magic-obsessed culture and society. I want for us to grasp that the deeper kind of learning which the Magi gained when they discovered God born as one of us – surpassing their previous understanding – is to be a sign and symbol to us of how we can push past the shallow ‘magic’ of our own time and culture, to deeper reality, too.  That Christian faith is our revealed guide and method to an honest dealing with ultimate reality, where much in our wider society is a game of illusion, delusion and denial of what is truly real.
And this is an important challenge for the world – this avowedly secular, humanist and progressive society – that our Christian faith should be the bedrock of reality and honest-dealing and that the world is to be found exposed as full of poor attempts at magic and continual denial of reality.

There was a significant insight into our Western denial of reality in an article in the Guardian newspaper this past week.  Giles Fraser is particularly apposite in a comment piece about our continuing belief in magic:

"What do I mean by magic? Forget
Merlin. Forget Potter. I mean the belief that there is ever a short cut out of the constituent limitations of our humanity. That there is a way, instantly, with the flick of a wand or a credit card, of changing ourselves from one thing to something else entirely.  Abracadabra.  Magic is the escape fantasy of those who cannot cope with the fact that we are limited creatures, that we will grow old and die, that we can never have everything, that we will always be dependent on food and oxygen and the love of others, and that, because of this, we will often feel pain and loss. Magic is the belief that there is some other way of dealing with all of this other than simply by dealing with it.

Which is why I think the really dangerous magic – and I believe all magic is dangerous – is out there in the post-Christmas sales. The most insidious magic is disguised as something so ordinary we don't even notice it. In terms of magic, both
Christianity and contemporary market capitalism appear under the form of their opposites ...

We buy the new suit or go on a diet to become a new person. We think becoming a pop star will plug the longing within – ignoring the evidence of those many pop stars who tragically take their own life as they realise the
Simon Cowell brand of promised magic is a lie. We play the lotto. And every night on our TV screens, advertising offers us the contemporary equivalent of the philosopher's stone (turning lead into gold) and the fabled elixir of life. All of this, at root, is an attempt to escape from something that cannot be escaped from. Escape from the ordinary conditions of life. Escape from the anxiety within ourselves."

Elsewhere, in their
'Worst Ideas of 2012' feature, we read Oliver Burkeman saying (in a section entitled 'Ignoring Reality' and including comment on the Jimmy Savile scandal):

"The horror was hiding in plain sight. But acknowledging it would have meant acknowledging exactly who it was that we'd elevated to the status of national treasure – or perhaps even acknowledging, as
Andrew O'Hagan put it in the London Review of Books, "that the culture itself is largely paedophile in its commercial and entertainment excitements"."

He argues that this "refusal to see what we're looking at is surely at the heart of climate-change denial, too," as well as the implacable faith Republicans had in a Romney landslide:

"The annals of psychological research are full of examples of how accomplished we are at not seeing what's there, for many reasons. People given the opportunity to cheat in small ways on tests, for example, don't consciously acknowledge they're dishonest; they'd rather preserve
their sense of not being cheats. Or perhaps you've seen that famous basketball video demonstrating the phenomenon of "change blindness": when people are asked to count the number of times the ball is passed between players, they fail to see a person in a gorilla suit walk right across the frame."

Denial, in a broader sense, O’Hagan notes, "has
its benefits: without a dose of it, we'd be unable to overlook our own and others' lapses and faults, and relationships would become impossible. But its pitfalls are enormous, as Romney's aides and media supporters learned. Or did they learn?"

Giles Fraser makes a similar point, when he notes that: "At the end of his seminal work 
Religion and the Decline of Magic, the historian Keith Thomas states: "If magic is defined as the employment of ineffective techniques to allay anxiety when effective ones are not available, then we must recognise that no society will ever be free from it." That is exactly right. But in an age that prides itself on its rationality, we commonly mask this reality from ourselves."

Fraser concludes: "The Christian tradition insists on one thing over and over again: that you and I are not gods and that we cannot defy the gravity of our basic humanity. This religion is a process of disenchantment from the persistent belief that we are the centre of the universe. What is the secular equivalent to this admonition? I don't see one. Everywhere, we are told that we can (with what Marx called "the magic of money") be transformed into mini gods – rock gods, sex gods, masters of the universe."
At this Feast of the Epiphany – which at some level is an ‘enchanting’ kind of story – we are actually led into this kind of spiritual maturity in our own lives, a maturity which is about being able to not be hoodwinked by the latest scheme or idea, the nonsense of the cheap magic tricks offered us, the false promise that we can be gods, all by ourselves.  Rather, it is the dawning of the light of Christ, the light by which we now see that God became one with us in order to lift us into his divinity, yes, yet not through these cheap tricks and evasions.  Rather, it is the beginnings of understanding that God, starting with Jesus, calls us, his people - the Church - into a communal and continuing living into the reality of a broken world, yet shot through with the promise of salvation through Jesus’ pioneering humanity and our willing obedience to, likewise, follow our Lord’s Way of Life.
In this new calendar year of 2013, will we walk that Way, that Truth, that Life?  Will we have fresh moments of Epiphany, when ‘the light goes on’ and we see the shallow half-truths for what they are, ourselves as the beloved creatures of a God who comes close to us, and no longer tempted by the thin magic of our shallow, contemporary culture?
I pray – for myself as much as for all you, my sisters and brothers – that we may.
+In the name of God, who is the Father of Lights, the Son who shines with the one True Light, and the Holy Spirit, who continues to enlighten a darkened world.  AMEN.

1 comment:

Fr Paul Trathen, Vicar said...

There is a little more, here, than was spoken in the actual sermon delivered at church worship. Mindful of time-factors, I skipped the middle section considering denial around the Savile/paedophilia revelations, US Republicans and climate change.
You can read it here, and savour it!...