Feast of the Epiphany
5 January 2020
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Here we are—almost—at the Twelfth Day of Christmas.
Tomorrow (January 6) we complete the great celebration of Jesus’ birth within the Western tradition, and then tomorrow evening the Orthodox faithful will begin their Christmas celebrations.
This double celebration in western and eastern parts of the church is an accident that derives from our different ways of counting time.
In the West, we have tended to count the days according to the movement of the sun; which works pretty well provided we have an extra day inserted every fourth year to keep things in sync. The calendar we know was promulgated by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 and was itself a reform that involved skipping ahead 10 days to make up for a gradual drift out of alignment that had happened over the 1,628 years since the previous reform of the calendar by Julius Caesar in 46 BCE.
Although the Gregorian Calendar has been widely adopted and is now used by almost everyone in the world for civil and commercial records, the older Julian calendar continues to ‘set the clock’ (as it were) for religious purposes in the East.
While it looks to us as if the Greeks are celebrating Christmas almost two weeks late, that is simply because our ways of counting time are out of sync.
Both in the West and in the East we celebrate a 12-day festival between Christmas and Epiphany.
That quirk of public timekeeping reminds us that how we see reality often depends on the lens through which are looking.
I wonder if there may be a subtle lesson for us as our ‘culture wars’ over climate change paralyse our public administration so that we are unable to respond appropriately to the massive fire emergency across vast areas of our ancient continent.
Rather than defend ‘how we see things’, perhaps the fire emergency is calling us to deal with what is now happening in our forests and even on the water’s edge.
At the heart of today’s Gospel is the strange tale about a visit to Bethlehem by a delegation of leading scientists ‘from the East’.
It is a marvellous symbolic story that invites us to imagine an impressive entourage of exotic people turning up in the little town of Bethlehem. And there is nothing in the story to restrict their number to three people!
Matthew is not describing three mates off for a fishing weekend.
Matthew is not suggesting one person with a package of gold, another person with a bundle of frankincense and a third person with a jar of myrrh.
Rather, Matthew is pointing to a delegation from the faraway eastern lands who brought ‘truckloads’ of precious materials not easily available on the local market.
These sages will not have been travelling without a bodyguard, plus slaves to look after their camels and other slaves to prepare their meals, offer personal services, etc.
We actually have several descriptions of one such Eastern delegation to Rome around the middle of the first century, and that visit may have been the inspiration for the scene that Matthew has created in his birth legend for Jesus:
The story of a state visit to Emperor Nero by the Armenian ruler, Tiridates, is told by several ancient writers, but this example from Dio Cassius gives a sense of the scene being constructed by Matthew for his readers:
In the consulship of Gaius Telesinus and Suetonius Paulinus … Tiridates presented himself in Rome, bringing with him not only his own sons but also those of Vologaesus, of Pacorus, and of Monobazus. Their progress all the way from the Euphrates was like a triumphal procession. Tiridates himself was at the height of his reputation by reason of his age, beauty, family, and intelligence; and his whole retinue of servants together with all his royal paraphernalia accompanied him. Three thousand Parthian horsemen and numerous Romans besides followed in his train. They were received by gaily decorated cities and by peoples who shouted many compliments. Provisions were furnished them free of cost, a daily expenditure of 800,000 sesterces for their support being thus charged to the public treasury. This went on without change for the nine months occupied in their journey. [Dio Cassius, Roman History.]
Now that is one impressive state visit by Eastern rulers (magi), and it helps us to imagine the scene that Matthew is suggesting for his audience.
Unlike Nero, also a nasty character by most accounts, Herod does not make the eastern visitors welcome but rather seeks to exploit their visit for his own evil plans.
This is not history, of course, but an imaginative celebration of the significance of the birth of Jesus. Luke, as we know, tells a very different story; but each in their own way are teasing out the political significance of Jesus, the Anointed One, the Lord, the Saviour.
So here we are celebrating this ancient legend as we wrap up our Christmas and as our Orthodox friends prepare to start their own celebrations.
And our country is on fire!
Are we just playing holy games inside the Cathedral to make us all feel better about a world which is a real mess and our lives which are far from perfect, or are we dealing with spiritual wisdom that is not only relevant to everyday life but has the power transform how we deal with reality?
Most people in town—and maybe most of our family and friends—think we are playing harmless religious games, but I hope we have a sense that the faith we share has the power to change the world.
It did so in the past. Repeatedly. And it still has that capacity.
As our country burns we could use some wise ones to come from afar—east or west, north or south—and brings gifts to help solve this fire emergency which threatens to consume such a large part of our countryside.
Actually, wise and generous people have already arrived and most of them came from close by:
First of all the amazing volunteer fire crews (how can we ever thank them?)
Alongside them a vast network of emergency response people: setting up evacuation centres, preparing food for both the fire crews and those escaping the fires, donations of money and goods to assist those impacted by the fires, as well as chaplains offering emotional and spiritual care to everyone involved.
Then we have the array of scientific and technical people who bring their expertise to help us understand the fires, the weather; to fly the aircraft and to maintain the fire trucks.
The defence force has become increasingly engaged in the battle, for such it is, to save our communities from the flames that are licking at the suburbs of Sydney and consuming isolated rural communities.
Ordinary members of the public doing their part and then even more to assist as and where they can.
Not to mention the volunteer fire crews who have arrived from overseas.
We are all in this together.
Most of these wise and generous strangers have emerged from among us, just as they did some weeks ago when the fires were causing devastation in the area around us here on the north coast.
We have been overwhelmed by the scale and the ferocity of the fires, but we have also been renewed and lifted up by so many acts of kindness and generosity.
The fire emergency points to the larger climate emergency which our politicians seem unable or unwilling to see:
a world where extreme weather events become the norm
a world where ice caps melt
a world where sea levels rise
a world where islands and delta regions vanish under the sea
a world where fires start earlier, burn hotter and last longer
In such a world and at such a time we need wise and generous people who will bring gifts that calm our fears and address our challenges.
As people of faith, we are the ones with ancient spiritual wisdom on which to draw as we face the fire emergency and beyond that the climate emergency.
What gifts do we bring?
Gold might be useful, but let’s set aside the frankincense and myrrh.
In the spirit of Epiphany let me suggest three spiritual gifts we offer to our community and our nation at a time such as this: hope, courage, solidarity.
The fires are destroying more than landscapes and structures.
Dreams are going up in smoke. Homes are destroyed. Lives are lost and livelihoods vaporised. Wildlife is devastated and massive quantities of emissions are pumped into the atmosphere.
After the fires subside the grief will persist and the challenges of starting afresh will remain. The climate emergency will continue and will doubtless get worse before it improves. And the fires will be back long before the next summer begins.
Despair robs us of energy to meet these challenges and paralyzes our political leaders.
This is not a time for recrimination, but it is a time when people need hope.
We are people of hope and the Easter message is a story of fresh beginnings.
Our Christmas faith proclaims a God who is present among us and identifies with us: Emmanuel. Not a faraway power nor a pure philosophical principle, but a God who is born into a third-world village on the edge of a vast empire.
We dare not pretend to have all the answers, but we do have spiritual wisdom which gives us hope even in the darkest times.
Not ‘hoping for the best’; but remaining hopeful even in the worst of times.
To face the fires takes immense courage, raw courage.
To rebuild lives and communities will also require courage.
The ultimate source of the courage we bring to bear in these difficult times is our spiritual confidence in the power of love. For us, love is at the very centre of the universe and we know that love as Emmanuel, the God who is with us, within us, between and one of us.
Addressing the challenge of our climate emergency will require courage, and courage requires deep spiritual roots if it is not to wilt in the heat of these fires, in the dryness of this drought.
Thousands of years ago an anonymous songwriter from Jerusalem talked about finding a well from which to drink as we pass through the valley of weeping (Psalm 84:5–7).
That well is our faith, the spiritual wisdom we have inherited from our forebears and have tested in our own lived experience.
This one of the gifts we bring to our community as a Cathedral and a people of faith.
We do not fold under pressure, but we go deep and find those hidden wells from which to draw courage to face the tough questions and courage to make the changes as we create a new and sustainable future.
In times of crisis we need to stand together, and we have seen that happening in every place where the fires have torn communities apart.
Perhaps that is why we find it so offensive for political leaders to go on vacation as the fire emergency engulfs our country.
Solidarity is at the heart of our faith.
Emmanuel is a God who identifies with us, who is in profound solidarity with us.
From the beginning of Christianity we have spoken about being “in Christ”, united with one another and forming the “body of Christ”.
As we gather at the table of Jesus to break bread and bless wine, we are engaged in a ritual of solidarity: Holy Communion.
We belong to each other and our future is a communal one. We are not just saving individuals, but transforming whole communities, indeed the entire world.
As we join together in solidarity, inspired by courageous hope and hopeful courage we can overcome the devastation of the fires and even find a way to address the larger climate emergency.
Divided and paralyzed we will surely fail, but we bring to our community, our nation and the whole planet profound spiritual wisdom which gives us hope, fuels our courage and draws us together as one people.
Find the wells and tap into the ancient spiritual wisdom of our faith.
Then bring our gifts of hope, courage and solidarity to a nation in need of all three.