A Homily given by Canon John Halkes
St Paul on visiting Athens -just 40 years after the events we followed tonight-famously said: ‘Men of Athens I see you are religious and there are statues to your gods. And I see that you even have an altar inscribed ‘to an unknown god’ . But I come among you to speak of a God who is known’.
The Epiphany of our Lord which we celebrate today – is just that; God being made known to us in Jesus, who manifestly enters our world so that our God may be recognised and known. And loved rather than feared because of that.
Tonight’s Christmas to Epiphany story is significant at all levels.
Jesus is born to a maid called Mary by God’s will. And she and Joseph her husband break all human protocols and remain obedient to their calling.
The birth is lowly -in a stable not a palace. God comes as a baby- vulnerable and frail. The first witnesses are Shepherds, who because of their calling are ritually unclean – but it is they, not the rich and powerful, who become the first recipients of Glory.
Later witnesses are the Magi who followed a star by their learning. Their instinct is to pay homage to a god they yearn for. It is apparent that Jesus is for the whole world’s yearning; gentiles and Jews. That later insight is indeed world changing.
But the world is evil and violent. So the first human role of this Christ child is to be a refugee from the terror of Herod -the epitome of neurotic insecurity- whose instinct is to subjugate. Think of Assad today.
So this is our Emmanuel -which means ‘God with us’
Vulnerable; marginalised; endangered and universally human. This Jesus is, as the passionate poet Wm Blake wrote 17 centuries later:
Mercy in a human heart, Pity a human face, and love the human form divine
and peace the human dress.
Tonight our Christmas Feast comes to an end- but the season continues through Epiphany to the date on the 2nd of February -when we celebrate Jesus being presented in the temple; so the crib stays until then as a reminder.
And we who have barely recovered from the political global shocks of 2016 look forward to the new year- now never more dependent on God for guidance as to how we are to proceed.
In the words of W B Yeats’ prophetic poem ‘The Second Coming’
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;…..
..The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity
But we must always remember that our world is redeemable and redeemed:
global poverty is decreasing; global health and education improving; child mortality rates falling; climate change is being addressed despite the politicians -and surprisingly global death through violence is at a record low.
W B Yeats writes towards the end of that poem that he now knows that, despite the darkness of the moment
‘That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle.’
Tonight we see God among us and we shall never forget that rocking cradle that brought us here.