Father Terry Tastard - Feast of the Epiphany

The gospel about the coming of the wise men tells us that after they had paid homage to the infant Christ, they returned to their own country by a different way (Matthew 2.1-12).  As we all know, they did this to avoid Herod's duplicity and paranoia.

But this different path that they took on the return journey is also deeply symbolic.  They had seen the Christ, and nothing could ever be the same again.  From this point onwards, every path they trod would be different.  They had sought, and they had found;  and their lives would never be the same again.
A lot of the time we speak of God as our comfort.  I have experienced this for myself in my own life.  God is a strengthener, a healer, a consoler, an encourager.  But there is another side of God:  God is also the one who questions us, who stirs up our conscience.  God is therefore also our challenger, the one who will not let us settle down too comfortably. 
This is true in that stable at Bethlehem also.  God is there, in Christ.  The wise men sought, and they found.  But was it what they were expecting?  Surely they went away troubled.  Could God speak through the poor?  Could God be present in the ordinary way through something as human as childbirth?  Could this be a divine breakthrough, there, in the outhouse of an inn, situated in an obscure town?  Evidently, yes.  But this must have upset their expectations, confounded their calculations.  And if this was how God was to be found, then they could never again take for granted the way the world was.  For from henceforth they would have to reckon with the fact that God could be found among ordinary people - more than this, they would have to reckon that God favoured people from the humble walks of life.  In them, God's eternal will was revealed.
And so they returned to their own country by a different way.  In fact, even if they had gone back by the same way, it would have been different on the return journey, for they would have been changed people.  TS Eliot captures this in a famous poem, The Journey of the Magi, which ends thus, with one of the Magi ruminating, now an old man, thinking about that journey.  In the poem he writes that when the wise men returned to their own homes, they were no longer at ease in their own society.  In effect, says the poem, they had glimpsed God in Christ and could no longer settle for the easy compromises that had once pleased them before.
For the old man, there has been an epiphany:  a moment of insight, when his eyes have been opened to the hidden reality of God among us.  Nothing could be the same again. 
For us, Christmas has been rather different.  It has been a time of comforting rituals.  The gifts, the cards, the familiar faces, the parties, have all spoken to us of familiar and the time-honoured things.  Everything speaks to us in this way, from the pictures of robins on snowy trees to the carols wafting over the loudspeakers in the shops.  It is good to be comforted in this way.  It anchors us.  It helps us know that we belong to a people, who share these memories, some of whom also share the Christian faith that gives us the memories.
But if we stop there, we are cheating ourselves.  We also need to be disturbed by Christ, just like those wise men.  We need to go to the stable, but to return to our everyday lives by a different path.  For if we have seen Christ in poverty, then we can never feel that the life of the poor is nothing to do with us.  If we have seen God among the ordinary people, then we can never be snobbish about ordinary people again.  If we have seen God enter into the rhythms of family life, then we realise that God is to be sought in the pressures and demands of our own family living.  The stable of Bethlehem  is a comfort and a joy, but it is also invites us to think again.  But if it is so, if it does this, then it has become epiphany for us too.

Fr Terry Tastard is parish priest (pastor) of Holy Trinity, Brook Green, in the Hammersmith area of London.  His new book:  Ronald Knox and English Catholicism is published by Gracewing at £12.99 and is available on Amazon, from religious booksellers and from the publisher.

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