January 3 2021

Epiphany 2021

Today I would like to begin with part of a story from the Eskimo or Inuit folklore tradition, and it is very short and very thought-provoking. On the face of it, it may sound utterly implausible, and yet it points to a profound truth about the nature of faith and belief and trust.

The people had no oil when they stopped. So they took soft, freshly drifted snow and put it in their lamps, and it burned.
They had arrived at a village. A man came to their house and said: Look, they are burning snow in their lamps. Snow can burn.
But the moment these words were uttered, the lamp went out.


In the mainstream churches the feast of Epiphany is on Wednesday. In everyday language we use the word “epiphany” to describe a sudden discovery or revelation about something.

In the Christian calendar, Epiphany marks the day when the divinity of the baby Jesus was revealed to the gentile world, in the shape of the Wise Men or Magi who followed the star.

The Magi are described as arriving at the stable in Bethlehem 12 days after the birth, on Twelfth Night in fact, and not (as we often think of it) hot on the heels of the Shepherds.

The word “epiphany” comes from the Greek for “appearance” or “manifest”. If we take the story literally, the Magi are believed to have been from what was Persia, and were priests of the Zoroastrian faith. They are thought to have possessed knowledge of astronomy, and would have worshipped their divinity under the name of Ahura Mazda, the Lord of Light and Wisdom.

They are thought to have been three because of the gifts they bring of gold, frankincense and myrrh, and eventually they were given splendid names too, as befit such eminent personages in this pre-eminent tale, Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar.

Twelfth Night is not an unreasonably late time to arrive at the stable, if we recall that their journey would have been across hundreds of miles and taken several days.

The moment of sudden intuitive understanding or flash of insight was originally always linked to some sort of appearance or manifestation of the divine or holy. For the Magi it was the understanding that the exceptional star in the heavens heralded a divine birth.

I can’t help but feel that it is good for non-conformists like ourselves to at least  occasionally reflect upon how the holy days of the mainstream churches relate to our own religious life and traditions.

To anyone who leads a life in which the possibility of divine revelation remains real, and epiphany, a moment of sudden intuitive understanding, a flash of insight is always going to be extraordinarily significant.

I do not know whether there is room in your own religious life for an epiphany, but I sincerely hope there is. Most of us long for an enlightenment of the great mystery of life and the sacred parts of it, even if we cannot embrace the stuffy old traditions associated with it.

Given the choice of experiencing an epiphany or not, I think most of us would embrace it. And epiphanies are by no means confined to the lives of those who are dedicated to a religious calling. There are, I believe, enlightening moments in the secular life all the time. What William Wordsworth so aptly describes as the “still, sad music “ of earthbound humanity, may be suddenly shot through with a perception of the interconnectedness and inseparability of the worldly and the sublime.

The experiences we encounter and which demand our attention are moments of epiphany, when we realise our own essential integrity, and when we must do what is right. We are going about our  business when we stumble upon something that has our name on it, — or rather, something with our name on it finds us. To complete the task may require inconvenience, cost, self-sacrifice, possibly even risk. By stepping forward to greet it, we encounter our destiny. It is always a human story, and it takes us on a journey, home to Bethlehem, to Jerusalem, or to the temple of our own heart.

The story of the Wise Men or the Magi is very sparse. It takes up only a dozen verses in one of the Gospels. And yet for centuries the Epiphany story has been only second in importance to the Easter narrative within the Christian tradition.

Although less revered in Protestant congregations here in the West, it has always meant a lot to humankind, because it describes the condition of people who saw God on earth, and were changed by the encounter.

You will remember at the end of the narrative in Matthew, the Wise Men were warned in a dream not to return to King Herod. Not wishing to betray the whereabouts of the infant Jesus, they return to their country another way. Taking another way home is also appropriate for the Magi, for they have encountered the holy, and have been changed by it.

We too will follow their example, if we are open enough, humble enough, and have faith enough, to receive the gift of insight which is epiphany, and be changed by it.

Because the message had to be perfectly clear, that the most lofty and the most powerful would trek for days in order to humble themselves before holiness, oxen and an ass have been included in the story, kneeling down in the stable, to represent the veneration of the whole animal kingdom.

The setting could not be more lowly. The divine is always to be found as part of everything that is. We believe it is still to be found in all the sublimity and familiarity of everyday human living.

If like the Magi we fall to our knees before it, and offer it our gifts, we will be changed by it, and we too will return home another way.  Amen.

Sunday Service homilies from the Minister during coronavirus period