Ali Smith in her latest novel 'Winter' says:
"Winter. It makes things visible"
In other words, it is a good time for looking around and noticing what is going on, certainly in the landscape, and for us faith people, looking to see where God is, and where we are.
Ali Smith also says about the period of Christmas, and in particular it’s music:
"It intrinsically means a revisiting. It means the rhythm of the passing of time, yes, but also, and more so, the return of time in its endless and comforting cycle to this special point of
the year when regardless of the dark and the cold we shore up and offer hospitality and goodwill and give them our. A bit of luxury in a world primed against them both."
This season, she says, is about the rhythm of revisiting.
Today marks the end of Epiphany, the end of the season of gifts and gifting, and I’m going to do some reminding.
Let’s remind ourselves, first, where Mary and Joseph and Jesus are at this time.
Like a bolt of lightening eighteen months or so ago, God had stepped into their lives in the most dramatic way and their lives were turned upside down. They had learnt to live with being
odd, the unmarried mother in a culture where that simply wasn’t acceptable.They were getting used to being talked about, perhaps shunned, certainly treated with perplexity. Because
they had said yes.
Because if God comes knocking on the door, and you realise it is God, then you do say yes.
When Jesus' birth was approaching Mary and Joseph had travelled to Bethlehem and squeezed in to a full house there, probably with a family known to them. Perhaps afterwards when the crowds for the census left, they rented a small place, wondering if this town that they knew, that was part of their history, would be the best place to bring up the child?
And then the kings came. These out-of-place foreign courtiers, reminding them that nothing was ordinary at the moment, not when God was present.
The kings came bringing their strange gifts. Gifts appropriate not to a baby but to the Son of God with a mission on earth. Gold of kingship, frankincense for the ultimate High Priest and
myrrh for anointing on death. It trips off our tongue, we find it easy in retrospect to work it out.
I wonder how long it took Mary and Joesph, handling, when they had gone, these rare exotic materials?
Meanwhile they were still busy searching out their destination for this time. Was Bethlehem the destination? the Holy City? Now they wavered...
THE ESCAPE TO EGYPT (Matthew 2)
13 After the wise men were gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. "Get up! Flee to Egypt with the child and his mother," the angel said.
"Stay there until I tell you to return, because Herod is going to search for the child to kill him."
14 That night Joseph left for Egypt with the child and Mary, his mother,
15 and they stayed there until Herod's death.
And after a few months, maybe more, did they then think quot;well, Is Egypt and exile the destination for this child? That is in our peoples history?"
R S Thomas the poet says:
"destinations are the familiarities from which the traveller must set out."
(‘Destinations' from Collected Poems 1945-1990)
And once again Mary and Joseph would have experienced the reality of this.
THE RETURN TO NAZARETH (Matthew 2)
19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt.20 "Get up!" the angel said. "Take the child and his mother back to the land of Israel,
because those who were trying to kill the child are dead."
21 So Joseph got up and returned to the land of Israel with Jesus and his mother.22 But when he learned that the new ruler of Judea was Herod's son Archelaus, he was afraid to go
there. Then, after being warned in a dream, he left for the region of Galilee.23 So the family went and lived in a town called Nazareth.
The thought was to return to Judea….but that was still not safe. Instead God tucked them away in Galilee.
Does anything good come out of Nazareth? Nathaniel was to say later to Jesus adult disciples.
Betjeman said it of Slough. We might say it of a time of illness, a time of waiting, a time of getting older: "Does anything good come out of this?"
It is a rhetorical question in God’s eyes.
Galilee and Nazareth was a backwater, for sure, but one where Jesus could be shaped in ordinary life… just as we are in different places, for different lengths of time, shaped by what
surrounds us there.
"destinations are the familiarities from which the traveller must set out." (R S Thomas: Destinations)
‘You have arrived at your destination’….our satnavs tell us...
So we tend to think that when we have reached our destination we have arrived… and for some this is what retirement here means, the destination we have waited for.
I remember realising that motherhood, a destination I very much wanted, when it arrived was actually the beginning, not the end. As was my baptism, which for me was when I was a
young teenager. And here, I only hear how busy retirement is as people at their destination realise the need for fulfilment still...
Sometimes we are given a destination place for a long time, but it is paramount that then our inner journey must continue.
Today is Candlemas, the end of the journeying season? Only for a time, Thirty years later Jesus picked up his sandals and hardly ever took them off...
So what do we take from the end of Epiphany this year?
We have understood in this season that strangers may come to us, outsiders, with gifts for us, and that therefore we must be, as a church, open to all who come through the doors.
And as individuals, open to all experiences in our own interior, personal journeys.
Because as we’re reminded today by Malachi:
"The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple." (Ch 3:)
God is here, and will be present to us. God: The messenger of the covenant which is a two way agreement between God and his people.
What is our part?
To long for goodness
To notice the signs of God
To seek God out, following the star
To bring our gifts
To welcome others, strangers.
And it may not be all sweetness and light, even if it will be ultimately. For Malachi goes on to say:
"who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap" (ch 3)
God is not always comfortable, I might say rarely comfortable, although extraordinarily comforting, reassuring. For it will always be better for us to be fit for eternal life, and at the
moment we’re not, we’re earthclad.
So this year: welcome strangers and strangenesses, things that unsettle us and disturb; families away from us; our own health difficulties that bring us awareness of vulnerability.
Welcome them not in their own right, but only in knowing that through them we can trust God to be refining us, allowing us to shed what is unnecessary in order to be a much better
shape of character, a much better fit for the next stage in our lives.
"the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight - indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can
endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier."
This may not be our Destination where we sit back, having arrived, this may be the start of a new process.
At Candlemas Simeon in the Jewish temple in Jerusalem took the baby Jesus in his arms, blessed the parents and said to his mother Mary, "This child is destined for the falling and
the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed." (Luke2)
There’s That Word again: ‘destination.’ 'this child is destined for the falling and the rising of many',
This child is the destination for many (as well as the one from who many run).
'Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you'. Says Augustine to us across the centuries. But this rest, is in the knowledge of God’s accompaniment in the
After Candlemas "The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him." (Luke 2).
May we, like Jesus, continue on, beyond Epiphany, growing in faith, becoming stronger in our understanding, and filled with wisdom
and the favour of God will be upon us.