If you visit a house or a maternity ward where there’s a new-born baby and you look into the cradle where the baby’s fast asleep, you can’t help but say to the mother, if he’s a boy: Isn’t he lovely! And she, however exhausted, will smile with pleasure and contentment. And the same would be true if you were a shepherd or a wise man visiting a stable and looking into a manger.
The Christmas story is full of ordinary, everyday things. But it’s also full of mysterious things - not sinister mysterious, but happy mysterious, things we cannot understand - angels, a heavenly choir, a guiding star
It’s also full of surprises. Just imagine how surprised Joseph must have been when his fiancee said to him: Have I got a surprise for you! Then, just after Jesus had been born, what a surprise for his parents when, in the middle of the night, a group of shepherds knocked on the stable door and came in with some extraordinary tale of having seen and heard angels.
By the way, I read somewhere a rather interesting notion: The hinge of history is the stable door at Bethlehem. The hinge of history is the stable door at Bethlehem. There’s something to ponder.
But it must have been an even greater surprise for Mary and Joseph to be visited by a party of well-to-do strangers from foreign parts who knelt, actually knelt down before their baby and showered him with expensive gifts. Astonishing!
Quite rightly, much has been made of the contrast between these two sets of visitors. First the shepherds. At that time and in that place most people looked down their noses at shepherds: they were uneducated; they were more or less on the poverty line, and because of the nature of their job they couldn’t observe the proper religious obligations. Being a shepherd was just one or maybe two steps up from looking after the pigs of a Gentile boss as the Prodigal Son did. I hasten to add that it’s very different today. Today’s shepherds have the stature and the status of a John Bishop, farmer and columnist in the Clock.
By stark contrast, Jesus’ other visitors were wise men, educated and wealthy, sophisticated, the sort of people that most others would look up to. What’s more they were from the east, not Jews, not part of God’s Chosen People. And the clear message of it all is that this child, Jesus, is, as the old Prayer Book puts it, for all sorts and conditions of men. Nowadays of course there would have had to be some shepherdesses and some wise women. Yes, Jesus is for everyone, everywhere.
Well, today’s feast and the event it commemorates is called the Epiphany, and as the old Prayer Book again adds, it is the Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles. The word epiphany means showing, and today we sometimes use the word to describe the sudden revelation of some truth. He had an epiphany, we can say. But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve come to wonder if this is the right meaning of the story, and so also if it’s the right title. I don’t think God is much into epiphanies: it’s not his normal way of operating. He does not write explicit messages in the sky for all and sundry to see. He does not interrupt the world’s television channels with words from the Gospels. The Angel of the North, for example is silent. You could say he is eloquent with God’s word, but it’s only to those who are looking and listening.
Jesus said: Ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. Isn’t that how God works? There are clues aplenty and signs everywhere: in nature, in earth and sky, in human creativity, in art and music and literature, in science and in technology, in human institutions, in the church, and above all in people, in ordinary people doing good things. Pointers all of them to God, to his creativity, his glory, his presence, his love. But only those who are asking and seeking and knocking at the door will discover their significance.
One of the most popular and widespread events of Christmas at school and in church is the nativity play. To the delight of parents, grandparents and congregations, young children act out the Christmas story, including the shepherds in dressing gowns and tea towels, and the wise men, even though we know they weren’t really kings, wearing royal robes and crowns. They don’t always go just right. In one of them - and I believe this is actually true - in one nativity play one of the visitors, after peering into the manger, asked Mary: What’s his name then? There was a long, long pause, and then Mary said: Eric.
In a way that would have been a suitable name. Nobody else in all Israelcould have been called Eric. It would have marked Jesus out as being someone special, someone unique. It would have been a name to attract attention. But that’s not the sort of name that God chose. His messenger, the angel, had said independently to Mary and to Joseph; His name shall be Jesus. It’s a name that means: The Lord saves, but even more significant than that is the fact that it was a very common name indeed in that place, at that time. It was like one of us today naming a new son William or Harry or George or Henry. According to The Times those were the four most popular names given last year, well at least by those who are posh enough to announce their son’s birth in that paper.
God purposefully chose a not-to-be-wondered-at name, and Jesus grew up in Nazarethwithout any special notice being taken of him. Like other boys, he went to the synagogue school; like other teenagers, he learnt a trade from his father; like other men, he worked to make a living; like sons today, he lived at home till he was thirty. And when after he’d started his preaching, and he returned to Nazareth, the people there said: Who does he think he is? Isn’t he the carpenter’s son; don’t we know all his family; where does he get it all from?
And then time and time again after he’d healed someone, Jesus said: Don’t tell anybody about this. Though of course they did; they just couldn’t help it. And when, after the disciples had been with Jesus for many months and he asked who they thought he was, and Peter said: You are the Christ, the Son of the living God, Jesus gave them strict orders not to disclose this to anyone else. And consider the resurrection, could it have been less demonstrable, less epiphany like?
You see, God’s work is undemonstrative; God’s word is muted. Epiphanies aren’t his way. Rather than manifesting, he puts the onus on us to ask, to seek, to knock, and so to discover.
Let’s get back to the visit of the wise men. I’ve come to think that a more appropriate name for it that the Epiphany would be the Discovery. They were astrologers, they were constantly seeking, looking for signs, and when they spotted something they thought they must follow, they put themselves out, making a long and expensive, maybe even dangerous, journey. The star, a mysterious star indeed, was their satnav in the sky. But they weren’t given the exact postcode. You can tell that because they only got to Jerusalemwhere they had to make further enquiries.
It’s fun to think of possible postcodes for the stable in Bethlehem. Bethlehemis eight miles from Jerusalem: so it could be JM8 1JC. Or, thinking of the hinge, BC1 1AD.
Anyway, for the wise men their asking and their seeking, their terrific effort in following up God’s hints at last paid off. They found God in the manger, and they bowed down before him, worshipping him and offering him tokens of their livelihood. It was a wonderful discovery.
For ourselves, I don’t think we can bank on God giving us an epiphany. But if we persevere in asking, seeking and knocking, we will make our own discovery. We too shall find God, and worship him, and offer him our gifts.