The Epiphany of Our Lord Jesus Christ - 6th January 2024

Epiphany Crib beneath the Cross 2024

Epiphany Crib 2024

Today we celebrate the Epiphany, the revealing of Jesus as the son of God, the Messiah, who has come to draw all people to God. In the Eastern church this is the revelation that happened at the baptism of Jesus, which we will celebrate in a week’s time as the culmination of the Octave of Epiphany. For us in the West we particularly link the Epiphany to the story of the visit of the wise men to the infant Jesus as told in Matthew’s gospel. Whichever way we look at this feast it is a feast of light, of enlightenment, as our eyes are opened to see the true glory of God incarnate in Jesus Christ.

In English another word we could use of the wise men is ‘seer’, ‘one who sees’. In all the stories around the origins of Jesus I find this theme of those who see and those who don’t. And those who do see are not the insiders, the religious professionals but are outsiders. For Matthew these are astrologers, those who observe the signs written in the heavens by the stars, who come from the East and are not part of the people of Israel. We could see the shepherds in Luke’s gospel in a similar way – simple, uneducated people who receive God’s message with joy. And Mary herself was not part of the religious establishment. In John’s gospel we read ‘ He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.’

As inheritors of the traditions of the Church and our Benedictine monastic tradition we might think that we know the truth of God’s ways. But we have to be careful that our cherished ways of seeing don’t blind us to what God is really doing. We must be open to the way God’s message is ever new and embodied in ways we may not expect. Like the wise men we must be open to see things that challenge us and call us to undertake a journey into the unknown.

Of course I am not saying we must throw away all our traditions – at their best they provide us with structures which hold and direct us as we seek God. The Rule of St Benedict provides us with a pattern of life that calls us to be ever open and mindful of God’s presence in all the details of our common life. It is a wonderful gift that draws us into deeper and deeper love for God expressed through our rhythm of prayer and our loving service of one another. But as stewards of this beautiful Benedictine treasure we must be ever open to new ways of living this out. It needs to be a living tradition that brings life to those who engage with it. As Bp Adrian said in his charge to us we need both to return to our first love but also to embrace change.

Our first love, for the worship and service of the God revealed in Jesus Christ, provides the light for us to journey onward to whatever lies ahead. For the wise men that light was embodied in the star that led them to Jesus. I was very struck yesterday by what Sr Mary Mark said when we were discussing whether we needed a star above the Epiphany crib. She said that the illuminated cross hanging above the crib was the star. As I prayed in Church this morning I realised that this was about much more than a convenient bit of theatrical stage-setting, it was about the very core of our faith. It is the cross of Christ that provides us with our orientation. It is indeed the star by which we navigate. Jesus came to unite us to God by overcoming the sin and death that separate us from God, with the culmination of his life being his death and resurrection symbolised by the empty, glorified cross that hangs in our church. In Jesus’ crucifixion the worst has been faced and transcended and we can follow the star of the cross knowing that Jesus walks with us. We have nothing to fear as we journey through life towards the inevitability of death.

Our Sister Mary Owen is now very close to the end of her earthly life and touching that sense of going home which is what death is ultimately about. And now it seems that our Sister Mary John too is entering into her final journey, although we do not know how long this will be. For the rest of us we do not yet know when and how God will call us home but we do know that sooner or later we all must make that journey. If our earthly lives continued for ever they would no longer feel so precious, somehow the fact of death brings into focus the joy of life. A joy to be lived to the full whilst we are in this mortal life, as we journey towards the joy that will be ours in the life to come.

Human institutions have their life-cycles too and this community is clearly entering into a phase of diminishment with the letting go of things we can no longer do. It can be frightening as structures and practices we have loved and cherished over many years have to be let go. But in that letting go we can allow something new to happen. In the biological world if there was no death and decomposition there would be no new life. Decay produces the fertile humus for new growth, as we well know from our work in the garden. The irony is that cancer cells kill because they do not know how to die. They grow for ever and destroy the body in which they live.

We need to be see-ers as the wise men were, watching open-eyed for the signs that God is sending us. And then be prepared to leave everything we have known, to follow the star, the way of the cross, to whatever surprising destination God has in store for us. My hope is that that destination will still be at the Abbey even if the way of life becomes quite different, perhaps with partners as yet unknown. But at the heart of whatever happens here at the Abbey will be our continuing worship of the God incarnate in Jesus Christ, revealed as the saviour of all people at his Epiphany.

Mother Anne - 6th January 2024