It is some consolation in the retail wasteland between Christmas and Valentine’s Day (in which we are cruelly deprived of meaning and purpose through having literally nothing to spend our money on) to recall that the Church is only half way through the Christmas holiday. Having reached Epiphany, we turn our attention away from shepherds and St Luke’s stinking menagerie, and find a house for the Holy Family, simple perhaps, but enough to receive their exotic ‘wise’ guests whose faithful starlit plod has led them westwards to Bethlehem, ‘the least of the tribes’, (Micah 5.2, Matthew 2.6) to alight from their ‘galled, sore-footed, refractory camels’ and open up their precious gifts.
This would provide a perfect theme to consider at the start of a new term. We could speak of perseverance, resilience and bravery, and it would no doubt be a heartening and improving experience.
But the picture is not quite so simple, for as we consider the coming of the Magi to this entirely human child, we think also of the Baptism of the adult Christ, and his first sign performed at the wedding at Cana of Galilee. In the first story, Christ joins the queues of the repentant at the river, drawn by John the Baptist to a washing-away of sins, only to be acclaimed by the Father as the ‘Beloved Son’, a relationship confirmed by the Spirit, descending in the form of a dove. At Cana, nature is transformed as water is tasted and seen to be graciously-provided wine, and all within the context of a marriage, celebrating love’s transforming power in ordinary human lives.
So much ordinariness. So much transformation. Yet we humans are largely useless at living with our own ordinariness, and will do almost anything to circumvent or mask it. We dress it in finery and designer labels, trying to be special with cars and upmarket postcodes, as if by adding a veneer of apparent success we can add a cubit to our inherent worth.
Alternatively, we run from being ordinary, resisting participation in our flesh-and-blood communities, taking refuge anywhere that will save us from the fear of failure, doing anything to distract us from the way things really are.
Worst of all, we build aggressive façades to disguise and reconstruct ourselves, kicking, spitting, scratching; vehemently defending positions we do not hold; striking an improbable pose; then posting unpleasantness on increasingly anti-social media, making ourselves so much less than the ordinary people we were trying so hard not to be.
None of this is necessary, or remotely intelligent behaviour. For all these three Epiphanies reveal what can happen when our own ordinariness and that of others is welcomed, celebrated and embraced.
The Magi follow with integrity their brightest light, not shrinking from an ordinary child, but discovering one who will live in such union with the Father that his nature is announced in prophetic gifts as royal, divine and life-giving.
Likewise at his Baptism, Christ’s humble participation in the washing-away of uncommitted sins brings unexpected affirmation and a dramatic commissioning for an extraordinary future.
Then finally, when at Cana all that is ordinary is exposed to the transforming power of God, it becomes wonderfully different, vibrant and fertile with deep rich notes of glory and joy.
Our New Year perseverance is therefore perhaps needed not in persuading ourselves and others how wonderful we are, but in accepting and befriending our basic human ordinariness, so that by loving and valuing ourselves as we are, we might come to love our neighbours also. Who knows? We might even begin just quietly to explore a tentative love of God.