Friday, 7 January 2022

Following the star that leads to Christ: An Epiphany Sermon

Croydon Minster on the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord, 6th January 2022.


Just before Christmas I said something during a school Christmas assembly that I have since come deeply to regret.


A politician might say I ‘misspoke’, but that feels like a copout. I was fully conscious of what I was saying but as I said it I regretted it.


And this feast of the Epiphany gives me a chance to put it right!


So what was this dreadful thing that I said in front of a hall full of young people? What could be so bad? Did I swear? No! Did I get party political? No! Did I commit the heinous crime of denying the existence of Santa Claus? No!


It was something that might strike you as less obvious, but is really significant.


Here’s the context. You may know the blessing:


May the joy of the angels,

the eagerness of the shepherds,

the perseverance of the wise men,

the obedience of Joseph and Mary,

and the peace of the Christ-child

be yours this Christmas;


I was trying to connect the features of the Nativity to basic human desires and characteristics: joy, eagerness, perseverance, obedience, peace.


So I suggested that the young people always be open to joy to navigate dark and confusing times. Be eager both in life and in learning. Persevere! I suggested that the word ‘perseverance’ might be better rendered in our culture as ‘resilience’. Obedience I related to the root of the word meaning ‘to listen’; we should listen carefully so as to make good decisions and choices. Peace. We all seek out peace and shalom, that sense of wellbeing and inner peace.


So far, so inoffensive. And that’s the problem!


First, I depersonalised joy, eagerness, perseverance, obedience, peace. In the Nativity story these things are not just vague ‘values’ but connect to the personal experience of angels, shepherds, Magi, Joseph and Mary. Secondly, I glossed over the dramatic message of Christmas, that God, the creator of all that is, took human flesh in order to raise our humanity to what he always intended it to be, and that he does it through Christ.


And the worst thing I said in that Christmas assembly was… ‘follow your star’. I was effectively saying ‘follow your own dream’, ‘pursue what works for you’. And in doing so I am saying nice, motivational, uncontentious things. But I am not speaking the Gospel.


I was erasing the biblical and Gospel significance of what it means to be a disciple - a searcher for, and follower of, Jesus Christ. I was commending self-absorption not immersion in the life of the Living God.


The star the Magi followed wasn’t their own wish-fulfilment, it was quite the contrary. It took them away from themselves.


The message of the star the Magi followed is, ‘this is not about you’. It’s about Jesus Christ, who you are called to worship and be in relationship with. Joy, eagerness, perseverance, obedience, peace are great, but are invested with a new meaning for the person who turns and follows the Christ-star.


The call of the star of Bethlehem that led the Magi is a call to places where our culture doesn’t normally go; it is a call away from self to encounter the mystery of God.


That’s at the heart of the Epiphany. We are led away from ourselves, from all that is comfortable and just where we want it, and we are led back into the mystery of who we really are, in Christ.


So, my ‘misspeak’, my ‘faux-pas’, my error was to fail to say that at the heart of Christmas is Christ, the one to whom the star leads.


Of course, I was trying to be sensitive. Not everyone is Christian. Not everyone wants to follow the Christ-star. People should make up their own mind. Pursue your goals. These are the working assumptions of our culture. But the Christ-star still shines outside the Church too.


The feast of the Epiphany is known in the Book of Common Prayer as the ‘Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles’. Today tells us that this message is Good News to people of all nations, and tribes, and languages, and cultures. Of course we are sensitive about how we say things, but that should never blunt the proclamation of the Gospel.


As a disciple of Christ I set out day by day to follow the Christ-star, to lead me to encounter the mystery of the Living God revealed in Jesus Christ, made known in his sacraments.


This is the pearl of great price, this is the treasure of the Kingdom of God, for which we should be prepared to give everything in return. And if you and I have received that treasure, then who on earth are we to deprive others of the chance of knowing it for themselves too? That’s why we should say, why I should have said to those young people, ‘this star will lead you to the source of life and the fullness of life, Jesus Christ’. Follow it!


The star is shining now, calling us onwards to encounter again Jesus Christ the Word made Flesh. Let us come to him joyfully, eagerly and obediently and, persevering, may we know that peace that can only come from him.

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