Sermon: Time Beings and Epiphany

26 01 2014

A couple of weeks ago I read a novel that I found gripping, enlightening, distressing and while ultimately unsatisfactory, an occasion for gratitude. It was Ruth Ozeki’s ‘A Tale for the Time Being’.  Its title put me in mind of W.H. Auden’s ‘For the Time Being: a Christmas Oratorio’ (written in the 1940s) but I could find no reference to Auden in this book which is set both on the West coast of Canada and in Japan. Indeed I now realise that the phrase ‘time being’ means quite different things in the two cases.

In Ozeki’s novel the central character, called Nao, says,

“… I am a time being. Do you know what a time being is? Well, if you give me a moment, I will tell you. A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be.”

In Auden’s ‘Christmas Oratorio’ on the other hand the concern is with ‘the time being’ which is the time in which we live as theologically defined – that is between the first coming and the second coming of Christ: the time between the two advents.  Living in this time, as we knowingly do, means that  we live on the cusp between ‘before’, from which we have come, and ‘after’ to which we are going. Living in this moment with faith means making a choice – a choice about the kind of interpretation and use we are going to make of the present moment. How we are going to live.

I appreciate that not everyone who has come to this cathedral today would have been expecting to have such heavy thoughts to deal with on the day after Burns Night. Rather than Auden at his most theological, you might have been hoping for some echoes of Caledonian romance.  But my intention here is not render you ‘poor wee panic sticken beasties’, but to get a bit closer to that part of you which is anxious and insecure and a bit muddled about things like the past, the present and the future. I want to address you as a time being – in Orzeki’s sense, who happens to live in the time being, in Auden’s sense.

Let me clarify one thing about being a time being during the time being. It’s not much to do with the clock. Auden is very clear about this.  ‘The clock on the mantelpiece / has nothing to recommend’.  The calendar is more help to us, and this sermon is indeed timed for the epiphany season – we will shortly be in the company of the wise men.

But first the Shepherds. In his poem, Auden has the shepherd’s take on the role of the humble but not acquiescent poor. They do not seek to control, but neither do they accept being taken for granted. They refuse ‘to behave like a cogwheel / when one knows one is no such thing’. Nonetheless, they say, ‘what is real / about us all is that each of us is waiting’ … The shepherds have no ‘art’: ‘you should not take our conversation / too seriously, nor read too  much / into our songs; / Their purpose is mainly to keep us / from watching the clock all the time.’

But the shepherds know that one day something will happen … ‘But one day or /The next we shall hear the Good news.’

And of course they do.  A chorus of angels appears and this is what Auden has them say – rephrasing the words of Isaiah which our first lesson this morning (Isaiah 9.1-4) was building up to:

Unto you a Child,
A Son is given
Praising, proclaiming
The ingression of Love,
Earth’s darkness invents
The blaze of Heaven,
And frigid silence
Mediates a song;
For great joy has filled
The narrow and the sad,
While the emphasis
Of the rough and big,
The abiding crag
And wandering wave,
Is on forgiveness:
Sing Glory to God
And good-will to men,
All, all, all of them,
Run to Bethlehem.

In response the Shepherds say in chorus:

‘Let us run to learn / How to love and run; / Let us run to Love’.

We are used to the contrast between the poor shepherds and the rich wise men from Christmas carols, medieval mystery plays and contemporary school nativities.  Auden works with the distinction and makes of it a different contrast and so frames for us a more vivid challenge. In Ozeki’s sense the question put to us is, ‘what sort of time being should I be?’  For the shepherd and the wise man in Auden’s vision live time quite differently.

The shepherds reflect an Arcadian temperament. They have never left their birthplace, have ‘no future’ but harbour a ‘sullen wish to go back to the womb’. Beset by trials they have considered suicide. They reject it but don’t really have a clear or profound reason for doing so – ‘I don’t know why, /But I’m glad I’m here.’ You can almost see the shoulders shrug. Nothing about purpose, destiny, duty, achievement or the desire to leave a legacy. No, just ‘I’m glad I’m here, and here I am and that’s that’.

The wise men, on the other hand, are men with a mission – to understand, to control, to lead, to rule.  These are Utopians who want to make the world a better place and who are prepared to put themselves and everyone else to a great deal of trouble to do so. Their great journey is a symbol of this. These are men who will stop at nothing and for nothing. Onwards and upwards they go, civilising, improving, bowing to no one and driving things forward. These are men of such raw intelligence, native wit and ambition for success, that they effectively have no relevant past.  They are, my friends, management consultants, or people who go into politics with no life experience.  If you prefer to get your metaphors from the great Toy Story movies Auden’s wise men are Buzz Light Year in a business suit. (And the shepherds are Mr and Mrs Potato Head.)

The genius of Auden’s poem is the same as the genius of a good nativity and a good carol service which draw together Luke’s shepherds and Matthew’s magi so that we can choose with whom we most easily identify … and then brings them both and us into the presence of the baby in the manger in the stable.

What happens?

To the Shepherds who live habituated and unreflected lives without purpose  but with  growing cynicism and not much love – the child has the power to sweep away ‘the filth of habit from our hearts’.  They know what they see in the manger and they cry ‘O here and now our endless journey starts’.

The restless, journeying magi with their sights on the future respond very differently, and on seeing what is in the manger cry out, ‘O here and now our endless journey stops’.  Their stopping reflects the stopping of the star in the sky ‘over the place where the young child was’.  If you are ever reading this passage in public can I invite you to mirror the words and leave a little tiny pause at that point. It’s important to stop. This is the message to the magi: it’s time now to give up the restlessness and accept, honour and worship. It’s time to offer your gifts, your talents, your time to the God in child in the manger.

Having looked at this aspect of Auden’s poem we can see a new shaft of sunlight fall onto the familiar story of the call of the disciples which we heard in the gospel reading.  The fishermen, like the shepherds, are Arcadians. They are in the family business and intend to live life our in the traditional way. The call of Jesus changes that – as it has for millions of young people growing up in agrarian, working class and traditional communities ever since. Christian calling and ordination-m training or teacher-training has often been the engine of social mobility – that was the original vocation of the Colleges of St Hild and St Bede here in Durham – and I can testify it to being part of my own life.

But the point of this social mobility is not that some people can get educated into mobile middle-class-ness. It is that they have seen something of the God who calls some and settles others and in fact both settles and disturbs all of us in new ways on new occasions.

And this brings me to the final chorus at the end of Auden’s poem, which is a valediction to those who have seen the glory of God in the face of the infant Christ and who now must live differently.

He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.

He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.

I was greatly helped in the preparation of this semon by an online article by Alan Jacobs which is available here: .

A Gift is a Gift is a Gift: An Epiphany Sermon

6 01 2013

The feast of the Epiphany reminds me of my time as chaplain of King’s College, Cambridge because a spectacular image of Epiphany dominates the sacred space and the high altar. Ruben’s ‘Adoration of the Magi’ was painted for a Belgian convent but later given to the College and in the late 1960s the east end of the Chapel was re-ordered around it.

King's College Chapel, Cambridge

King’s College Chapel, Cambridge (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Framed between two panels (which we closed with some ceremony and a sharp bang during the Stripping of the Altar on Maundy Thursday) this masterpiece creates an environment that’s both intimidating and inspiring.

Celebrating the Eucharist with it behind you is a particular, not to say peculiar, experience.  The sheer size of the painting, the scale of the virgin and the magi is intimidating.  And you know all the time that there is tension between the bread and wine on the altar –which are the intended focal point of any Eucharist, and the compelling figures just over your shoulder and above your head.

I used to like showing the picture to children. ‘Which one is God?’ I’d ask them, and they would invariably point to the king who looked most like Santa Claus.  They find it hard to imagine God as a baby.  We all do.

But for me the focal point of the picture is neither the bearded old man, nor the elegant and well-dressed young mother, nor yet the infant she is holding out for veneration. Rather it is the space between the old man’s eyes and those of the child. They are looking at each other. They are looking into each other.

This mutual beholding, this mutual gaze, this shared and deep attention, is at the heart of Ruben’s great picture. And it is this which is at the heart of what we call ‘Epiphany’.

The word means ‘manifestation’, ‘revelation’ or ‘discolsure’ but it is more than that, for the God who is revealed is remarkably like us in one important regard. The image of God here – the baby – is (and the point is obvious but needs to be made) of a human being with eyes.

Epiphany is not only about seeing God but about being seen by God. Indeed we can only ever be aware of a God who is aware of us. You can’t creep up behind God or expect to catch God napping. God is pure attentivity.  God is divine awareness. God is loving-alertness to us, whatever our state or condition.

This is the discovery of the prayerful soul or the spiritual pilgrim. Not that they go on a journey and find some image or symbol that sort of hints at the essence of God or summarises a high ethical principle. The true pilgrim’s destination is found only when they find themselves attending to God’s attentiveness and realising that it is a loving attention. And the pilgrimage becomes a deeper journey of faith when, having seen the seeing-one, they do all they can to live in such a way as begins to justice to this loving eye at the centre of all reality.


The second Epiphany theme that I want to explore is that of gifts and giving. The story suggests to me that when they set off on their journey, the magi were not necessarily on a gift-giving mission. It was in response to what they saw – what they felt and how they interpreted it all – that they opened their treasures, rummaged around a bit and found three things that were appropriate.

This is not the same sort of gift-giving as we have been practising – with more or less élan and success – over Christmas. The magi did not make a special purchase and then gift wrap it. Rather they carted all their choicest things along and gave something of their own, a treasured and symbolically significant item away.

While we are comparing and contrasting practices of giving, notice that Mary does not say, ‘now Joseph make a note of who gives what, because we will never remember when it comes to writing ‘thank-yous’ and sending them a gift next year.’

These gifts from the treasures are simply accepted.

A lot of theological ink has been spilt over the question of gifts and giving in recent years. And rightly so, it is a worthy subject for deep refection.  The anthropologists tell us that every gift that is given creates a debt and demands a reciprocal response. The story of the Epiphany does not follow this logic. Not so much as a ‘thank you’ transpires.

Of course these gifts from the treasures of the magi are not actually the primary gift here. They are a response to the primary gift which is the gift of the child. Nonetheless, I don’t think we see here that quid pro quo reciprocity of gift-giving in this passage, nor do I believe is it a Christian understanding of giving.

When Christians give, it creates no obligation in the recipient. We give not as part of closed process of give and take but because we are part of God’s gracious flow of giving.  The business is not circular but linear: like a river the flow of giving runs ever forward. We know that we have received more than we can make any adequate response to and yet this does not burden us with guilt or duty. Rather it liberates us to live with a similar gracious generosity.  All is gift in Christianity, and gift in the pure sense.  At the heart of Christian thinking is the idea that a gift is a gift is a gift.  You can never justify receiving it or respond adequately.  All you have to do is enjoy it – for ever.

I have offered a sermon in two halves this morning: the first about worship the second is about giving, but it is wrong to hold the two apart. The story of the Adoration of the Magi teaches us that the deeper the worship the more authentic, thoughtful and generous the giving.  It is the vision of God that is the inspiration of giving – not because we want or need to give anything back, but because we see that giving as such a delightful and divine activity.

Giving is the opposite of self-regard, it is the ultimate turning away from ourselves; it is the turning towards others and God. It is the surest way to obey the two great commandments – love God and neighbour. We love God by doing in our own way what God does and we love our neighbours by making available for them what we have, own and process.

By giving I do mean financial giving, but also the giving of ourselves in volunteering or even through paid work – for it is possible to work generously and wholeheartedly, obedient to the needs of your organisation but nonetheless pouring your energy your heart and soul into it. Indeed vocational living is all about giving away your best gifts in the service of God’s mission of love.  So yes, real giving is the giving of that which we own and treasure, material and spiritual, financial and in-kind. We feel the loss when we make a real gift, but nt imply loss, we know again and again that strange combination of delight and depletion which is the only reward of true giving.

Such giving is not an optional extra in the worship of the Christ-like God. It is intrinsic to it.  When we hear that the wise men opened their treasures we should indeed feel the call, the inspiration, to do the same. Not because it is a difficult duty or an attempt at reciprocating, but because it is the most graceful, wise and true response we can make to the glory and love of God.

God is pure gift. And we most profoundly bear God’s image, most accurately reflect God’s glory and most clearly reveal God’s grace when and as we give.

That was an affirmative. Epiphany also offers questions:  ‘what is your gold? What is your frankincense? What is your myrrh?’

And an imperative: ‘give them away!’