If, following the birth of my children, three strange people had turned up at the door with shining and sweet smelling but totally impractical presents, I’m not sure what I would have thought! Yet we come now to the feast of the Epiphany, when we mark the arrival in Bethlehem of the three kings with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Who are these mysterious characters who followed a star and lavished such expensive and elaborate gifts on a baby born in a dirty stable to unmarried parents? And what do these unusual events tell us about God and about our own place in the nativity story?
I tend to feel rather low at this time of year, and I always find it hard to return to work after the Christmas break. Following the hype and the excitement and then the excesses of food and drink and socializing and present-giving (and I’m grateful that I can eat well at this time and be surrounded by dear family and friends, and receive gifts) there is a fatigue and a kind of emptiness and a sense of ‘what now’. And I find myself just wanting to curl up in bed. I received a lovely e-mail from an old friend who was due to travel to spend Christmas with her mother but had a viral infection and stayed at home on her own. She wrote that “it was amazing to live Christmas almost in my own little cave… it gave me a new appreciation of the power of stillness and silence. I can’t say that I enjoyed being so sick but I can’t say that it was an unhappy Christmas either! There was something sacred about the quiet.”
It’s tempting to try to run away from difficulty and pain, and I believe that the travel companies do great business in January as people plan their summer weeks in the sun to ‘get away from it all’. And I must admit that I’ve had some fantasies during these dark and damp days of exotic (and empty) beaches! It’s not easy to live with and embrace those places of sickness, loneliness, emptiness that afflict us all at some time or another. And it’s hard perhaps to see how these could be places where God might be present in some hidden and mysterious way, and where unexpected gifts might be given.
So at this cold, dark and fallow time of the year let us be gentle with ourselves; let us dare to find places of stillness and quiet in our busy, noisy world; and let us be especially tender with one another. And let us be open in this New Year to receiving unexpected gifts in unexpected places from unexpected bearers.
Happy Epiphany to all, and a very Happy and Blessed New Year,
and a lovely little poem by the Jesuit Patrick Purnell:
It was the sheer inaptness of their gifts which got her,
out of politeness,
to suppress it,
and burst into laughter,
the sheer incongruity,
of gold, frankincense
and, would you believe it, myrrh
and what she wanted was nappies.
But in her laughter
that this was the place
and worshipped him,
while he wet her dress.