Epiphany - a darker feast - St Bride's: Reflection

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Epiphany - a darker feast

Epiphany - a darker feast
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Just before Christmas I had an email from the 12 year old son of an acquaintance who wanted help with his Christmas holiday RE project. He had to write about 'What are the benefits of religion as opposed to atheism?' I wrote down some ideas for him, but struggled to express myself in sufficiently simple terms for a 12 year old to grasp (or to pass off as his own work), because to answer that question takes you into difficult and complex territory. Faith can certainly be grasped by a child, but the concepts behind faith are often sophisticated and dark.

One of the challenges of Christmas is that it's seen as a festival for children. A lovely story about the birth of a baby becomes the occasion for carols, Christmas trees, twinkly lights, the giving of presents. All very lovely, very child focused and very exciting for the children. But when it comes to the Feast of the Epiphany, if we look closer, we begin to become aware that this is something difficult and darker, a festival for adults with an altogether more challenging meaning and message.

Behind the cosy image of the three Kings often seen on Christmas cards and incorporated into the Christmas story are much darker images: the massacre of the innocents as King Herod tried to get rid of potential rivals to his authority and the image of Jesus as a King but not like Herod: instead a King whose crown was to be a crown of thorns and whose throne was to be the Cross, a King whose birth was heralded by the brightness of a star, but whose death was accompanied by darkness. So the shadow of the Cross at Epiphanytide falls across the story of Jesus from the very beginning. St Matthew, in telling us about the visit of the Three Kings is saying listen to the whole story, not just the cosy bit. Yes a baby given gifts appropriate for a King but a King not like any earthly monarch, a King who was to suffer and to die. Look ahead, says Matthew, and see how God's love really works, how his light shines in the dark corners of the world through wonderful examples of self-giving, self-forgetting love, and how that love was focused for all time in the person of Jesus and in his death on the cross. And then, as you look at the journey those three Kings made, reflect on your own journey through the events and experiences of your own life and remember that your faith can carry you through not just the good times, but the troubled and painful times as well.

Christmas, yes, is a time for children and rightly so, but Epiphany reminds us that the message is an adult one for grown up people. When we are young we just enjoy all the fun and excitement and warm glow of the Christmas and New Year season. But when we become adults we realise that Christmas and New Year can be a very difficult time for some people: that it can bring remembrance of the past year's sadnesses, and that behind the surface jollity there can often be tears and heartache. To address that reality we need a grown up message, a message of strength and hope even in the midst of adversity, the Psalmist's conviction that 'The Lord will give strength to his people, the Lord will bless his people with peace'.

Faced with that young man's request for help with his school project I struggled to express difficult ideas in simple terms for that 12 year olds RE project, and that's not surprising because behind its warm and cosy facade the Christmas/Epiphany message is an adult and challenging one - that even when things are at their darkest we can find God at work - in our lives and our world. God is at work, sharing what happens to us, and giving us the assurance that this new year will be a fresh year, a year of promise and of joy. And in that spirit, not superficial but of sincere longing, that we can wish each other, as I wish all of you, a happy and blessed New Year!

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