In Epiphany we celebrate the revelation of God incarnate as Jesus Christ. Whilst we focus primary in the Western church on the visit of the Magi we will also mark the baptism of Christ, the start of his ministry, and the wedding at Cana, his first miracle which we have just heard in our readings.
This evening I’d like to share some reflections that occurred to me whilst reading the stories of the magi and the wedding at Cana regarding the value of receptive gazing and listening in our spiritual lives.
At Cana, when the wine has run out, Mary speaks to servants about her son “Do whatever he tells you” she says. There are echoes here of the transfiguration when a voice from heaven announces – “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.
At Cana, Christ’s instructions concerned filing the jars with water. We should recognise how obtuse this might have appeared. The wine had run out prematurely and Jesus suggests they fill the jars with water, what does he have in mind that everyone be encouraged to rehydrate to save them from any morning headache perhaps. We might be reminded of the story from Kings where Naaman, who seeks a cure from his leprosy is told to bathe in the Jordan river seven times. He responded angrily – I thought that Elijah would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy he says. Are not the Abanah and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not have washed in them and been cleansed? Naaman’s servant saves the day – My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, ‘Wash and be cleansed’?
Servants are well disposed to hear Christ’s instruction, elsewhere in the Gospel Jesus says as much – the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who leads like the one who serves. I am among you as one who serves and he calls us to do likewise.
This same kind of receptivity is helpful in prayer. When you pray Jesus says do not babble, do not think that you will be heard because of your many words. John Main, the Benedictine monk, who initiated the Christian meditation movement writes:
In meditation we do not seek to think about God nor do we seek to think about his son, Jesus, nor do we seek to think about the holy spirit. We are trying, rather, to do something immeasurably greater. By turning aside from everything that is passing, everything that is contingent, we seek not just to think about God, but to be with God, to experience him as the ground of our being. It is one thing to know that Jesus is the revelation of the father, that Jesus is the way to the father, but quite another to experience the presence of Jesus within us and, in that experience, to be brought into the presence of his father and our father. This is very much consistent with Benedictine tradition indeed the first ward of the rule of St Benedict is – asculta – listen.
This kind of listening it strikes me, has much in common with gazing, such as the gazing I imagine of the Magi in the Christ child and his mother, it involves a laying aside our own desires to rest in a spirit of devotion, to be receptive.
Part of my Christmas and Epiphany routine involves visiting the national gallery to spend some time in front of some the great artistic representations of those events. There is a particular tradition in the Eastern Church of icon gazing, a kind of divine looking. In his book Ponder These Things: Praying with Icons of the Virgin, Rowan Williams writing of those traditional icons where the Christ child face is seen touching that of his mother and it provides a relevant reflection-
“If we begin, as most of us tend to, with a notion that God stands at a distance waiting for us to make a move in his direction, this image should give us something of a shock. The Lord here does not wait, impassive, as we babble on about our shame and penitence, trying to persuade him that we are worth forgiving. His love is instead that of an eager and rather boisterous child, scrambling up on his mother’s lap, seizing handfuls of her clothing and nuzzling his face against hers, with that extraordinary hunger for sheer physical closeness that children will show with loving parents.”
What a beautiful revelation that is and yet it’s important that we don’t confuse the consolation and its source. As John Main reminds us prayer is not an exercise in seeking spiritual highs. Another of my New Year routines involves a walk either up a hill or the sea, somewhere to contemplate creation. In his poem “Sea Watching” R. S. Thomas provides a reflection on a dispassionate gazing because as Carys Walsh puts it, in this poem watching and praying become indistinguishable they cannot be told one from another. Watching for the rare bird over the sea, or for God in the torrents and eddies of our prayer, is to pray.
Grey waters, vast as an area of prayer that one enters. Daily over a period of years I have let my eye rest on them. Was I waiting for something? Nothing but that continuous waving that is without meaning occurred. Ah, but a rare bird is rare. It is when one is not looking at times one is not there that it comes. You must wear your eyes out as others their knees. I became the hermit of the rocks, habited with the wind and the mist. There were days, so beautiful the emptiness it might have filled, its absence was as its presence; not to be told any more, so single my mind after its long fast, my watching from praying.