A Sermon preached at the Anglican Church of St. Thomas, Kefalas, Crete, Greece
11:00 am January 6, 2018
So, have you taken down the Christmas tree? Have you got all your Christmas decorations put away? The tradition is, of course, that Christmas ends with Twelfth Night, last night. My father insisted that the decorations had to be down by this day, Epiphany. Some say the end of today is just as good. Regardless, if you do not get it down in time – whatever that time is, you will have Very Bad Luck. This is very important, obviously.
But, if you haven’t got them all down, well, you’re in good company. Perhaps you have heard that our Sovereign Lady, Queen Elizabeth, doesn’t take the Christmas decorations down (or rather, instruct the servants to take them down – she is in her nineties, after all) until February 6, and, according to that authority on all things royal, Hello Magazine, the reason is heartbreaking. For the date is an important one for the Queen, as it marks the anniversary of her father’s death. King George VI passed away on 6 February 1952 at Sandringham House, and she stays there each year to mark the anniversary in private before returning to Buckingham Palace. So, if you leave them up, as I say, you are in good company.
Today we move into the celebration of Epiphany. We leave the twelve days of Christmas and enter a new season, in which Christ is manifested to the world. The word Epiphany comes from Greek, of course, and is ἐπιφάνεια. Interestingly, in modern Greek, it means “surface”, what is visible. In the Greek of the Gospel of Matthew it means manifestation or appearance, and is about how Christ is shown to the world, primarily to the Magi, or Wise Men. But over the coming weeks we will hear of other showings forth, mostly from the Gospel according to Luke:
- The Baptism of Jesus next week – which our brothers and sisters in the Orthodox churches heard of in church today, and which is why there is a procession to water and the blessing of the sea by throwing a cross into it (followed by young men diving into the water to find the cross and return it to the Papas, and thereby receive a special blessing).
- The changing of water into wine at the Wedding in Cana of Galilee (that’s from John 2).
- The Presentation of the infant Jesus in the Temple and his welcome by Simeon and Anna
- The miracle of the Catch of Fish.
- The teaching of the Sermon on the Plain, Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, and finishing with
- The Transfiguration.
What strikes me as I look at the gospel readings over the next few weeks, between now and Lent, is how God is in charge. The showing forth of Jesus Christ is mediated by some human beings, of course, such as Mary and Joseph at the Presentation, or John the Baptist at the Baptism of Jesus, but for the most part Jesus is the one who acts, who instigates something. God acts, we react.
This is often how grace works. We think we are in control, that we are autonomous, but we are mostly reacting to circumstances and situations beyond our control. You did not get to choose your parents. We did not choose where we were born, or what faith we were presented with. It is really only in the past hundred years or so that children had the option of doing something different from their parents. You probably think you chose your mate, but if we think about it, many of us met by accident and it is not hard to imagine that if circumstances were different, we would not have met – if we had chosen to study in a different city, or did not go to the pub that particular night, chose to work somewhere else. I know of two young people whose parents would never have met if a friend of their father had not lost a wallet and if it had not been found by a friend of their mother. And we can look at these things and coldly assert that it was just chance, mere happenstance – but others perceive grace in this. Grace is God’s favour and blessing being shown to us. We are not always consciously aware of it, but God is present and active in our lives.
My theology of blessing is about epiphany and it is apocalyptic. Epiphany means showing forth. Apocalyptic has negative connotations in English, but in Greek it is simply the ordinary word for revelation, or exposure. Think of the unveiling of a plaque or a statue – that is an apocalypse, a revelation. Blessing is like that. We bless food, houses, people, and sneezes, but we also bless God – the psalmist sings, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless God’s holy name”. So blessing is not about adding something to a situation. It is about recognizing God’s action in a situation.
The Eucharist, this great Thanksgiving in which we take bread and wine and bless it, is an epiphany and a revelation of God working here among us. It is not magic, it is not hocus pocus, but recognizing the spiritual reality of God’s presence. When I bless a marriage, I am not adding something to the relationship, but simply recognizing on behalf of the church that God is acting in the couple.
There is this thing called prevenient grace, a major point in both ancient Catholic theology and the more recent Methodism of John and Charles Wesley. It is the belief that God is acting in us and for us before we are aware of it. Prevenient or preceding grace prepares in our hearts a place for God – it’s what makes that God shaped hole in our souls that only God can fill, that desire that only the divine can satisfy.
My hope and my prayer is that we become aware of how the God in Christ is working in us by the Holy Spirit, that we not pack it all away now that Christmas is over, but see it. May we join with the psalmist and say,
Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
who alone does wondrous things.
Blessed be his glorious name for ever;
may his glory fill the whole earth. Amen and Amen.