Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Life after Epiphany

In his brief and brilliant poem T S Eliot traces the path of the Magi, through “the very dead of winter” facing hazards, challenges and portents on the road to their destination as witnesses of the newborn Christ. But as so often with Eliot, it’s the twist in the final few lines that takes the reader off into a new and hitherto unexplored dimension. For, whereas Matthew simply tells us that they made their way home by a different route, Eliot makes us listen to the elderly traveller reflect on life after Epiphany:

…this birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Eliot’s insight is that, no matter how hard or arduous the journey to a religious experience may be, the greater challenge lies in living in the light of that experience afterwards, among people who haven’t shared it and cannot understand it. It’s a thesis borne out by statistical surveys which invariably show a majority of respondents are able to identify something that has happened to them that they would classify as a religious experience, and yet in most cases they haven’t found a way of integrating it into the rest of their lives.

I like to think that what is in the poem isn’t just Eliot’s Christian insight but something of his quintessentially Anglican identity. Here was a man who spent many years in the office of churchwarden, a position less associated with theophanies than with the challenge of ensuring good order and that the practicalities of church life are given due attention. In my years as a parish priest I found that a high proportion of those who came to join us were not new-born Christians, fresh from some profound conversion experience, but men and women who had come to faith elsewhere, often in more evangelical or Pentecostal gatherings, and had, after a short while, found little there that enabled them to live in the world as it is; nothing that could sustain them once Epiphany was over.

To be Anglican is not to disregard or downplay religious experiences. I know in my own life how important are both the occasions when I receive an intense experience of God and the daily sense of his quiet presence beside me and within me as I encounter him in contemplative prayer. But being Anglican is so much more; it’s about being resourced, equipped and encouraged to live a Christian life that is fully incarnated into a world which operates according to significantly different values. The work I do, nationally and locally, to promote high standards in equality and diversity practice, and my involvements with the Housing Association movement are as much what it is to be Anglican as my attendance at public worship and, as a bishop, my role as Eucharistic President.

And so I delight that the Church of England calendar now has the post Epiphany season running all the way through to Candlemas on February 2nd. But I do slightly wonder why so many of the Sunday lections for the next few weeks are about the miraculous, when, as Eliot has told us, that’s the easy bit, it’s after the journey is over that the real challenges arise.

David Walker is Bishop of Dudley in the Diocese of Worcester

Posted by David Walker on Wednesday, 6 January 2010 at 12:00am GMT | TrackBack
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Comments

"I delight that the Church of England now has the post Epiphany season running all the way through to Candlemass (sic) on February 2nd. But I do slightly wonder why so many of the Sunday lections for the next few weeks are about the miraculous?" - David Walker -

Bishop David Walker always has something useful to say to us who are interested in the way the Church engages with the World. I can only suppose that the reason for the stories of the miraculous in Epiphany-tide is related to the theophanies that are seen to be observed by Jesus' followers in those stories we find there.

Beginning with the 'miraculous' recognition of Jesus as Messiah by the Arab Kings in Bethlehem, to the 'instinctive' recognition by the old priest Simeon and the Prophetess Anna in the Temple - of Jesus as *The Light to enlighten the Gentiles* - these stories somehow are meant to co-exist with the 'epiphania' or showing forth of Jesus, in the intervening Sundays, as Son of God and Messiah.

Mythical though these stories may be, they do help us to understand something of the great mystery of Christ Incarnate in the human culture and circumstances of the world in which he lived and died. Epiphanies do occur to quite ordinary people in their journey of faith. Perhaps that is why these stories are so important to us as instances of God's glory being shown through the human person of Jesus - at the Epiphany Season.

The lectionary is a treasure largely unexplored by non-catholic Christians. This might be why they cannot understand our liturgical processes.

Posted by: Father Ron Smith on Wednesday, 6 January 2010 at 9:54am GMT

This is a great reflective post and I have edited it and put it in my blog Blue Eyed Ennis. Hope you don't mins me sharing it with others - I have attributed the source to you !

Posted by: Phil Ewing on Wednesday, 6 January 2010 at 11:53am GMT

As a Churchwarden struggling to keep all the balls in the air, thank you Bishop David for this beautiful, helpful and encouraging post.

Posted by: Clive Black on Wednesday, 6 January 2010 at 11:21pm GMT

I have falling back in love with being Anglican/Episcopalian all over again. Reading this thoughtful, intelligent and deeply Christian post backs me realize why. Thank you to this blog for going beyond religious and political news. This was beautiful, a gift.

Posted by: William Veinot on Saturday, 9 January 2010 at 1:50am GMT
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