Feast of the Epiphany 2020 Homily

We are but a few days into the new year, a new year which has started with the most extraordinary sense of our vulnerability – our vulnerability before the power of nature, our powerlessness before drought and fire, our thirst for rain. We have a profound concern about our climate which now presents as an unavoidable question.  This morning we gather conscious of those who have suffered as much over these days: those who have lost loved ones and property; those who have lived with such anxiety. We are mindful of the destruction of land and wildlife.

A new year ordinarily starts with optimism and possibility. This year has started with despair and concern. Indeed, in the face of the disaster by which we are gripped there is little room for appeals to optimism. They present as facile and hollow. The observation of the Prime Minister at a Victorian relief centre that “there is always something to look forward to” jars for its inappropriateness. What is there to look forward to when you have lost everything you have worked so hard to achieve, or lost someone you have loved? Optimism is not a solution; it’s an evasion of reality. Optimism does not help to build broken lives.

Our Christian Tradition itself does not make us optimists. It makes us realists. It is the very framework by which we enter reality difficult as it is. The late German theologian, Johannes Metz writing on the vocabulary of the Scriptures suggested:

This language of prayer is itself a language of suffering, a language of crisis, a language of affliction and of radical danger, a language of complaint and grieving, a language of crying out and, literally, of the grumbling of the children of Israel.  The language of this God-mysticism is not first and foremost one of consoling answers for the suffering one is experiencing, but rather much more a language of passionate questions from the midst of suffering, questions turned toward God, full of highly charged expectation . . . And the prayer that expresses their yes is not a language of exaggerated affirmation, no artificial song of jubilation that would be isolated from every language of suffering and crisis and which all too quickly falls suspect to being a desperately feigned naiveté.  What occurs in this language is not the repression but rather the acceptance of fear, mourning and pain; it is deeply rooted in the figure of the night, the experience of the soul’s demise.  It is less a song of the soul, more a loud crying out from the depths – and not a vague, undirected wailing, but a focused crying-out-to . . . Not vaguely undirected questions, but surely passionate and focused questioning belongs to that mysticism in which we have to form ourselves in order to find true consolation.[1]

Should we accept this then we acknowledge that, like the wise men of old whom we commemorate this day, we are on a journey, a difficult journey. With them, we are presented with a question which will not admit of an easy resolution. It sets us on trajectory with a destination we do not know but which is the outcome of studied negotiation along the way. In Robert Dessaix’s words it makes us ‘travelers’ not ‘tourists.’[2] As he writes, the tourist is the one who must follow a prescribed course adding up to something.  But a traveller is someone else. A traveller is someone who allows what happens to them tell a story, to take them to the unexpected place but one which nonetheless opens up a new possibility which was never envisaged, in fact what is truly an epiphany. It seems to me that, as a country facing the disaster now gripping us, we are called to this particular attitude of heart and mind.

Perhaps, then, the story of the wise men’s own Epiphany presents as a paradigm of our own time in history. Those men of old are not seduced by optimism or slogans; they are not tourists. They are committed to the search for an answer to their question, a journey which takes them to the most unexpected of places. The story of the men of old is one of Epiphany, one of enlightenment. We can think of enlightenment as the outcome of the journey, at its end. However, enlightenment comes to us not only as a single moment of epiphany. It is also something that presents with dawning. In the fog of the smoke of our thinking we can begin to see something slowly emerging with clarity. This is the genuine opportunity of this moment. Might we see, albeit slowly, as to whether we are at a turning point in our history in this place, whether we need to go forward to the discovery of a new way of being in this place.

If we consider ourselves on a new journey, we are formed by what we see even now. In this current crisis, the end of which will elude us for a long time yet, many, in fact, are the epiphanies we are given already: the unbelievable commitment of our fire-fighters, emergency services personnel, police and defence forces – so many of them working on a voluntary basis; the bravery of those flying water bombers; the glowing goodness of countless anonymous men and women sharing what they have with those who are in need - every one of them genuine leaders. All of them reveal to us what is most good, most beautiful, most true. Today, we give thanks for the epiphany they are of the God who is present to us, through them, in what we are experiencing.

We do not know where this current drama will take us. But let its journey open our eyes so that we might see in a new way. Let this experience be our epiphany.

[1] Johannes Metz, A Passion of God: The mystical-political dimension of Christianity, translated by J. Matthew Ashley, (New York/Mahwah, NJ:  Paulist Press, 1998), 66-69.

[2] See Robert Dessaix, “(and so forth)”, (Sydney: Macmillan Publishers, 1998), 140, 148.