A Sermon from Sherborne

More thoughts from Christmas cards

A sermon preached by Canon Charles Mitchell-Innes at Evensong in Sherborne Abbey on Sunday 6th January, the Feast of the Epiphany.


In his sermon this morning Canon Tim Biles spoke about those Christmas cards he had received which depicted the three Wise Men in various moods, guises and stages of their journey. I have also been looking, these last few days, at the cards of the Magi that we have been sent. Tim had fourteen, and, by an interesting coincidence, so have we — which no doubt shows consistency in those who choose Christmas cards for the clergy. Actually we have a fifteenth, but it shows four Wise Men packed onto two camels, presumably because it would not do for one of the camels to travel half empty. There could of course have been four of them: Matthew does not specify their number, only that they brought three gifts.

Some of my cards are what you might call generic; others have about them less of an aura of incense than of saccharine; but a few have a striking individuality and tell us  —  like Tim’s this morning  —  something important about the Magi’s journey and arrival. I am going to talk briefly about three of these pictures, and see where that leads us.

The first card — a modern drawing — shows the three of them striding purposefully across country under a night sky, and looking grim (or perhaps determined), holding aloft their gifts. It put me in mind of T.S. Eliot’s famous poem: “A cold coming we had of it, just the worst time of the year for a journey.” But no camels being refractory in this image. The second, also modern and camel-less, is rather more urbane and cosy. It shows them arriving at Bethlehem, in remarkably good shape and elegantly dressed after their gruelling journey from the east; the town, with the cattle-shed beneath the star, also looking spick and span. What is interesting here is the expression on their faces as they confer. It says something like, “Well, this is not quite what we expected: what do we do now?” I like that because, although they have travelled in expectancy all that way, their epiphany, their moment of revelation, is yet to come.

For that we must look at the third card. It is, I think, a renaissance picture, though unattributed, and shows the Magi richly arrayed and with crowns. They are now in the presence of the infant Jesus, who sits on his mother’s lap and leans forward to touch the head of the oldest of the Magi, who is kneeling before him. From the rapt attention of the three of them, and their steady gaze towards Jesus, it seems clear that this is a moment of revelation — their epiphany — after which things will never be the same for them, or indeed for the whole world: this is, after all, the Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles. The full implications of their experience may perhaps not hit them until they make their homeward journey, when they will have time to consider the significance of what they have seen, heard and felt. For the moment they are shown in a state of wonder at the serenity and numinous potential of this child, who gives meaning and worth to both birth and death, and thus value to the whole of our life. So that, in the words Eliot puts into the mouth of his narrator Magus at the end of his account, he was “no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation………I should be glad of another death.” Because of his encounter all those years before with the new-born Jesus, he can now face his own mortality.

I suppose you could characterize epiphany moments — which happen to most of us on occasion — as times when the normal suddenly becomes extra-ordinary and gives us a fleeting glimpse of something greater than ourselves, perhaps of the eternal. Moses had an experience of the divine when he “turned aside” to encounter God in the burning bush (Exodus 3: 1-6); and it is important for us too to turn aside to embrace such moments. In his poem “The Darkling Thrush” the 60-year old Thomas Hardy, intense yet sceptical, describes a bleak country scene in mid-winter, matching his own desolate feelings:


The ancient pulse of germ and birth

Was shrunken hard and dry,

And every spirit upon earth

Seemed fervourless as I.


But then another voice intrudes, that of an aged, frail thrush singing


In a full-hearted evensong

Of joy illimited.


Suddenly, out of his characteristic gloom, the poet has an experience of intense joy that he recognizes as almost religious — except that he had turned his back on religion:


So little cause for carolings

Of such exotic sound

Was written on terrestrial things

Afar or nigh around,

That I could think there trembled through

His happy good-night air

Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew

And I was unaware.


So the encounter could be a divine one; but Hardy cannot wholeheartedly embrace it. He lived another 28 years, but sadly it seems unlikely that he finally did embrace that “blessed Hope” which speaks of life beyond the grave.

We, though, gathered in this church this evening, are afforded that hope. At this service last Sunday Eric our Rector spoke of the star which led the Wise Men to Jesus, who is himself our guiding star: if we follow where he has led, Christ the Morning Star, the Dayspring, will bring us ultimately beyond the gate of death into the full glory of his shining.

So I end with lines of the poet-priest Malcolm Guite reflecting on the Advent antiphon O Oriens, O Dayspring:


First light and then first lines along the east

To touch and brush a sheen of light on water

As though behind the sky itself they traced


The shift and shimmer of another river

Flowing unbidden from its source;

The Day-Spring, the eternal Prima Vera…..


So every trace of light begins a grace

In me, a beckoning. The smallest gleam

Is somehow a beginning and a calling:


‘Sleeper awake, the darkness was a dream

For you will see the Dayspring at your waking,

Beyond your long last line the dawn is breaking.

Canon Charles Mitchell-Innes 06/01/2019
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne