Many readers will be familiar with TS Eliot’s poem The journey of the Magi and its lines ‘A cold coming we had of it… The ways deep the weather hard. The very depths of winter.’ Many readers may not be aware that those phrases are direct quotations from one of Bishop Lancelot Andrewes’ sermons on the Nativity, which were preached to King James (Andrewes was also one of the translators of the King James Bible). It was an important element of Andrewes style that he took words or phrases from scripture and worked at them from every aspect of language and scriptural resonance.
In the same sermon Andrewes picks up on the two verbs the Magi use to describe their actions to Herod; ‘we have seen’ and ‘we have come’. He then goes on to reflect on the immediate response of the Magi; there was no delay and no concern for their own safety and comfort – they set out though it was the very dead of winter. He then continues in a sarcastic mood asking the congregation if they would set out immediately at such a time, ‘perhaps they would prefer their Epiphany to come in early September?’
Andrewes is pointing out an element in the Epiphany that is often ignored – the need for a response to God’s call. Countless sermons are preached to explain that Epiphany means manifestation or disclosure, and that the season of Epiphany is a time for revisiting the ways that God chooses to reveal himself in Jesus. This is the season for remembering the revelation of God’s purpose in the baptism of Jesus – an event that emphasized Jesus’ identity with fallen humanity; it is at the baptism that his Sonship is confirmed with the sign of the Spirit’s descent. It is the season for the miraculous signs of Cana and of healing; each Sunday’s liturgy opening up onto new ways in which God reveals his purpose and calls people into discipleship.
In my experience little is said about how a person should respond when the Lord does reveal himself to them. It is one thing to say, ‘we have seen’, it is an entirely different matter to say ‘and we have come’. It is a useful Epiphany exercise to spend some time in prayerful reflection of our own faith history; the history of our own experience of God and our response to it. It is possible to use the Magi as a pattern. It was by their study of the night sky that God first revealed his purpose to them; The Word that spoke to them in creation speaks to us still – recall your own experiences of God in creation. Secondly, they asked questions of those they understood would have insight and wisdom – the king and his wise men. It is in thinking, questioning and the exposition of scripture that Christ reveals his presence. Yet all this of no avail unless the will is moved to bring body, mind and soul into obedient action.
The main burden of Andrewes’ unfolding of ‘we have seen and we have come’ was that for the Magi the Epiphany to the Gentiles means hardship and courage on the part of the Gentiles themselves. As the season of Epiphany gloriously demonstrates, God is revealing himself in myriad ways to our body, mind and spirit; the journey of the magi teaches us that the response to this revelation may be through deep ways at the deadest of times. As Eliot’s Magi admit at the end of his poem – to come to the place of worship and adoration involves a kind of death in those who would seek it.
Andy Hawes is Vicar of Edenham with Witham-on-the-Hill and Rural Dean of Bettisloe in the Diocese of Lincoln