Arthur Middleton recalls the light of Epiphany
Epiphany lights up the difference between reality and pantomime: that this story really happened, but also that life – unlike fairy-tale and pantomime – is full of contradiction and paradox. This reality the Christian message preserves and will not deny: the people that walked in darkness have seen a great light.
Like all own babies, Jesus grew up. He became the man on the Cross; but beyond the baby and the man is God, manifested in the flesh. Here is God so taking our nature as His, that what is divine and human grow into one Person in such a way as never to be severed again. This is the stupendous happening that brings light into darkness, and is what St Paul meant by saying that in the fullness of time God sent His Son, born of a woman.
Our Lady is God’s instrument, who carried in her womb the very Bread of Heaven that would be distributed to the faithful as their food and strength. When we celebrate the Eucharist we are distributing that Bread of Heaven, which first took shape in the womb of Mary in order that we might live in the life He lives with the Father in the Holy Spirit. This Bread makes this place our Bethlehem, a name that literally means “House of Bread”. In this bread is God’s own life: He gives it to us that we might have life, and have it more abundantly.
No mere obliteration of darkness
There is no pantomime about the
abnormal Manner of His birth and
the unusual manner of His death.
He was born in a stable, and died on a cross. Both tell us that rejection was
the story of Christ’s life, in the end as well as in the beginning. Christ was
born in darkness, and died in darkness. In the manger He was wrapped in swaddling-cloths, and in the tomb He was wrapped in a linen shroud. Yet at His birth He is described as “Saviour”, “Messiah”, and “Lord”; and at His death as “Messiah”, “Son of God”, and “King”. Mere shepherds were the first to hear of His birth, and criminals were the closest physically to Him at His death. Gentiles from the East recognised Christ’s divinity at His birth, and a Roman centurion confessed Him as “Son of God” at His death.
This is not magic: God doesn’t work like that. The Light that shines in the darkness illuminates a path, a road, another way through life, and invites everyone in every age to try it and discover its size for themselves. Furthermore, if we are prepared to find that road and walk in that way, we will never be alone – Emmanuel, God will be with us at every step, even when life is so dark and desperate that we cannot see Him. He is the rod to hold on to even through the valley of the shadow of death, and that will bring us to the light and life beyond.
This good news of Epiphany is for the whole world, and involves much more than the birth of a wonder child. It opens up a whole new way of living and dying where we find – if we live in this Bread of Heaven – a food and strength that brings a quality of life which transcends all alternatives. This delivers us from a world of make-believe and pretence. The people who know at first-hand are those who have the shadow of the Cross over them as they celebrate His birth – their passion like Christ’s passion is the darkness in which they walk, whether in sickness, bereavement, unemployment, marital breakdown: the experience of a rejection that cries out to God “Why have you forsaken me?” This Cross, which ultimately marks everyone’s life, demonstrates to us that life is never a pantomime.
So the message of Epiphany itself can never be reduced to a pantomime, because Christ has experienced in His life everything that human rejection can throw at us. It is this Cross that makes Epiphany real, and the Resurrection that completes it. Epiphany reminds us why Christmas can never be an escape into twenty-four hours of make-believe. This child is Emmanuel – God with us in the midst of the mess, as well as in the mystery of it all. Ultimately, and finally, that has to be good news. That baby who took shape in the womb of Mary is the Bread of Life, given to us as God’s own life that makes our home a Bethlehem, our House of Bread. This is to be our food, and our strength. Emmanuel, God with us, is the great light to lead us when we walk in darkness. The darkness will not magically disappear, but amidst the encircling gloom that light will lead us on – and particularly as we contemplate the lead-up to Lent.