Three wise men

At the time of writing, Advent is in view: as you read this, your eyes may be rising towards Epiphany. In between, the mighty festival of the nativity of our Lord. Three seasons, then, which often overlap as we sing, and three wise men to help us. No, these are not kings nor from the East, unless you count East Anglia. Just hymn loving friends who have enriched January 6th in special ways.

The first lives now in the west, the USA, and hardly counts as a Forward in Faith favourite. But Brian Wren is full of surprises, and his latest collection We can be messengers, with Susan Heafield’s music, takes us from ‘Thanksgiving’ to Epiphany in a sequence of worship songs which are simple without being banal. In ‘Listen to the children’ we sing ‘Every hand that hurts the children, every land that hates the children, better a heavy stone and jump into the sea.’ When did you last use the words of Jesus in a hymn?

Enter the more familiar wise man No 2, and how good it is to have an orthodox Evangelical Anglican bishop as probably the outstanding author of congregational verse on the Incarnation among all our contemporaries. Many will know of Timothy Dudley-Smith’s annual Christmas card which since 1968 has included a new hymn text each time. Some are more like poems for reading, but several already feature in mainstream hymnals.

Among these are ‘A song was heard at Christmas’, ‘Child of the stable’s secret birth’, ‘Holy Child’ ( a precursor in 1966) and my own favourite ‘The darkness turns to dawn’. A more recent text is the daring ‘Here is the centre; star on distant star’; rarely in our day has full-orbed theology been so happily wedded to singable poetry. The stream flows on into Epiphany, and has not yet dried up.

My third friend is not known as a writer of verse, though his prose is both witty and eloquent. He is famous for outstanding physical resilience in coping with an illness which has cut short many other lives long before the middle age which he has reached.

David Hunter has served congregations in such places as Devon, Jerusalem and rural Cambridgeshire. Bit it was when our respective parishes faced each other across the River Waveney which divides Norfolk from Suffolk, or Norwich from St Eds and Ips, that we first met. One small highlight of our East Anglian years was an Epiphany Carol Service which David planned and led at North Lopham, just off the distinctly numbered A1066. Somewhere I have the service sheet; but our memories fill in the detail of good news in an ancient shrine, of candle light and Gospel light, of joyful Christ-centred music at a rich time of year about which the world knows nothing, being largely taken up with Christmas hangovers, new Year cynicism, and aggressive marketing for a new school or college.

Next month the festival falls on a Monday. Some, no doubt, will slip it in a day early. The rules probably deal with that, but many churches opt for practicalities rather than technicalities. I feel sad only for those churches who skip it altogether.

Thank you, Dr Brian and Bishop Timothy, for some eloquent texts for all the winter seasons. And thank you, David, for strong and lovely memories from frosty Norfolk countryside, and a model of what can be put together creatively with some varied materials from many people, times and places.

Christopher Idle looks for Epiphany in the Diocese of Southwark.