DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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THE EPIPHANY
Unclean Shepherds

Psalm 72.10  
The kings of Spain and the of the islands will offer him gifts; the kings of Arabia and Ethiopia will bring him offerings. 

The Christian tradition is bedecked with images relating to the Epiphany - astrologers, miraculous stars and the like. It can be hard to reach beyond popular religion and discover meaning truly relevant to us in these far-distant times. Peering back through twenty centuries to the time when Matthew's account of three visitors from the East who came to venerate the baby Jesus presents us with an enduring lesson.

The Christmas stories are vivid and convincing - but they are not "what really happened". They contain a wealth of detail, telling an interesting tale of events which Christians for centuries have rightly thought of as world-shaking. The author of Matthew's Gospel recalls Psalm 72 to enliven and support his story of the three men (actually magoi or "wise men" in the Greek text - not kings) who came to offer the holy child their gifts. Where he got his story from is buried in the sands of time. Wherever it came from, all reputable scholars agree that the account upon which the feast of the Epiphany rests isn't history.

The epiphany of Jesus is, literally, his "manifestation" to the world. The early Church would have thought this an entirely natural way of perceiving Jesus. He was the great King who would one day bring God's rule to the earth. Just as new-born kings of the day were shown to the people to prove that an heir existed, so too Matthew portrays Jesus being shown to the nations of the world.

The Epiphany began to be observed as a feast in the 3rd and 4th centuries. For a thousand years before that the Greek and Roman religions had produced a multitude of stories about gods showing themselves to the world in various guises. Thinking like this was natural to people of the times. For them, heaven and earth were separate parts of a total reality. One part consisted of the world we all know. The other heavenly part was constantly bursting into our world. When heaven comes into our world, they thought, we learn more about God.

Today it's much more difficult to perceive the world in this way. We can't easily - if at all - think of Jesus as God "shown forth". The miracles which the Epiphany story uses don't seem to happen nowadays. We are more earth-bound than our predecessors. Heaven no longer bursts into our world as our predecessors thought it did into theirs.

Is it possible to make sense of the Epiphany in the 21st century? 

Matthew introduces the Magi. Luke's story tells of shepherds (and, naturally for his audience) of angels. The common factor in both tales is that the visitors are people who would not have been socially acceptable in the Jewish society in which Jesus lived. The Magi were foreigners - in effect, they were untouchables. Shepherds were shunned because they were often unable to purify themselves to meet standards of Jewish ritual cleanliness.

In the characters of the Magi and the shepherds, the stories preserve an early and absolutely fundamental theme of the Jesus of history. He taught that everyone on earth is acceptable to God. Differences of tribe, nationhood and race are of no account to God, said Jesus. When religion puts up barriers between the "good" and the "bad" God passes through them as though they don't exist. Nothing can separate us from the love of God, for whom there is neither Christian nor non-Christian, sinner nor saved, Church nor non-Church.

So even though these stories are not "what really happened", they preserve and bring to life the ministry of Jesus. Provided we recognise them for what they are - delightful and meaningful stories - we can also recognise that God is "shown forth" in today's Epiphany just as he is in Matthew's account. For ourselves as individuals, we gain a new lease on life as we reaffirm that we are personally part of God's scheme of things. For ourselves as part of humanity, we gain our rightful place when we affirm that everyone without exception is loved and accepted by God.

The child who, in the stories of Matthew and Luke, was first shown to untouchables and outcasts, is also shown to us.

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