Address Hurstpierpoint College Senior School Chapel
8 January 2021: Feast of the Epiphany
Here we are at the start of a new year. Together as the Hurst Community, yet dispersed throughout the country. None of us had hoped to start 2021 with remote learning; none of us had hoped that the exams would be cancelled also this year; and none of us had hoped to see the fragility of our freedom and democracy pointed out so clearly in the US. You might be wondering, as I have done in the last few days, is there still something we dare to hope for this year?
The Feast of the Epiphany, the three kings or wise men, which is celebrated in the Western church on 6th January and which we celebrate today, gives a resounding ‘yes’ as the answer to the question if there are still things which we can hope for. As much as Advent, Christmas or New Year, the story of the wise men is one of hope and of new beginnings. Particularly, new beginnings in a dark and challenging time.
Let us for a moment imagine ourselves to be one of the three travellers. We actually don’t know if there were three or more, we only know that they had three gifts. But that’s an aside. What does matter though, is that they are not on their own. They have each other’s company and support. Imaging ourselves to be one of the wise men is not thinking of ourselves in the fancy dress we imagine from our nativity plays, but about getting a little bit of an appreciation of who they were, and maybe who and where we are.
The first thing to note is that these travellers are foreigners. We don’t know exactly where they are from, but they have travelled from the East to Jerusalem and now they are travelling onwards to Bethlehem. The journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem is only a couple of hours, but we can assume that they have already travelled far to get to this point. They did not only travel far, but they didn’t know where they were going either, nor did they know where they would end up. The only direction they had was the star that they had observed, which is leading them onwards. The uncertainty they were facing may have been like ours in the weeks and months that lie ahead of us.
Yet, they went and kept going, following the star. Leaving behind the security of their homes and lives, onward into the unknown. They even took directions from King Herod, who later turned out not to be trusted. I wonder what motivated the wise men to keep going? Was it pure curiosity, or was there a sense of hope and confidence too that they would find something that would make this journey worthwhile?
In any case, their hope proofs not to be not in vain: they find the new-born Christ with his mother Mary. Then, something extraordinary happens. Instead of celebrating by congratulating themselves on reaching their destination, or writing home what they have found, instead, they pay homage. They kneel down and offer the child gifts, precious gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. It is an odd response, we may think, to achieving your goal after a long and probably difficult journey. Most of us expect to get something at the end, rather than to give.
But it is precisely that giving which makes the Magi such a good example for a way to approach our long and difficult journey at this time. It is often said, that travel is not about the destination, but the journey, and I am sure that many of you will hear this in the coming weeks as we reflect on our learning in the absence of public exams. Ultimately, you don’t learn for exams, but because of the challenge, enjoyment and fulfilment itself.
Today, however, we are challenged to go a step further. Yes, it is the journey that matters, but the destination too. Not in terms of what we will get out of it, but in the realisation how much we have to give thanks for. None of us know what lies at the end of this time of uncertainty and unrest. But if we are willing to hope and trust, we know that we will come to a point at which we too can give thanks. Thanks for what we see and who we have become at the end of the journey that is ours.
So my advice to you in the coming weeks it to keep going, even when or particularly when it gets tough. Don’t forget that you’re not on your own as you go through this time. And keep hope, faith and trust that at the end lies something more precious that you could have ever imagined, if only you are willing to look for it. If you live in a place where you can, on a clear night, go out and look up, and see the stars. They were here long before us, and will be here long after us. Indeed, we are not alone, and together we will get through this.