A Sermon preached to celebrate Epiphany on the occasion of the visit of the Keble Choir at St. Mary’s, Fordingbridge on Saturday, 9th January 2016.
Are you a fan of Reality TV? I wonder what ‘Unreality TV’ would look like? What for you is ‘real’? T. S. Eliot once famously wrote, ‘human kind cannot bear too much reality!’ I know I funk at many opportunities to face reality! I can barely watch the news sometimes-it is too painful.
So what does it mean to be real? There is a lovely children’s story called ‘The Velveteen Rabbit’ by Marjory Williams. I shall read you a short extract of a conversation in the nursery between the velveteen rabbit and the skin horse who had lived longer in the nursery than any of the others.
“He was wise, for he had seen a long succession of mechanical toys arrive to boast and swagger, and by-the-by break their mainsprings and pass away, and he knew that they were only toys, and would never turn into anything else. For nursery magic is very strange and wonderful, and only those play-things that are old and wise and experienced like the Skin Horse understand all about it.
“What is REAL?” asked the rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out, and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
Today we celebrate that part of the Christmas story when the wise men visit the manager and present their exotic gifts to the Christ-child. One of the joys of the whole Christmas story is the wonderful way in which the story unfolds. Artist and poets and musical composers have created such lovely pictures of the event and sometimes in a way which can hide the reality. So I want for a moment to go behind the story of the visit of the magi and tease out its possible significance for us. What is the reality of this story for you and me? In answering that question you will be making real inside of you what the story evokes in you. As the Skin Horse reminds us, it is part of our life’s journey, it is a process of becoming, it happens to us, and sometimes feeling the reality of a situation or of another’s story can hurt, can break our hearts. In the words of another theologian, it is when we discover within the ‘immortal diamond’.
So let us remind ourselves what a gift is, ‘a thing given willingly to someone without payment; a present; or a natural ability or talent ‘. Gifts are given unconditionally-they do not rely on anything save the open generosity of the giver. There have been such wonderful testimonies to such gifts being shared by those who have suffered in the floods. As one commentator so aptly described them as, ‘so many acts of kindness in a situation of adversity’-restoring faith in humanity.
The Epiphany story tells us that the wise men presented their gifts-gold, frankincense and myrrh. Strange gifts don’t you think?
Traditionally gold represents that which is most precious for us; frankincense for the sense of prayerfulness; and myrrh for suffering. The fact they were offered by Gentiles representing the rest of humanity beyond the Jewish nation, makes their offering a very inclusive one.
Beyond the Magi’s gifts the story confronts me with God’s ultimate gift of himself as a vulnerable, human flesh baby, Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us. What is truly real for me is how the mystery of God is revealed (that is what Epiphany means: to reveal) in this baby and this sacrificial life which ended in life beyond death. Our journey is to discover the immortal diamond within us. To that end you and I as pilgrims of Christ’s Church exist to be ‘the sign of the Son of Man’ to this and every generation. People will grasp and be grasped by this reality because they see it in the Son of Man on earth in our flesh and blood. Some respond through a baptismal faith, but many respond through a mystery too deep to fathom, by making their practical love act as beacons of light in our world-reflections and refractions of the immortal diamond. On this Epiphany celebration take a moment to ponder what is most real for you.