Isaiah 60:1-6 / Matthew 2:1-12
When he is King they will clothe him in grave-sheets,
Myrrh for embalming, and wood for a crown,
He that lies now in the white arms of Mary,
Sleeping so lightly on Bethlehem Down.
So we read in the poem by the journalist and poet Bruce Blunt, set so poignantly to music by his collaborator, the composer Peter Warlock. In the best traditions of English carols, this stanza captures the bittersweet beauty of the mystery of Christmas, that from the very start, not only in the lethal jealousy of Herod, but also in the precious gifts offered by the Magi, the life of the Word made flesh is marked by the Passion and Cross. This is, perhaps, the telltale sign of a truly Christian celebration of the manifestation of the Word, spoken by the Father before the ages, but made visible and manifest to us in the Epiphany of the Incarnation — the manifestation to the shepherds and Magi, the manifestation to in the waters of the river Jordan, the manifestation in the miracle at the wedding feast. To mark and celebrate this holy season without raging Herod, and with him the suffering and death of the Lord, is to trade the glorious and hope-filled light of the season for tinsel and glitter.
That temptation, however, to seek solace in this season by grasping for a moment more of pleasure in the world at whatever cost, thinking only that, in the end, darkness shall cover the earth, and a mist the people, is an ever-present temptation. For all of the beauty of Blunt's lyrics and Warlock's stirring melody, for as much as they captured in song the right tension between lullaby and lament embedded in the narrative of the coming of the Magi to the infant Word, the truth is that this carol was submitted as part of a contest held by the Daily Telegraph, submitted precisely so that the pair, in financial trouble, might enjoy in Warlock's own words and "immortal carouse," a night of heavy drinking on Christmas Eve. The words and music ought to have given these artists solace, comfort in the hope and light shining amidst the gloom — the Lord shall arise upon thee, and His glory shall be seen upon thee ... Then shalt thou see and abound, and thy heart shall wonder and be enlarged. Sadly, they did not. Warlock, a musical genius, was also a libertine and drunkard, a tortured soul who died young, perhaps by his own hand.
The Epiphany, the celebration of the manifestation of the Word made flesh to the nations, ought especially to remind us of our need to proclaim hope to a world that does not see much cause for rejoicing. Closing as it does the Twelve Days of Christmas, this feast might easily slide into one last chance to grasp for the fleeting pleasures of the Christmas holidays before a return to the grim and hard truths of the world. Where so many today, in once more prosperous nations and even more so in the poorer countries, suffer from the failure of the market and the State to provide earthly hopes for a secure living, for food and dignified work, for health and education, we must not be so quick to judge their turning a deaf ear to the joyful proclamation of the Epiphany. Indeed, ought not our attention, the attention of our preaching, be turned against those latter-day Herods who accumulate to themselves more and more of the goods of the world, who produce an earthly security for themselves at the price of the livelihood of countless others, whose prosperity comes at the cost of the lives of the poor? Ought not the presence of the Verbum infans, the paradox of the silent Word in Bethlehem, remind us that the final victory of God's light over earthly darkness will be of no good to us unless, like the Magi, we prove to be at one and the same time humble pilgrims seeking the Lord and wise, even crafty, men of the world, seeking by God's wisdom to reject and oppose the deadly schemes of the mighty? Should we not, like the Magi, be willing to sacrifice what is costliest and put ourselves at risk for the sake of the voiceless with and in whom God has chosen to dwell?
The good news of the Epiphany, then, can be something of a difficult message to proclaim. It embraces at once the joy of the Magi in following the star to the Lord of all and the murderous envy of Herod the King. Epiphany announces the coming of the light, the rising of the glory of the Lord, without denying the darkness and gloom that cover the earth. Even so, truth and final victory stand with the former, and not with the latter. We know with confidence that even our failed efforts to speak for the poor, the powerless, the voiceless, are efforts on the side of the Lord. We know that to lay all of our treasure and capital, material and political, at the feet of Jesus Christ and of the poor in whom we serve him, is not to suffer loss, but to enjoy, even now, a glimpse of the Kingdom of God.
This is why the celebration of the Epiphany is not a false solace, a backward-looking festivity grasping at the all-too-quickly receding memory of Christmas. It is a foretaste of the light and joy of Christ's victory on the Cross, a recognition that, in the face of the darkness of earthly power, the Gospel is richer and wiser by far. This is why we can rightly pause with the Magi in Bethlehem, and tarry if but one more day at the manger under the star, and seeing the star, rejoice with great joy.
Here he has peace and a short while for dreaming,
Close-huddled oxen to keep him from cold,
Mary for love, and for lullaby music
Songs of a shepherd by Bethlehem fold.