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Light shines at Epiphany

by
03 January 2014

And the darkness comprehended it not, says David Bryant

PINACOTECA DI BRERA, MILAN

The Adoration of the Magi (1455) by Stefano da Verona

The Adoration of the Magi (1455) by Stefano da Verona

THE scenario at the Bethlehem stable was uncompromisingly bleak. It consisted of a reeking outbuilding, a husband fearing he had been cuckolded, a girl giving birth in insanitary conditions, and a handful of livestock. There was not even an angel in sight. They had sung their words of glory, and departed.

Nor was the political scene any more promising. A psychotic Herod was unleashing death-dealing fury on babies, and the Romans were enforcing a crushing taxation on the locals, involving a heavily pregnant Mary in a 70-mile donkey ride. Add to that an imminent time of homeless wandering in Egypt for the Holy Family, and matters could not be much worse.

Then comes a snorting of camels, a babble of foreign language, the stirring of dust outside, and a glimpse of crowns. In an instant, the barn is transformed and enriched. Gold shimmers among the heaps of manure, the foetid air is rich with clouds of frankincense, and the poverty and pain dwindles under the holistic, healing influence of priceless myrrh.

The strength of this timeless fable does not rest in its doubtful historicity, but in its soul-stirring, allegorical message. Epiphany sings aloud the extraordinary claim that God's splendour flames out "like shining from shook foil" (as Gerard Manley Hopkins puts it), in the most dismal of human predicaments.

This belief that the cosmic Christ is immersed in the world's entirety is the starting point for the spiritual pilgrimage. It looks as if things cannot get much better than this. But do not jump the gun. As the 13th- century mystic and poet Hadewijch points out: "He who serves love has a hard adventure."

It is easy to see the divine presence in the holy, beautiful, inspiring, and compassionate. Think of Messiaen's ethereal Christmas music, or a candlelit church on the holy night. The crunch comes when we reflect on the earth's tragedy, loss, and inhumanity. It is true that sometimes there are pinpricks of divine light to be seen in unpromising places. Global disasters unleash waves of generosity. Bereavements educe stirrings of sympathy. Sick children touch us at the core. So far so good.

But there are places so dark, so desolate, that we fail to discover a glimmer of light in them. Think of top-security prisons, racial hatred, war zones, torture, and genocide. There is an impenetrable evil, a stifling malevolence about them. All we can do then is to listen to the psalmist's words of encouragement: "Even the darkness is not dark to thee" (Psalm 139.12).

An incident in the life of the Jesuit priest, palaeontologist, and man of prayer Pierre Teilhard de Chardin shows how the world's desolation can be transfigured. Stranded in the desert and unable to celebrate mass, he turned the occasion into a hymn of the universe. The entire creation, with its darkness and light, became his altar; the labours and sufferings of the planet his bread and wine. The chalice and paten symbolised the heart and soul of all humanity.

"Over every living thing which is to spring up, to grow, to flower, to ripen during this day, say again the words, 'This my Body.' And over every death force which waits in readiness to corrode, to wither, to cut down, speak again your commanding words which express the supreme mystery of faith, 'This is my blood.'"

The coming of the Magi into the stable's wilderness echoes these sentiments. Their visit is a reassurance that the world's redemption in the face of profound darkness is a perpetual possibility, and that the sometimes hidden Christ-light is undying.

The Revd David Bryant is a retired priest living in Yorkshire.

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