EVER since I was a boy, natural light and religious light have got tangled up in my imagination; so that, at this moment, the Epiphany and the pale sunshine flooding Duncan’s field are one. It is mild and still, and a little gardening would not come amiss. An ancient farmhouse manufactures its own silence, and its past sounds can only be imagined.
At matins, I preach on the manifestation of love, and we sing “As with gladness men of old” and “Low at his feet lay thy burden of carefulness.” The burden of carefulness! Should we not be carefree now and then? I take down the withered holly from the stout beams. Traditionally, it should be burnt. I gather up the toppling Christmas cards. Should they not be answered? But would not an answer add to the senders’ burden of carefulness?
And there is the new fridge, from which joints must descend to where they can safely exist until next Epiphany, if needs be. In between this domesticity the Christ-child makes brief but glorious appearances, and the news on the TV manifests its appalling presence.
One of the most beautiful Epiphany stories is that of a little temple boy, who thinks that he hears an old priest calling him. He climbs from his warm bed, and runs to him. “No, my child, you are mistaken. Go back to sleep.” The priest is tragic; for we are told that he has never been granted the vision. All those visits to the Holy of Holies, and never to have seen what was there. And yet a mother has entrusted her son to him, bringing him a new coat year by year.
Samuel’s training is amazing. His mother, Hannah, has been the victim of clerical blindness; for, once seen in silent prayer, she has been turned out of church for being drunk. What is fascinating about Samuel’s story is that God spoke to him in his master Eli’s voice. So as not to frighten him?
It is the time of the year when another child will be taken to the Temple, to be counted for the army. He would have been told about Samuel, and “Speak, Lord, thy servant heareth.” The new year is filled with voices. Old voices; new voices. Although the sounds of centuries of farming are no more. Hardly the cry of a bird. Just the scratch of a pen, and the tap of a key.
“To think we have come to this,” the old building says. To an old man remembering and writing. And the tap of a winter rose against the window. And the cry of an old cat; the ripple of a brook; and the small crash of a dead bough from a tree.
The great prophet Elijah expected to hear God’s thunderous instructions, but, for him, “the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains . . . but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake.And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire, a still small voice.”
These are the words that Thomas Hardy loved most of all in the whole of the Bible. They are engraved on his memorial window at St Michael’s, Stinsford, and I always go out of my way in the West Country to read them. Or into my way, I suppose.
A new year should put one into the right way — at least for a week or two. Into a little quietness, perhaps. Into some simplicity. Listening is a grown-up activity. Long ago, when our faith was young, the Epiphany was celebrated as Jesus’s baptismal day: that walk to the river, that stepping from the current.