THE Epiphany is when Christ is shown to the world. He gleams in the January half-light. And harpists sing a new song. On my ancient mantelpiece, a porcelain carpenter carries his tools and makes for Egypt and safety, his pregnant wife riding side-saddle on a donkey. On the television screen, countless people leave the same land, carrying very little.
George Herbert turns St Luke’s swaddling clothes into “night’s mantle”. They are not a cosy protection for the new baby, but his future shroud.
My old house darkens early, and each room has its own shadows. I water hyacinths, and watch robins dancing against the glass. We sing Reginald Heber’s exotic “Brightest and best of the sons of the morning”. The Christmas cards topple on the piano. The cats sleep and sleep. I rake black leaves on the sodden grass. It isn’t a bit cold — not at all wintry. Just a time of sepia movement, and intentions.
Not the least part of the New Year’s best intentions is to rid that blight that threatens my ash trees, which is not so terrible but still rather worrying. And so is the fate of the Christ-child, now called Emmanuel, which means “Christ with us” — and not just for Christmas, but for evermore. Herbert used to say that “childhood is health”, thinking of the lack of health which attacked his grown-up years.
I read him especially at this time of the year, when, although the nights shorten, you would need to be clairvoyant to witness it: a kind of static half-light wanders about in the old wooden roofs.
It was in this half-light that intellectuals needed to be guided to Christ by a travellers’ star, and shepherds by a song. As for Jesus, he takes a long leap from his first birthday to adolescence. Only his mother understands what he is saying.
I take Raymond’s funeral. He died on his birthday. A set feast in our diary for many May mornings was breakfast among the nightingales. He and his wife, Marit, and I would set off with hot rolls and coffee to where they sang among the estuary streams near Colchester. It was none too warm, but it was a mellow kingdom for birds.
And now here I am, in church, with Raymond’s coffin on the chancel step, and our familiar picnic laid near the font, and our nightingale rite somehow appended to the Epiphany language.
The language is: “O Lord, we beseech thee mercifully to receive the prayers of thy people which call upon thee; and grant that they may both perceive and know what things they ought to do.” Follow a star? Breakfast with nightingales? Allow hyacinth to scent the room all night? Do the accounts? Raymond and Marit had been married for 55 years — a good many of them shared with us.
I carry the Christmas holly in from the garden, and set fire to it. I read Twelfth Night. King James came to the first performance of this Shakespeare play. It was the year when my house was built. And it was about that time of the month when everything, in those days, had to be eaten up; when nothing could be kept except faith in God. When the farm horses steamed in their stable, and all the other creatures huddled together — the cats and dogs by the hearth, the children and the grown-ups in their beds.
But the ducks flew in perfect patterns from river to moat, knowing no better. Then, of course, on every New Year’s Day there was a resolution. I remember what Herbert said: “Why should I toil so perversely to be famous When I could stand in silence for nothing?”