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Exposure of the strong man

05 January 2024

Charles Moseley offers a meditation for the feast of the Epiphany


President Putin enters Lake Seliger at the St Nilus Stolobensky monastery, near Ostashkov, in the Tver Oblast of Russia, on 19 January 2018, which was the Epiphany according to the Russian Orthodox calendar

President Putin enters Lake Seliger at the St Nilus Stolobensky monastery, near Ostashkov, in the Tver Oblast of Russia, on 19 January 2018, which was...

THIS festival ends those Twelve Days of the ancient, humane Christmas feast, when the sun has begun its journey to warm once more the northern earth into the joy of growth and then of harvest. In those Twelve Days, for a spell, profit was not everything. Then, in times long gone, the unremitting round of work stopped; the thin time of winter could be forgotten in the laden tables. At that time, master and servant might change places, and, temporarily, the world was turned upside down. (This the gospel, inherently subversive, does.)

In the Eastern Churches, the Epiphany marks the baptism of the Lord, when he began his public ministry in which he calls all our earthly imperatives and values into question. In the West, we celebrate it as the honouring of the infant Lord — God in man made manifest — by the three sages. Jerome, following the Greek, calls them Magi. They came from the wisdom of the East, seeking a King. They made no secret of it, and went to the obvious place: the centre of established power. But it was the wrong place, and the established power “was troubled and all Jerusalem with him”; and Herod took steps to preserve himself from threat. The travellers found not what they had expected — a man of destiny, as the world understands that term — but a paradox: a child too young for speech, utterly vulnerable; yet they knelt before him, recognising in him a king and priest who must die to save his people.

And, just as they then returned to their own countries, with what thoughts we know not, so, on the day after the Epiphany, the plough cut the cold soil and the workaday world resumed its sway. But another way of seeing had been glimpsed, and, each year, this festival quietly offers us that challenge: to dare to see, and think, differently, though it may cost not less than everything.

WHAT were those men seeking in the king whom they did not find? What is the desire of all nations? In times of trouble (and when are they not, somewhere?), so many people say, “We need a strong man” — and, too often, they get them: Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Putin. . . the list could go on as, all around us, a depressing and unthinking populism, its hour come round once more, slouches towards power.

Is that really the desire of all nations: to put all responsibility for sorting out the mess we are in upon shoulders like those? And people find, inevitably, that the strong man does not end all their troubles, not by a long chalk. Just like the Magi, as they began their winter journey, again and again, people — we — are looking in the wrong place: outside, and not inside.

As George Santayana observed, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” And, alas, he was right; and the dreary pattern asserts itself: one generation suffers dreadfully, tells its children, who take its words to heart, and and who then tell their own children, to whom it is merely a story, “what we did in history”. (Just so: I have seen a happy school party play hide-and-seek in and among the oppressive, irrational, columns of Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial.)

In each generation, we need to make our own arduous journey, a cold coming, to our own epiphany; and it will not be what we expect. Afterwards, we can return to our places, but will no longer be at ease in the little kingdoms that we have made for ourselves, no longer at ease in the old dispensation. Thoughts thought cannot be unthought; things seen cannot be unseen; a Child born cannot be unborn.

EVERY strong man, every wise man, begins as a speechless child, wearing nappies. (Nancy Astor once reminded a nervous young MP, preparing his maiden speech, that this was true of every member of the government front bench, and encouraged him to envisage them thus clad as he spoke. It is a good tip for nervous speakers.) And this story of the wise, kneeling before him who was wise before all wisdom, before him at whose word all was created, although he cannot yet speak, points the search for the strong man who will rescue us in a quite different direction.

Ezekiel 34 offers a metaphor of kingship which the Lord himself will use again and again: the shepherd who gives his life for the sheep, the protector, the healer; and the Gospels show us what revenge our sour world — we ourselves — take on this sort of ruler: he is enthroned, but on a Cross.

CRANMER’s collect for the First Sunday in Advent captures one paradox of the incarnation: “thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility”, but “in the last day . . . he shall come again in his glorious Majesty, to judge both the quick and the dead.” The ruler of the stars of all the heavens, as we believe, humbled himself to take flesh upon him; he who was omnipotent became utterly vulnerable, at the mercy of creatures who, in his fullness and completeness, he loved into being; for he who lacks nothing did not need to create them. Here is the real strong man, who humbled himself “to be obedient unto death, even the death of the Cross”.

He took flesh. And the way of all flesh is dust, and to dust it shall return. The dust of the earth — soil, humus — is the root of the word “humility”. Humility was no virtue in the ancient world, nor is it a virtue in our post-Enlightenment (what a misnomer!) age. In Classical culture, the humiliores — the people of the dust of the earth — did not matter; nor, despite lip service, are they among the great and powerful today.

But wise Augustine saw that all the wisdom of the pagan world (which he had studied so deeply) had been redefined by Jesus as humility; that genuine truth lay in realising the weakness of humanity, and the generous grace offered by God. And only a person with humility — the counter to pride, the root of all sins — could accept this. In Letter 118, to Dioscorus, he emphasises: “This way is first humility, second humility, third humility, and no matter how often you keep asking me I will say the same over and over again.”

HUMILITY (not of the Uriah Heep kind) acknowledges an utter dependence on the Creator, as his creatures. That necessarily implies the value, the dignity, of everyone, even those whom we much dislike. It implies an awareness not only of our need for God, but also of our need for others.

The Greek word for epiphany means a “showing forth”, a “revelation”, of something that has been hidden — or ignored. In the speechless weakness of the Child, the wise saw that which they had ever sought, and could not but kneel in worship; in the humility of him who had no sin submitting to symbolic death by water (as later he will submit to the last enemy), we see the heavens open, and the Dove descend, and hear the voice say, “Hear him.”

Dr Charles Moseley is a Life Fellow of Hughes Hall, Cambridge. charlesmoseley.com

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