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Season of Epiphany (February 2019)

I am writing this on the first Sunday of the year, 6th January, celebrated throughout the church as Epiphany Sunday.  Epiphany comes from the Greek word meaning revelation or manifestation.

Protestant and Roman Catholic churches remember on this day the coming of the magi to worship the infant Jesus – his manifestation to the wider world.  Eastern Orthodox churches focus on Jesus’ baptism and some Orthodox churches actually celebrate Christmas on this day.

But why am I writing about this for our February newsletter when Epiphany Sunday was a month ago?  Well this year, because Easter is nearly as late as it can be, the season of Epiphany continues right through February and into March.

February can be a cold, dark and wintry month. In rural communities it was known as ‘February fill-dyke’, when rain and snow filled the ditches to over-flowing.  In some mediaeval Books of Hours the seasonal labour for bitter Februaries was sitting by the fire! 

The American biblical scholar Donald Gowan once suggested that the rather gloomy Old Testament book Ecclesiastes might have been written in February when the writer was suffering from February-itis: the time, he says, when the mornings and evenings have been dark for so long that we think it’s always like this;  when it’s been cold and wet for so long that the sight of spring flowers is like a memory from childhood;  when the car is so filthy we’re ashamed to drive it, but afraid to wash it in case it’s only the dirt holding it together;  the time when we’ve forgotten last year’s holiday and it’s too soon to look forward to this year’s!  Well perhaps February in N America is worse than it is here.

But this February we’re still in the season of Epiphany and that’s an antidote to February-itis.  For Epiphany is about the dawning of the light, the light that came into the world with the birth of Jesus – a light for revelation to the Gentiles, in the words of the elderly devout Simeon when in the temple he took the infant Jesus in his arms.  The lectionary gospel readings for this season are all from Luke, as he writes about the revelation of that light as Jesus began his ministry – in the synagogue in Nazareth, in the miracles of healing in Capernaum, in the calling of his first disciples, and in his ‘Sermon on the Plain’- Luke&rsquo equivalent of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount.  In all these ways God’s glory was being made manifest, and we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth, when the Word became flesh and lived among us. (John 1 vs.14).

The Jesuit priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins was one who glimpsed the glory of God in the world around him and celebrated that epiphany in poems such as Pied Beauty, Spring, The Starlight Night, and perhaps especially in God’s Grandeur. 

In this poem he writes of a world like ours where

         all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
         and wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell…

But in spite of that, he can say that

         The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
         It will flame out, like shining from shook foil…

And that is

         Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
         world broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Hopkins was given an insight, by divine grace, into the ultimate spiritual reality.  However troubled the world, he was confident that deep down it is still radiant with the glory of God – Epiphany’s antidote to February-itis, made manifest to those with eyes to see, minds to comprehend and hearts to worship and adore. 

Yours,

John Salsbury