So today we celebrate Epiphany, the end of our Christmas celebrations. This afternoon the decorations in the Underwood will be packed back into the loft. But we don’t quite pack away the crib yet – the season of Epiphany continues until Candlemas on the 3rd of February when the final recorded event of this tiny Christ child is celebrated – as he is brought by his parents to the temple and Simeon and Anna recognize within him God’s salvation for the whole world.
And epiphany is exactly that – an unveiling, a seeing, a recognition – of something that was before hidden from sight. And so it is right that these wise men, as our gospel has titled them, start off this particular season in the church’s calendar which focuses our eyes on who we should understand this child to be: what he will become, what will become of him and, through all this, what this means for the whole world. Their strange gifts encompass his purpose: gold for a king, myrrh for his death, and incense for one who is holy.
And it is the message for the whole world that St. Matthew is trying to stress in his account of the arrival of these foreign travellers. The gospel details are scant. They are mysterious. We do not know their number. They are wise, we are told in our translation – maji these astronomers, mathematicians, magicians maybe – scientists of the early world. And, importantly, do not miss this – they are foreign. I say importantly because for the readers of Matthew’s gospel this was important. Matthew in particular writes for a Jewish Christian community and he is at pains to tell them, that Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, from the outset, was revealed as one who came to be the Messiah, the Saviour of all people. It was there in the Jewish prophecies and the gospels go to lengths to show that this was the plan all along; that from out of Israel would come a light to reveal God to all nations.
Since the 3rd century tradition has assumed these foreign visitors as kings, and from the 8th century they have been named as Casper, Balthasar and Melchior. And tradition has also expanded on this in finding them homelands: Caspar a King of India, Balthasar as king of Arabia, or sometimes Ethiopia and Melchior as a king of Persia.
I have at home a little olive wood nativity set. I bought it when a few of us visited Bethlehem some years ago now. Mary and Joseph under a stable topped with a star nestle this new born child. Our three travellers, after their long journey, have arrived at Bethlehem. Only there is a problem. The kings and the child are separated
by a large wall. They will infact never meet. Of course it is meant to represent the current separation wall that surrounds Bethlehem at the present time, but I think it stands as a sorrowful reminder of not only the ongoing divisions between Palestinian and Israel but divisions all over the world and in our society. To the ways we separate ourselves to be in the main with people who are somehow like ‘one of us’ and the inbuilt fear of those who seem somehow ‘other’. The challenge of the maji however is to ask each one of us to recognize that before this child, before God, we are the same.
And I think this is worth remembering when we read the headlines such as we’ve heard this week, about the 200 or so asylum seekers who have crossed the British channel in dinghies over the past year. Over the last decade the movement of people whether those fleeing poverty or those fleeing violence has been a crisis that the world and Europe has obviously struggled to cope with. And I am not claiming for one moment that any government can have an easy time finding a solution. It can seem as if human need is utterly endless and can be overwhelming.
But last month we had a visit from a worker at one of the Lebanon’s refugee camps, sponsored through the work of Christian Aid. Zeina is in her 30’s. Born in Lebanon she grew up there with all of the rights that entailed, to work and property and education. Whilst studying in Dubai she met and fell in love with a Palestinian man who was already a refugee and they married, had children and came home to Lebanon to live. But for the last 70 years Lebanon has had to deal with a constant influx of refugees – primarily from Palestine after the 6 day war in Israel in the 1960’s and in more recent years from neighbouring Syria. If you are Palestinian and ever leave Israel you are never allowed to return. So these refugees have found themselves and their children and their grandchildren abiding in refugee camps for decade upon decade. With no hope of going home ever.
Lebanon is only a small country and a quarter of the population are now refugees. I think that’s so hard for us to imagine. 1 in 4 of us here today as an asylum seeker. And perhaps because of how you deal with that influx if you are a government and trying to appease the anxieties of the original population, there are strict restrictions on what refugees are allowed to do. They have to live in refugee camps. They are not allowed to own property. They are not allowed to do certain professions. They are not allowed to attend certain schools.
So for minute imagine you, your children or nieces or grandchildren or neighbours. Imagine you are a doctor but for the last 30 years you have only been allowed to polish shoes. Imagine that you once owned property but now, even if you had the financial resources, were only allowed to live in crumbling, overcrowded tenement blocks where the only water that comes out of the taps is salty sea water (because that is the only water a refugee in Lebanon can get) and that the electricity is limited and the road littered with live wires and sewage. Imagine that you are Zeina, and once when you grew up in the neighbourhood you attended the equivalent of Tewin school, but now, because your children have a refugee father they school refuses to have them and says they should attend a school for refugee children. Imagine that this is not temporary, because if you are a Palestinian there you are never allowed home, but this is now life, today and for your children, and for their children and for their children – and there is nothing you can do to escape this. It will be poverty until you or they get ill through the third rate amenities and the over crowded, understocked hospital does not have the resources to save you.
Meeting Zeina made me understand something that no politician, or newspaper or soundbite really has. An epiphany perhaps. Looking someone in the eye and seeing she is me. A mother. Someone who had privilege and rights. And now for whom some of those have largely gone.
So when the question is asked ‘if they are genuine asylum seekers why don’t they claim asylum in the first country they come to?’ (which by the way I think is a good and sensible question that many of people have, it is good to ask questions) but when I’ve heard this I’ve thought of Zeina, and Lebanon, and what if that were me. And whether a refugee camp with no hope of anything else is life. Is living. And whether there may be circumstances that putting myself in the hands of human traffikers and a flimsy dinghy may seem worth the risk and morally defensible.
We always end our nativity plays with a cosy tableau of everyone around the crib. Mary smiles serenely. Angels sparkle. Shepherds adore and our Kings worship. But perhaps we should not stop there. Perhaps every year the play should end with a crying child and frightened parents fleeing in the dead of night over the border into Egypt. Fleeing from Herod for their lives.
I am not pretending for one moment that the solutions to the world’s refugee crisis is easy. But for God’s sake, literally, let’s make sure we keep hold of our compassion. Let’s remember it was Jesus, and for no fault of our own it may well have been us.
Today in church you get a gift. At Epiphany it is traditional to chalk a special blessing onto your house – a request and a sign for God to bless your home in the year to come. The chalk will be blessed shortly and there is a piece for each of you to take home with a ‘how to do this’ instruction sheet.
But as we ask for God’s blessing upon our homes this year, perhaps we may reflect on the absolute blessing it is to have a home. And we may pray that we would be a blessing in some small way to those who are far from home, those who long for a home and those who may never get to return to home.