Sunday, 4 January 2015

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year’
… an Epiphany sermon

The poet TS Eliot in a portrait by Sir Gerald Kelly … he died 50 years ago on 4 January 1965

Patrick Comerford,

The Second Sunday of Christmas,

4 January 2015,

Zion Church, Rathgar, Dublin:

9 a.m., The Eucharist

Readings:


Jeremiah 31: 7-14; Psalm 147: 12-20; Ephesians 1: 3-14; John 1: [1-9], 10-18.

May I speak to you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Four days into January, and I wonder how many of us have already forgotten our New Year’s resolutions?

Sometimes, we begin as we mean to go, but our intentions are always better than our capacity for endurance.

Yet our Scripture readings this morning make that connection between beginnings and endings.

Christ comes to dwell among us, and Saint John reminds us that this is a new creation. This is a new beginning. We re-read what is for many one of the climatic readings on Christmas day: the prologue to Saint John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word … And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”

This Gospel reading comes to mind when I read TS Eliot’s poem ‘East Coker’ – the second of his poems in the Four Quartets, which opens:

In my beginning is my end …

and which ends:

… In my end is my beginning.

Christmas always holds the offer of new beginnings, new creation, the promise of new opportunities to be caught up in the love of God.

The Epiphany readings remind us that the Christmas story is not just about the Crib and the Christmas, nativity stories, but about God coming to dwell among us, and pointing from the beginning towards the promise and revelation to all nations, to all people.

The three principle Epiphany themes are:

• The Adoration of the Magi (Tuesday’s reading on the Feast of the Epiphany, 6 January, Matthew 2: 1-12);
• The Baptism of Christ by Saint the Baptist in the River Jordan (Epiphany 1, next Sunday’s reading, 11 January, Mark 1: 1-11);
• The miracle at the wedding in Cana (Epiphany 3, 25 January, John 2: 1-11).

The visit of the Magi is a symbolic presentation of God’s revelation in Christ to the Gentiles. It inspired one of the great poems by TS Eliot, who died on this day 50 years ago, 4 January 1965.

This poem was written after Eliot’s conversion to Christianity and his confirmation in the Church of England in 1927, but was not published until 1930 in his Ariel Poems.

So, rather than continuing with this sermon so early in the morning, I think it might be a good idea, on the 50th anniversary of the death of TS Eliot, and two days before the Feast of the Epiphany, to read that poem:

The Adoration of the Magi, by Peter Paul Rubens ... the Altarpiece in the Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge

The Journey of the Magi, by TS Eliot

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times when we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities dirty and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wineskins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

The Visit of the Magi seen on a panel on the triptych in the Lady Chapel in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford/Lichfield Gazette)

Collect:

Almighty God,
in the birth of your Son
you have poured on us the new light of your incarnate Word,
and shown us the fullness of your love:
Help us to walk in this light and dwell in his love
that we may know the fullness of his joy;
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

Light eternal,
you have nourished us in the mystery
of the body and blood of your Son:
By your grace keep us ever faithful to your word,
in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached at the early Sunday morning Eucharist in Zion Parish Church, Rathgar, Dublin, on 4 January 2015.

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