Today’s readings all carry with them a theme of movement. From the lines in the Isaiah passage talking of people being carried and gathered together, Paul’s images of the grace of God being carried far beyond the perceived borders it was previously confined by, to the movement of the star and the journey of the magi in the Gospel reading.
But along with this horizontal movement, there also seems to be a sense of vertical movement – not least in the exultation to ‘Arise’ in Isaiah. The magi see the star at its rising. It’s not actually clear from Matthew’s account that it’s the star that leads them to Jerusalem – just that they knew from seeing the star that a king had been born (It’s not until they leave Herod that the star takes a more proactive role and guides them to the house). It’s that looking up, as the star rises, that starts the journey.
Now, living near Reading for many years, looking up rather than down is something I have reflected on. I have very mixed thoughts on Reading as a town. I really dislike how run down and dirty it is. The streets seem almost coated in grime – even in the newer pedestrianised areas. The shop-fronts all seem very ordinary and, quite frankly, dull …. But … as soon as you take your eye up, towards the tops of the buildings, you see a very different place. You see glorious Victorian architecture designed to show off the most wealthy and exciting newly revitalised railway town. Truly stunning frontages to buildings that seem to bear no relation to the ordinariness of the shop windows below and a million miles away from the gum and litter of the ground. It’s a beautiful town. As long as you look up!
There is so much rich imagery in art and literature around raising one’s head or eyes. I’m sure you’ve all (please don’t let me be alone in this!) read romantic scenes in books where the heroine raises her eyes and sees some new truth about her lover – a moment of revelation – perhaps you would want to call it an epiphany.
And, of course, the opposite is true. We might be likely to conclude, in the absence of any other evidence, that when someone is walking with their head down, avoiding all eye-contact that they are not entirely happy or comfortable. I’ve got a visual processing style and when I hear of Herod’s fear and fury, I see his chin collapsing into his chest, his shoulders becoming hunched and his eyes narrowing. All he can do effectively is look down.
As I start to think about all of this imagery and reflect on body language and psychology, I must admit, I start to go down a bit of a rabbit hole. I realise that our posture can also change our feelings. When we look down and isolate ourselves we become to feel more isolated. We see the grime and the darkness that we suspected was there and we become more and more focussed on it. In a way, it becomes more real to us. Conversely, there is evidence that smiling can actually release serotonin and other feel-good hormones. And the old instruction to “keep your chin up”? Well, I can tell you that it’s much more difficult to cry when you are looking up into the sky. Try it. It’s helped me to get through many funerals!
I wonder what Herod would see if he looked up. Would he too see the star that the magi saw? Would he too have found his way to the house where Christ was being cradled by his mother? And would his lifting of his eyes have brought his own revelation? What would Herod’s epiphany moment look like? Would that star light have blinded him, like Paul and turned him away from hatred and fear?
We can’t know. But we do know that Herod never found Christ nor the wonder and worthiness of praise, the magi found in him.
As we walk onwards into this new year we have two clear choices – starkly highlighted as we see reports of fires, natural and manmade disaster, wars, rumours of wars and an unfolding political landscape which brings the uncertainty and anxiety that any changes bring: Do we keep our eyes on the ground, avoiding contact with others, and confirming the darkness we suspected, as we get drawn deeper and deeper into despair because of it? Or do we look up, engage with others, share our humanity with each other, and look for the beauty and joy which we can share and wonder in?
What I do know is that it might not be easy to shake off our worldly concerns. We are worldly people and we have work to do in this world. We need to keep travelling forwards. But Epiphany is less about the journey we make than the journey God makes to meet us in that vulnerable child, eager to share in all that makes our gritty humanity. Sometimes we need to take a moment. By resisting the temptation to give in to all that drags us downward, maybe we can see the glint of the star that gives us hope – hope of a bright future presided over by a king worthy of honour and praise. A brightness that we can then shine into all of the dark corners of the world encouraging all to arise, shine, for your light HAS come.