Sermon for Evensong at St Mary’s Whitkirk on the Feast of Epiphany.
Epiphany…season of pantomimes…(Oh yes it is!)
O yes it is…and underneath the slapstick and appalling jokes pantomimes often have the very Epiphany themes of transformation or revelation.
Think of Dick Whittington, or Puss in Boots, rags to riches stories where the poor hero is transformed into someone rich and powerful…and, of course, gets the girl. Actually I’m not keen on Puss-in-Boots. I’m uncomfortable for the hero constantly persuaded by the cat to pretend to be someone he’s not. To jump naked into a river and pretend he is a rich Marquis robbed of his clothes…I’d rather have stayed a poor miller’s son than spend the rest of my life expecting to be found out!
Our gospel tonight contains a transformation…water into wine. And one of its messages is that letting Jesus into our lives transforms us…just as the water was transformed.
Of course we know Jesus can transform lives, we know of inspiring stories of terrible lives completely, sometimes almost instantly turned around by Christian faith. But for me, they are so far from my experience that they might almost be a fairy tale or pantomime story.
It’s not that I don’t believe them, or think they’re wonderful examples of the transforming power of God. It’s just that I can’t really identify with them. Partly because, luckily, my life’s never reached such a low ebb; but also because that sort of transformation suggests almost becoming a new person.
When we say, “she was transformed” we describe a complete change. I hope encountering Jesus alters me for the better…but I’ve never felt suddenly transformed…overcoming my faults is a much slower process. If I expect something dramatic I’m afraid I’ll always feel I’ve failed.
And anyway, I want to be changed by God…but I don’t want to be someone else entirely…I hope God can use me as I am, even as he changes me.
So I’d like to concentrate on that other great theme of Epiphany – and pantomimes – Revelation. Think of Beauty and the Beast, Rapunzel, the Frog Prince…here the character who seems the poorest, the most to be pitied or even despised, turns out to be special. Circumstances, past sins or the evils of others have hidden their real identity. Saved by true love, the show ends with them revealed as who they really are, restored to their rightful place.
In Pantomime land this means they’re royal, get the girl (or boy) and live happily ever after. But this idea of revelation, of becoming who we really are, is a common theme way beyond Pantomimes. There’s Oliver Twist conveniently related to the good people who take him in…Harry Potter…whose true identity as a wizard can’t be hidden. Do we perhaps return to it because of the truth it contains? Because we know in some way, there is a real us trying to get out?
Because it’s there in that great wrestling with identity…the story of creation and fall in Genesis. For the composers of that story, our sinful natures, our fear of one another and of difference, our lives separated from God are not who we really are.
The story of the serpent and the apple suggests that circumstances, our own sin, the sins of others, get in the way…but insists that we were created in the image of God, for life with God…for ‘walking and talking with him in the garden at the cool of the day’ as Genesis says.
Our circumstances, our sinful natures so often hide our true identity. We struggle with selfishness, greed, the need for power and status. At the same time we struggle to like ourselves, not to feel we’ve failed. We judge ourselves by the standards of the world.
But our faith story reminds us that beneath all of that we are children of God…created in his image…to worship him and enjoy his company. So when we encounter Christ he’s not transforming us into someone, something entirely different…rather he’s revealing who we really are.
The Christian story makes sense, even as we find it difficult to understand and explain, because it speaks to our true identity. Hidden by sin, by circumstances, by fear are the children God created. With Christ’s help we can scrape away the stuff that gets in the way…and, if you like, to reveal the Beauty beneath the Beast.
In the Pantomime, revelations are dramatic and instantaneous…a kiss from a princess turns the frog back to a prince. For me, and I suspect for many, revelation is much more gradual.
Each time I hear stories by or about Jesus, a little of the false identity I’ve built is loosened or chipped away. Time spent in prayer…or just in silence puts my concerns into perspective. Nature, music, poetry, the words of hymns, the Eucharist…they all give flashes of illumination. They give moments of recognition, of revelation. Not anything I could really explain…just encounters where the things of God uncover the image of God in me.
So as we tell again the stories of Epiphany – I offer you the thought that they reveal our identity as well as Christ’s. The Magi worshipping the Christ child show us we’re created by a God who wants a relationship with us. The story of Christ’s baptism tells us we too are God’s children with whom he is well pleased.
The story of the wedding at Cana shows the power of God to transform…but the Christian story reassures us this doesn’t mean making us into someone we’re not…someone we could never aspire to be. It means revealing the person God meant us to be all along by removing what gets in the way.