Solemnity of the Epiphany 2021

On Christmas Eve, the week before last, I gathered the children who were present at our Mass and I told them a story from far away Russia. It was the story of Babouska who, having met the wise men on their search for the newborn Christ, now goes in search of the Christ Child herself:

“She travels on and on and on for years and years – but she never finds the little Christ-Child.  They say that old Babouscka is travelling still, looking for Him. When it comes Christmas Eve, and the children are lying fast asleep, Babouscka comes softly through the towns, wrapped in her long cloak and carrying her basket on her arm. With her staff she raps gently at the doors and goes inside and holds her candle close to the little children’s faces.  “Is He here?” she asks. “Is the little Christ-Child here?” And then she turns sorrowfully away again, crying: “Farther on, farther on!” But before she leaves she takes a toy from her basket and lays it beside the pillow for a Christmas gift. “For His sake,” she says softly, and then hurries on through the years and forever in search of the little Christ-Child.”[1]

Babouscka brings the encounter that she first had with the old men who first knocked on her door into her own experience. We know next to nothing about these figures.  However, what is clear in the mythology is that these figures come to their discovery as a result of a long journey.  As the shepherds at Christmas are characterised by their waiting and vigilance, the Wise Men from the East are characterised by their pilgrimage and their searching.  They come to their destination only by their quest and by their discernment, an exploration made even more critical because that for which they search is manifested to them in circumstances so opposite to their expectations. They search for a King; they find a baby. They expect a palace; they alight upon a stable. What they desire is confounded and confused.  Their aspirations suffer disruption and dislocation.  Yet, in the very undoing of their dreams, they discover a source of hope, an entirely new beginning, the birth of a new imagination. 

The people who come out of the shadows of a distant horizon have only a question, “Where is the Infant King of the Jews?”  It is the question they ask on behalf of us all.  We, too, search for the One who comes into our midst with the promise to deliver us from all that binds us, from all that stunts us, from all that holds us back being the people God has created us to be. “Where is he?” we ask. “Where might we find him?”  Our hearts are on a search for something, someone.

The star that rises in the east quickens our perspective.  In other words, the indication that something new has come into our world invites us to reconsider things, no longer simply to stay in the present.  It moves us from the perspective in which we had been previously bound.  And often that position is defined not by the question, “Where?” but by the question, “Why?”  We become fixated with the question of “Why?”  Why must this event or experience be part of my life?  Why must the ones I love so much have to endure a hardship?  Why do we have to be in this situation of the COVID pandemic? Why does there have to be such conflict in our world?  Why do good people have to suffer?  Why do we need to experience the pain of absence, of distance, of loss?  Yet, to the extent that we are bound by the question of “Why?” we get nowhere.  For most often there is no answer to the question, ‘Why?’ And then the question turns against us. It condemns us to rail against life, and we can become locked in our resentment, our anger or our cynicism.

The wise men that come to Bethlehem, as well as Babouscka in the old Russian tale, are not consumed by the question, ‘Why?’  They are led, rather, by the question, ‘Where?’ The star that they follow transforms the question of ‘why?’ into the question of ‘where?’.  And the question, “Where?’ begins to make a difference.  Those who ask the question, ‘Where?’ do not stay where they are, but they open their hearts and their lives to a new discovery.  When we can let go of the question of why, and ask instead, “Where is God in what is happening to me?” then our whole stance in life changes.  “Where is God in my illness?  Where is God in what my children are going through?  Where is God in what I am struggling with at the moment? Where is God in the transitions into which we are now being invited as a community?” 

The change from ‘why?’ to ‘where?’ makes all the difference.  It’s a change of only three letters but the change is as great as the very distance the wise men themselves travelled. The answer to the question, ‘Where?’ does not come quickly or easily, just as it did not for the wise men from the East in search of the Child Jesus.  But now, as for them, we begin to move into an open horizon.  And like the wise men we may be surprised by what we discover.

Keeping the question of ‘where?’ before us, my own journey of life, like your own, has had many unexpected twists and turns. Growing up in Tasmania it would never have entered my imagination that I would have been Parish Priest of Holy Name Wahroonga. Just as this would never have crossed my mind during my twenty years in the Trappist monastic community of Tarrawarra Abbey. I never entertained it during my long years as a member of the faculty of the Catholic Institute of Sydney. Neither had I previously imagined myself as a future Parish Priest of Chatswood. At each stage, something unexpected has come onto my horizon: a chance weekend at the monastery in 1979 which ultimately led me to join; an expected phonecall from the Jesuits in 1991 that began a process which led me to reconsider my future in the monastery; an unexpected conversation in 1999 that acted as the catalyst for me joining the Faculty of the Catholic Institute; a curious initiative of Bishop Walker’s that led me to Holy Name in 2010. And yet, I know that each step has been indicative of the Spirit calling me forth to be the person I have been created to be at the service of nurturing the life of the Church. Holding the question ‘where?’ has enabled me to engage the unexpected, and to recognise possibility and opportunity. Each step has led me into a new phase of the journey remarkable for its grace and richness. At each turning point, as one writer puts it, we are “stretched out amid the opposites in [our] life, between hanging on and letting go, between involvement and surrender, between deep engagement and gentle detachment.  This is [our] crucifixion and [our] joy. It is [our] crucible in all its insecurity and beauty, fragility and possibility.”[2] And yet, it keeps the horizon open and fresh. On this last Sunday with you, I thank God for the way in which our journeys have intersected for ten years, for the way in which we have asked the question ‘where?’ together, and for all that we have discovered as we have done so. Now, all this acts as an imprint on our hearts which we take forward each in our own way into the future as we set out on a new journey from the intersection we have enjoyed over these years. There is sadness in this turn, but also let there be the excitement of possibility.

As our hearts are prised open by the question of ‘Where?’ and when, like Babouscka we give ourselves as gifts to one another along the way, we do find him.  Or, more accurately, he finds us.  As the Lord has found me through you over these many years. Hopefully you too have found him in some small way in me.

And suddenly a light shines in the midst of what we experience, a light that transforms our experience. Behold, the epiphany of the Lord.   Thank you for being the epiphany of the Lord to me.

[1] The story is from The Children’s Hour (Milton Bradley Co.), adapted from the Russian and taken from wwww.christmas-tales.org, accessed 21 December 2010.

[2] Author and source unknown.

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