Bishop Dominic Walker’s sermon at the Collation of Fr Mark Soady as Vicar of Abergavenny on Friday 6th January 2012
The Feast of the Epiphany marks the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas. It is celebrated by the Church in the West with the arrival of the Magi or Wise Men and it is celebrated by the Church in the East as the feast of the Baptism of Jesus. The word ‘epiphany’ means ‘to manifest’ or ‘ to show forth’ – and both the arrival of the Wise Men and the Baptism of Jesus are events that proclaim Christ to the world.
In the New Testament there are two lots of visitors to the crib. Not surprisingly, St Luke records the shepherds because the shepherds were considered as ‘outsiders’ – they could not observe all the religious rules because they were on the hills tending their sheep – and St Luke wants to show that the ‘outsiders’ were now the ‘insiders’ because Luke proclaims that the gospel is for everyone, young and old, rich and poor, Jews and Gentiles.
But surprisingly, it is St Matthew who records the arrival of the Wise Men. We are not told how many or who they were – but they were certainly not Jews. Tradition says that there were three of them and that they might have been kings or more likely Zoroastrian astrologers. We have even attached symbolic meaning to their gifts and given them names, but what matters is that they were followers, who had followed a star that led them to the Christ Child in Bethlehem.
W.H. Auden wrote his long Christmas oratorio entitled For the time being in which the Wise Men explain why they had followed the star.
The first says
To discover how to be truthful now
Is the reason I follow this star.
The second says
To discover how to be living
Is the reason I follow this star now
The third says
To discover how to be loving now
Is the reason I follow this star
And then they all say together
To discover how to be human now
Is the reason we follow this star
Mark, you are being authorised and commissioned this evening to be a wise man who himself is a follower, and who will lead others to follow the Child of Bethlehem.
I know what it is to take on a job and to be told constantly ‘You have a hard act to follow’, and every priest knows that the success of his ministry is found in what happens after he or she has moved on. Has he only attracted people to himself so that when he goes people drift away, or has he attracted people to be genuine followers of Jesus Christ?
Fr Jeremy had many great gifts and you too have many, but different gifts – your experience in psychiatric care, in politics and as an army padre, a parish priest and a university chaplain have equipped you with experience and insights that will serve you well in your new ministry.
To discover how to be truthful now is the reason I follow this star, but what is truth? That is the question that Pilate asked, but there was no answer – because the Truth was standing before him. Jesus said, ‘I am the Way, the Truth and the Life’ and every priest is required to study the scriptures and the world around and to relate the truth of the gospel to life today. The teaching and preaching role of the priest can only be sustained if they prayerfully engage with the scriptures and listen to God with one ear and to the world with the other, because only then can the teacher and the preacher be truly prophetic. Prophets of course, have never been popular because people don’t like hearing home truths about their lives which is why Auden’s second Wise Man says
To discover how to be living now is the reason I follow this star. It is not easy to live the Christian life when there are so many pressures and demands made upon us, but Jesus said, ‘I came that you may have life and have it more abundantly’. Abundant life is promised here and now for those who truly want to be disciples of Jesus. Abundant life is a life that is full of thanksgiving and joy and happiness but to live that life means looking at our priorities, letting go of some of the things that have become our gods and like the Wise Men before the crib to know that God has visited and still visits his people -for love came down at Christmas. St Ireneus famously said, ‘The Glory of God is mankind fully alive’ but we can only be fully alive when we are glorifying God by being attentive to his word and obeying his call.
To discover how to be loving now is the reason I follow this star. ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son to the end that all who believe in him should not perish but have everlasting life’. Love, in theological terms, is not an emotion but a relationship, a relationship that is based on trust. Christians are called to love God – and their neighbours. Jesus taught that what we do for the least of our brothers and sisters we do for him. A church that exists for itself will die to itself but a church that exists to show God’s love in action will grow and flourish.
Then Auden’s Wise Men say together, ‘To discover how to be human now is the reason we follow this star’. Yes, Jesus did not come into the world to make us religious but to make us truly human – someone said that on the day of judgement we shall only be asked one question, ‘Why did you not become the person I made you to be?’
So Mark, your task is to be a follower who will lead others to be followers of Jesus. You task will be to proclaim the truth of the Christian faith, and sometimes to wrestle with others to apply that truth to life today. Your task will be to encourage people to discover life and how to have it more abundantly and to learn how to live as disciples of Jesus. Your task will be to build a community of love – a community that loves one another and shows their love for God in their care for the poor and suffering. Your task is to celebrate the Eucharist and to teach people how to live eucharistically.
Mark, you arrive in Abergavenny on the day that we celebrate the Wise Men arriving in Bethlehem. You bring you own gifts – not gold and frankincense and myrrh – but gifts of healing and pastoral care, a concern for the world, gifts of leadership and efficient administration, a ministry of encouragement and a great capacity for work. I am sure these gifts will be warmly received and used in the ministry which I shall entrust to you – and to God be the glory. Amen.