Epiphany: Gifts and Stars - Reflections for Epiphany 2022

Adult Learning
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8:00am Morning Prayer
8:30am Doors open for sightseeing
8:30am Eucharist
12:30pm Eucharist
4:00pm Last entry for sightseeing
5:00pm Choral Evensong
5:30pm Cathedral closes

Epiphany: Gifts and Stars - Reflections for Epiphany 2022

Patrick Craig

1. Gifts and Stars

‘Waiting, Worshipping, Thanksgiving. These are our tasks for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany. We’ve arrived at the big reveal moment. Who exactly is this baby?

We shall be looking at the various moments of revelation within the season of Epiphany over the next few weeks – Jesus’s Baptism, the Wedding at Cana and culminating in Simeon’s declaration at Candlemas. Epiphany is a bigger project than just that twelfth day of Christmas when we take down the decorations. And thinking about the themes of Gifts and Stars will allow us to explore how we can see beyond the obvious glitter to a deeper appreciation of all that we have been given. Music might even allow us to glimpse into the stable.

But we start with the Magi. The Kings or Astrologers conjured by the title Magi don’t quite cut it for me. I prefer 10th Century monk Aelfric’s title of Tungelwitegan – “star wise”, or “people with long eyes” as the Native Americans called the scientists setting up the first telescopes in their backyard. They follow a star that can sometimes flicker. The light isn’t always steady but it never disappears. The Magi teach us that we must learn to persevere, to trust in the signs God throws in our path. To strive towards our own star.

And what will be our reward? Gifts beyond our imagining. The gifts the Magi bring may appear useless at first for a homeless teenage mother, but she will ponder them in her heart and they can lead us to a truer understanding of Jesus’ divinity and authority. God born as a baby. Emmanuel’s fragility as the Magi set eyes on God with us here on earth was the greatest gift that they received in return.

Summer 2012 was a time of gifts and stars in Britain. A moment from the Paralympic Opening Ceremony combined music and magic. Paralympians appeared like angels above the arena while Elin Manahan Thomas sang Handel’s exquisite aria Eternal Source of Light Divine. Watching these golden athletes again challenges us to ask “What will I do this New Year to become more fully the human God created me to be?”

2. You too are beloved

I was delighted to hear Mark Oakley, who was then a Canon of St Paul’s, speaking at the National Gallery four years ago about Jan Gossaert’s painting The Adoration of the Kings. At the end he announced that he was going to read T. S. Eliot’s poem Journey of the Magi, and rather joyfully, this elicited an audible gasp of delight from his audience. The poem is greatly loved and provides a whole other level of understanding to Matthew’s gospel account. On giving an Epiphany talk myself at St Paul’s a few days later I wanted to offer the audience a musical gift that was not shared via my computer. So I organised an impromptu performance of Benjamin Britten’s 1971 setting of Eliot’s poem for three singers and piano. Looking back, this gift of live music seems more of a precious offering than I could ever have imagined then. Perhaps the most striking moment in Britten’s canticle is a mysterious section about four minutes in – ‘With the voices singing in our ears, saying that this was all folly’. Do listen to the recording which features the singers Britten wrote this canticle for.

John Whaite, the recent Strictly Come Dancing finalist, spoke of the voices in his head earlier on in the series telling him to not be too camp or flamboyant as he danced, to ‘mute that part of me’. There are a lot of voices telling the characters what to do in the Epiphany stories. Joseph is warned to flee to Egypt to escape Herod’s violence and the Magi have a dream telling them to go home by another road. But this week, as we remember Jesus’ Baptism, the voice takes on a more positive and momentous note - telling Jesus that he is ‘my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased’ as he emerges from under the water. We must try to drown out the competing voices of acquisition, envy and regret in order to hear God’s message of love. With every year that passes we inhabit a world that allows us to be more fully the person that God created us to be. Wash away the expectations of the past, refuse to listen to those voices that warn of ‘folly’, and hear instead that you too are beloved.

3. Life in abundance

There’s something uniquely special about a piece of music that makes you cry. It’s something to do with the marriage of harmony and context. I reckon I can watch Steven Spielberg’s ET with the sound off or listen to John Williams’ soundtrack of the film without tears, but there’s no way I can combine the two and stay dry-eyed.

Singers have it tougher than wind players. We are entirely our own instrument and have to engage with the added emotional impact of text. There are thankfully only two pieces that we sing every year at St Paul’s which always bring me to tears. One is for Good Friday so is more explainable, but the other is a piece relating to the Wedding at Cana which we sing at the Epiphany Carol Service. The text is by the composer’s brother and it seems to have inspired an irresistible alchemy of unfolding harmony in just thirty bars that resolves on the word LOVE – “earth’s antiphon”.

As Cana’s quiet, wondrous guest

Drew richest wine from water blessed

Through trembling vow and thankful song

May glory shine, as hearts respond

To Heaven’s theme

With love,

Earth’s antiphon.

The Wedding at Cana is another story of extravagant gifts. 150 gallons of the finest wine, 1200 pints, 6000 glasses. Quite a party. Life in abundance. A reminder to pull ourselves away from our phones, our diaries, the few feet around us, and look out towards God’s abundant generosity. The communion prayer for Epiphany finishes with a reference to this miracle – “poverty turned to riches, sorrow into joy.” Jesus brings transformation to our lives and we should respond with our own antiphon of generous love towards the poor and the despairing.

This recording of Cana’s Guest by Richard Allain, with words by his brother Thomas, captured on the composer’s phone at a recording session, is sung by the choir of Merton College, Oxford – young people discovering the power of sacred choral music in one of the world’s most generous acoustics.

Patrick Craig is a countertenor and conductor. He is a Vicar Choral at St Paul's Cathedral and over twenty years sang more than a thousand concerts with the Tallis Scholars. He is the founder and director of Aurora Nova, the all-female professional choir which regularly leads Sunday worship at St Paul's Cathedral.