It’s really dark in the Orkney Islands, this time of year. Once when Alison and I were there at new Year, we saw the sun come up one day, rising over the sea and the islands, at 9am exactly. It was dark by 3:30. It was really quite difficult to get used to. You wake up, thinking you’ve had a long night’s sleep, and it’s still dark. Then you realise it’s 8 o’clock already. But when the light does come, there’s an amazing quality to it. The sunshine flows like butter, all day from such a low angle, sometimes bathing the island so that it seems to glow, sometimes shining up and off the bottom of the clouds to create an eerie, beautiful light. There’s so much sea and loch surface that there’s always a reflection of the sky wherever you look, so you feel as if you’re caught in between two mirrors reflecting light to each other.
One night it was completely clear, so we walked out beyond the street lights to see the stars – not the dozen or so which are strong enough to shine through the London glow, but the sky full of stars, thousands of them making you realise quite how small we are on this planet of ours.
Epiphany is a season of light – as the year begins to turn and the nights get a little shorter, we celebrate Epiphany, the coming of the light of Christ into the world. We are lucky enough that we don’t have to think about light in the way that our ancestors did: we have it at the flick of a switch. I think my only real experience of living without plentiful light was the three day week of the early 70s – I remember the strangeness of sitting in the living room with no light (as well as no television). But the lack of light was normal – for most people until our present age, and in our part of the world, when it got dark, that was about it. Candles wouldn’t light up much; there would always be far more darkness than light.
It’s into that sort of darkness that the light of Christ shines, not as just another neon sign competing for our attention in a brightly lit world. The Epiphany – the manifestation, the revealing of Jesus – lightens us at the point of our deepest darkness. Placing the festival at this point in the year is supposed to create an instant connection, a reality we can feel in our bones, between the darkness in our physical lives, and the spiritual darkness in which we walk without Christ.
George Mackay Brown is one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century (in my opinion) – and he was an Orkneyman. This is his Epiphany poem:
The red king
Came to a great water. He said,
Here the journey ends.
No keel or skipper on this shore.
The yellow king
Halted under a hill. He said,
Turn the camels round.
Beyond, ice summits only.
The black king
Knocked on a city gate. He said,
All roads stop here.
These are gravestones, no inn.
The three kings
Met under a dry star.
There, at midnight,
The star began its singing.
The three kings
Suffered salt, snow, skulls.
They suffered the silence
Before the first word.
The three kings (well, not in the Bible story, but never mind) are already on a quest before the star shines on them – a quest which has proved fruitless, leading them only to impassable barriers. It is the star which gives them a new path by which to travel. What John describes in cosmic terms – the light of the world – Matthew shows in the language of story: a star which leads the wise men to Jesus. The meaning is the same: Jesus is the one in whom the world becomes more than Matthew Arnold’s dismal vision at the end of ‘Dover Beach’:
the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
It’s not insignificant I think that Arnold’s poem, which is largely about the loss of faith, ends on a note of darkness. The wise men come out of the furthest dark place that Matthew can conceive. They come from beyond the boundaries of the Roman Empire, in the darkness of barbarian lands (as the empire thought of them); they come from the darkness of being Gentiles, those who had not been given the gift of the Law, who did not know how to obey God; and they come from the darkness of sin: ‘magi’ almost certainly means something less complimentary than ‘wise men’: astrologers, probably. Out of this triple darkness, travelling in the dangerous night (if they are following a star) come these three to find and worship the light.
Their gifts, we all know from ‘We three kings’ demonstrate the depth of their insight into the mystery of Christ. Gold crowns him as king; incense is offered by a priest in worship; myrrh anoints a body for burial. These magi haven’t just struck lucky, or come wondering after a star to see what it might lead to; they know whom they are seeking, and understand that his light also will pass through the darkness of death.
When we switch off the lights, we realise that the darkness still exists. We can cover it up with light entertainment, but there are parts of each of us that we do not understand, parts we fear. There are areas of our lives of which we are ashamed. We do not live in as certain and untroubled a world as we would like.
The Epiphany reminds us that the light of Christ shines in all those dark places – whether we’d like it to or not. The places we would like to hide are not hidden from God. The places we do not know in ourselves are no secret to God. The star which led the magi to Jesus was bright enough to lead them: and Matthew wants us to know that if it could attract them, it can attract anybody. But there are also those who were not attracted, Herod and the priests in Jerusalem, the ones who didn’t wish to acknowledge the presence of another king. The star over Bethlehem is easily ignored; we can switch on the lights and live by our own resources instead. The Epiphany is Christ’s manifestation to the world, but the world did not receive him. The choice is always ours, whether to follow the way of Christ, to offer to him the gifts that we have to honour him with, or to keep them for ourselves.