It is often quite extraordinary how things that begin with humble origins can grow into something far greater than could ever have been expected.
Many of you will know the story of Jack Cohen, born the son of a poor Polish Jewish tailor in the East End of London. It was in 1919 that he began to work the markets of the East End. They were tough times, and rationing was strict. He led the entrepreneurial way, buying quality seconds and damaged goods from other business and selling them on at reasonable prices. He did well from this, and in 1929 opened his own shop in Burnt Oak near Edgware. Who would have guessed that some seventy-eight years later his stores would be market leaders, netting £2.2 pounds profit and dominating so many aspects of our commercial lives. That shop, of course, is TESCO.
Let me give you another example and one which is totally uncommercial. This time our central figure is the young vicar of St Stephen Walbrook in the City of London in the early 1950s. Working his parish, he had become increasingly aware of the acute loneliness and suffering of so many within his parish. It came to head when a young girl committed suicide because she failed to understand to the changes her body as she was getting older. He started a telephone line, the number of which was MANSION HOUSE 9000, the number of the church. People could call this line when they were in need or alone, one phone in a church in central London. Again many of you will have guessed the organisation of which I speak. It was the charity founded by Chad Varah in 1953, which was later named after the charitable Samaritan in St. Luke’s Gospel.
I begin with these two very different organisations, because they are examples of organisations that, like the plant that grows from the mustard seed, have surprised us by the way in which they have exceeded all expectation.
As we celebrate the Epiphany, so called because in Greek epiphaneo means the manifestation. This is the time when the western Catholic churches remember the visit of the Magi to the baby Christ, who having followed a star seek to pay homage and give Him gifts, all of which show they understand this babe to be the Chosen One.
With Epiphany comes a change of scene. At Christmas we are invited in to the stable where the baby Christ lies. We are invited into a very private scene, so often depicted as a rather dingy, dark place (perhaps a cave) lit only by the soft, weak glow of a tallow candle of two. At the same time, St John tells us, that the focus in the dim little cattle stall is the baby, one who can enlighten the hearts and lives of the entire world.
It is with the coming of the Magi, the dimly lit stable begins to radiate with the light of God’s Son. These enigmatic magi – we know not how many, or who they were, only that they came from the East and were probably astrologers – have come because a star has bidden them. Perhaps they knew those words from Isaiah we heard a few moments ago: ‘Arise, shine; for your light has come and the glory of the Lord has shone upon you.’ If they had they might have assumed that the star shining so brightly was nothing short of God’s glory appearing over them. They have been led by the glow of one small light in the cosmos to the very source that lights the whole cosmos.
The manifestation of the light of the world has begun. Even as the family lay recovering from the triumph and trauma of the baby’s birth, the light has begun to enlighten the world.
Is it not incredible to think, even in a simplistic way, to think that thousands of years later, and thousands of miles from that same place, we come to pay homage to that same baby, the same light.
The same light that enlightened those Magi, has led many others to its source. There have been saints and martyrs who lives have been given for that baby and for that light. There are countless of unnamed souls, who have been lit up with that same light in their hearts and their lives. The light continues to reach dark places, and continues to illuminate people the world over, with its message of love, radical equality and eternal life for humanity.
And yet it, the darkness never seems far away. Even as the Magi pay homage and love to Jesus, Matthew tells us the story of Herod plotting with hatred and jealousy to kill his perceived infant rival but also all children of suckling age. The darkness indeed is never far away.
Even with the hope of that the New Year brings, and the hope of a New World that Christmas brings it is hard not to see the darkness. The darkness of war, suffering, hatred, selfishness and greed. There is an abundance of darkness, places where light seem shut out. It is not only in the places printed on the front our newspapers. Many around us suffer darkness in their lives and it can be overwhelming.
Even with Christian hope the darkness can be smothering. We as Christians can all too easily retreat to the stable, to the semi-lit comfort of a small and isolated world. That is when the Church forgets the Epiphany and becomes self-sufficient. It is also when it is failing. This is when it is important to remember that the key to darkness is that it does not really ever exist. It has no power of its own; it is simply the absence of light. If we remain in the stable, then the light does not leave and darkness does indeed remain, like a curtain wall around that manger scene.
The visit of the Magi shows us that the light of Christ cannot be contained in any stable, just as it cannot be contained within church buildings of communities. The Magi come, pay homage, leave their gifts and go. In my mind, fired up by what they have seen, they go out and rather like Moses reflecting the light of God in his face on Sinai, reflect that light into the world.
We, too, enlightened by the hope and excitement of Christmas should let our faces shine with Christ’s light, because darkness is only the absence of light. If we treasure the light that enlightens us, we allow that same light to shine through us and into our darkened world. For where there is light, darkness has no power.’
Let me end with the words we heard but a couple of weeks ago:
‘…in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness could not overcome it.’