Those who write catchy slogans or create successful marketing ploys will no doubt already have declared this to be the year for aspiring to 2020 Vision, once thought to be the norm for optimum clarity and focus in human eyesight!
Realistically, most of us live with less perfect levels of perception of the world around us, often needing help to see the bigger picture or the finer details of life. As Christians, none of claim to be perfect and most of us fail to see the wood for the trees at some time or other. However, there is this strange verse in our Gospels which is attributed as one of the sayings of Jesus: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect!” This verse was literally carved in stone below the east window of Emmanuel Church, Forest Gate, the parish where I served as Vicar between 2000 and 2003, and the church where Dave and I were married at Epiphany nineteen years ago.
The stained-glass window above the inscription showed a humble but colourful nativity scene, with Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus all being welcomed by the shepherds who had rushed down from the fields to greet the promised Christ child. It always seemed to me a bit incongruous that the call to “Be perfect…” was directly aligned in Emmanuel Church with what must have been the chaotic, obscure, messy, unwelcome and even dangerous circumstances of Jesus’ birth.
But in actual fact, it does make perfect sense! If we believe God in Christ was humble enough to step down from the exalted heavenly realm into the far from perfect world epitomised by that first century unequal, cruel and oppressive society, then quite simply the perfection God calls us as Christians to emulate is that same divinely inspired desire not to stand aloof from messiness and pain, but to get involved right at the heart of things, and somehow to try to see our way clear to make an amazing difference for good in the midst of a whole variety of otherwise hopeless, unglamorous or unpromising situations. In the second century, St Irenaeus said, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive!” The angels must surely sing with joy once more “Glory to God in the highest and peace to God’s people on earth!” whenever we display even the smallest acts of kindness and compassion in response to catching sight of both the obvious or more hidden needs of those around us, whether in our own community or glimpsed fleetingly in transitory heart-wrenching stories flashed up on our TV screens or on social media.
Whether we consider ourselves as ordinary and a bit on the edge of things, like the shepherds, just about making ends meet, or whether we count ourselves amongst the more privileged and comfortably off, like the three wise travellers, who can afford to risk going on adventures in life – whichever may be the circumstance into which we were born, consider that God may be calling each of us to come a bit closer to Christ as we enter this New Year. Think of how a young baby at just six months of age gazes so seriously and intently into your face, before breaking into a smile of recognition and delight! At this coming Epiphany season, may we increasingly see ourselves as God in Christ sees us, considered no less his beloved child than was Jesus himself, revealed at his Baptism in the turbulent waters of the River Jordan. And responding to the forgiving and gracious gaze that God eternally bestows on us, however insignificant or undeserving we may feel, may we have the insight to view others around us equally as our neighbours and companions along life’s way, however difficult the journey may be.
The first miracle that Jesus did according to the Gospel of John is the one often recalled at weddings in church – Jesus turning the water into wine! This story is one of the Epiphany season readings and reminds us powerfully that God desires all human society to be celebratory and rich in meaning and purpose. Too often we find ourselves more conveniently ignoring the hints and nudges of those who have noticed a real need or an impending crisis, like Jesus’ mother Mary did when the scandal of inadequate provision of hospitality threatened to embarrass the bridegroom’s family on that memorable occasion in Cana of Galilee. At our own wedding, sadly no-one noticed (not even the new bride) that all Dave managed to find left to eat at our splendid wedding buffet (provided by our lovely friend Eileen Williams) was just one vol-au-vent!?!
The Epiphany season, which lasts through to the Feast of Candlemas on 2 February, reminds us, as we approach Ash Wednesday at the end of the month, that we are called to delight in God’s world and sacrificially to enable others to do the same. If Christmas is for children, then Epiphany is for grown-ups! May our vision as the Anglican Church of God here in this community ever remain unclouded by selfishness and insularity, and may we ever be alert to responding in love to the needs of the world, starting with our nearest and dearest and then looking beyond them to help relieve the plight of the poor. May God grant us clarity of vision this New Year and always!