The Epiphany - Mystery and Explanation
Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12
There is a great deal about mystery in today’s readings. In fact in the new testament reading from Ephesians the word mystery comes up no less than four times, and in the Gospel reading we are confronted with the mystery that three astrologers from a foreign country should have seen the birth of Jesus foretold in the stars and then travelled to see the new born king of the Jews.
I’ll get to those readings eventually, but I think that at this time more than any other we need to consider the balance between mystery and explanation, and the first question we need to ask ourselves is, what are we looking for in life, because what we find often depends on what we’re looking for.
So let’s think a little about mystery, and all good mystery starts in the mundane observation of everyday life. Ever since Ray and Mary got rid of their elderly Volvo I have the somewhat dubious honour of owning the two oldest Volvos in the village. One is only a mere fifteen years old, barely even run-in yet and still very reliable and even moderately fuel efficient.
But the other one is a different story. It’s twenty two years old and just about scrapes 18 miles to the gallon on a good day,
...if you’re driving downhill,
....with a good following wind,
...and with your foot off the accelerator.
What’s more it has to be run twice a week or it just won’t go. At some point in the next year it’ll probably have to be replaced, but seeing as that’s Ali’s car, we’ve got to get her something big enough for the harp.
After much musing about what would be the ideal replacement I suggested to her that we save up for an old Honda CRV. What’s so mysterious about that you may say? Well bear with me. You see Ali had never seen a Honda CRV before until I pointed one out to her. There didn’t seem to be that many of them on the road. The only thing is, now that we’ve been looking for them, we see them everywhere!
Have you ever had that happen? Once you start looking for something you see it everywhere you look, but until that point in time it might as well have been invisible. There seems to be something similar happening in the lives of different people. Have you ever noticed how people who have a positive outlook on life often seem able to talk about all the good things that have happened to them, even to the extent that when something bad happens they still often seem to be able to find something positive in it?
What I’m trying to say is that so much of what we actually see, what we perceive, seems to depend in large part on what it is we’re looking for. Now let’s turn that idea to the two great dichotomies in modern life, mystery and explanation. To a small child the whole world is full of mystery, and that ability leads to a sense of wonder and awe at how amazing absolutely everything is.
I wonder how many of you with small children or grandchildren have watched bemused on Christmas day as the child played ecstatically with the wrapping paper or the box rather than the present that was inside. That is the way of a child, to see mystery and its partner, wonder, in everything around us.
But as we get older we begin to seek explanations. Now that is absolutely fine in so far as it goes. Explanations help us to understand how the universe works, which for a religious person can also be quite inspirational in itself. I’ve certainly had occasion to feel carried into worship by a new understanding, which is one of the merits of being both a scientist and a Christian.
But recently I’ve begun to recognise that, contrary to what so many of the media-savvy scientists might suggest, explanation had its limits, because not everything can be explained. Let me give you an example.
I find that sometimes when Ali is talking to me I lose track of what she’s saying. It’s not because I’m off with my head in the clouds, and nor is it because she’s not making sense. It’s just that sometimes I become transfixed by her voice, my her motion, by the shape of her face as she’s talking, and by her eyes. I feel drawn in and what she is saying somehow seems less important than that it is she who is saying it.
I know that this happens because of the bond of love between us, yet in this there is a great mystery. I am connected to her in a way that transcends any other bonds I have with anyone else. It’s about the two having been made one, and that’s the best explanation I can come up with. It doesn’t explain the mystery, but it does at least give a reason for it.
Now if I asked a biologist to explain the mystery of love between two people they might start talking about hormones and the like, but you and I know that this doesn’t even supply a reason for the mystery, let alone an explanation. And that’s why we have the arts, so that there are people who can write about, paint, compose, sing or dance about love, and that’s the key.
You see, once we realise that there are some mysteries that cannot be explained, then we will do something different; we will celebrate them instead. And when we celebrate a mystery, the celebration takes us deeper into the mystery and fills us with wonder and awe. I despair, at the moment, about the way in which modern society seems to think that everything can, or should be explained. A), you can’t, and B) by trying to you extract wonder out of life.
So I think that our experience of life divides into two camps, and provided we take the right approach, both ways can give rise to wonder. In one camp there are the things that can properly be explained, such as how a star converts hydrogen into helium by fusion, thereby giving out so much energy that life can be sustained on a planet like this one. By understanding this there can be wonder in our lives.
In the other camp there are mysteries which cannot and should not be explained, such as the wonder of deepening love between two people. These are things which should be celebrated, perhaps through the arts, because in celebrating them we simply deepen the wonder and the awe.
So you can see that it’s important that we can distinguish between the explainable and the mysterious, and treat them both accordingly to what they are, because in doing so we will increase a sense of wonder in our lives which can draw us closer in our relationship with God. But the question I began by asking at the beginning was really, what are we looking for?
It might be that we’re simply not looking for mystery. In which case we will only ever see things that should be explained. Now I’m not saying that we will have lives devoid of wonder if we try and explain everything, but we will only have a wonder based in the sciences. And nor should we see mystery in everything, because we will be no better than cranks.
But if we get the balance right, then we will gain wonder from understanding the world, and we will gain wonder from the existence of unexplainable mysteries. The point is that we have to learn to look, to see, to perceive, and so we come to today’s readings. In the reading from the letter to the Ephesians Paul uses the word mystery no less than four times.
For Paul the mystery he is referring to is found in the context of this part of the letter. He’s writing to Christians in Ephesus. What was so radical about this was that he was a Jew, part of Gpd’s chosen people, and the people who were becoming believers were not Jews. Jesus came as a Jew to the Jews, and now through him, this feeble Jewish Christian who had started off by persecuting the church, through him people who were not Jews were being welcomed into the house of God as members of his family.
This was a huge mystery to a Jew. But nowhere here do you find any sense of explanation. Paul makes a radical leap that many of his Jewish contemporaries were never able to make, and accepts that a Jewish Jesus came for everyone in the world. And by celebrating the mystery he goes even further into the heart of God by recognising that this must have been God’s plan all along.
And that sentiment throws us back to the Gospel reading. If St Paul had been aware of the coming of the Magi to greet Jesus as king, he would already have been aware of this mysterious truth. And even here the mystery deepens. We call them kings and wise men in our nativities, but lets be correct here: these men were astrologers. I don’t think Matthew really appreciated how they had found Jesus.
The would have been searching the skies, reading the stars and the movements of planets, and through that pagan means, forbidden to the rest of us, they found a sign that a new king was born to the Jews. They didn’t know where which is why they went to the seat of power initially, to Jerusalem. And so here, too, is another great mystery, that God should choose to reveal the birth of his son to Gentiles, non Jews, through astrology, something that is forbidden to the rest
Now we can try and explain that. We can try and figure out why God used a forbidden means to communicate something true. Or we can accept the mystery, and celebrate that through this we can see how God will use any tool in the box if it is a means of bringing his message of reconciliation with him for all people, regardless of creed, colour, nationality, or whatever.
People often say, ‘I don’t feel Christmassy anymore, not like when I was a child.’ Well maybe here’s the reason why. Maybe it’s because we only ever look for explanation when we should also be looking for mysteries to celebrate. It’s a huge mystery that God should do all that he did for our sake, and that’s beyond explanation, so let us simply deepen our wonder by celebration of the fact that it is so. Amen.