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Epiphany (Year C): Lead, Kindly Light

Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th’encircling gloom,

lead thou me on!

The night is dark, and I am far from home,

lead thou me on!

Keep thou my feet: I do not ask to see

the distant scene; one step enough for me.

This first verse from the famous poem of Blessed John Henry Newman speaks directly to the heart of anyone feeling abandoned or lost, seeking the way home. I think these words could also apply to the Magi, if not to humanity itself and, so, to each one of us. For the Magi, the sight of the Star they followed “filled them with delight.” I remember as a boy on the return boat journey from Belfast searching for the lights on the Ardrossan coast and feeling the warmth that I was soon to be home. And I’m sure many of you have your own story to tell about a distant light giving you hope and a sense of reassurance that your journey would quickly be at an end.

The Magi followed one kind of light and searched for another. They followed the Star but searched for Christ, the Light of the world. They were men of science and learning. They were trying to read the signs of their times. They had a restlessness to find not a formula or an ideology but a person who would be a leader out of the darkness of their civilization. The Magi did what we humans have done from time immemorial: they looked for that king or leader or luminary that would bring peace, sense and order to their experience of disorder and emptiness.

All we need do is look around our own country and world today. A number of questions arise almost without thinking. What is happening? Where are we going? Are we going to be OK? We need answers to such basic questions to keep us from anxiety and uncertainty. We need the light to see, to guide our steps and lead us to peace, to happiness, to home.

At the beginning of this New Year, it’s good to take stock of where we are on our journey. Years return in a cycle, but our lives are not circular. They move in a line, even if not always a straight one. They begin, and they end. The path in between is the difficult part. As in Newman’s poem, we cannot see the distant scene (which is probably better) but we need to see the next step forward and have the courage to take it.

The pulpit is normally not the place to address politics or economics. But it is the place from which to address the spiritual and moral aspects of our journey. These are at the core of every human life. Upon these depends, you might say, the value of our social order itself, and certainly our safe arrival at harbour.

Let’s take the Magi to guide us. They were searchers and investigators; when their investigations pointed them to the star, they got up and left where they were; they brought what they needed for the journey, facing the risks and demands of it in view of the goal they sought; and when they found that goal, they gave gifts and worshipped.

In our Christian life we need to be searchers and investigators. The first thing is to take stock of where I am, what I am doing with my life, what is right and what is wrong with it, where it needs to change and why. For example, if I am unhappy and restless, I try and find out why and seek ways and help to deal with it. If I am in a moral or spiritual rut, going around in circles, let me search for solutions that will help me break free. A courageous look at where the darkness may be inside me can certainly be difficult, but it is necessary if I am to understand in first person why I need the light, Christ.

And so, like the Magi, an armchair reflection on yourself is not enough. Like them, we need spiritually and morally to get up and leave where we are and go in whatever direction or directions will lead us to Christ. Getting up and moving can be difficult, too, since we would prefer the solution poured into our lap. What our tradition calls the sin of sloth or laziness is not mainly about lying in bed all day; it’s about seeing what we need to do to live our moral and spiritual lives as Christ wants us to do but being indifferent and reluctant to make the effort. Sloth is like saying everything will be fine but then doing nothing to ensure that it will be. I suppose we would all be happy enough to get up on a camel and travel on a journey, but undertaking the journey to leave behind moral or spiritual mediocrity is just too much …

Yet if you do take the one small step, if you do get up from that comfy armchair, Christ himself will give you the strength and the grace to make that journey. His light only shines for those willing to see. If we are willing, we will experience the splendour and delight of that light as did the Magi.

Next, the Magi brought what they needed for the journey. They worked out what would be required by way of supplies and by way of facing the risks and pitfalls. On our journey, the supplies are given to us by the Lord: his Word, the sacraments, prayer, self-denial, discipline. Spiritual direction or counsel can help us perceive and conquer the risks and traps. In some senses, we make our journey alone, but in others we are very much companions with everyone else doing the same and with the saints who are helping us with their prayers.

When the Magi found Jesus, they gave him their gifts and worshipped him. The chief gift we give to Christ is our very selves. In giving him ourselves, we worship him. We worship him for his self-giving to us on the Cross and in the Eucharist and in the torrent of the grace of absolution. We worship him because he fashioned us to be like him and to be his and because he made a commitment to us that saw him give up everything so that we would not be lost. In worshipping him we find the healing of all our sins and ills, the perfection of our own lives and the fulfilment of all joy in communion with all others who have searched and found him like ourselves.

For the Magi, finding Jesus in the stable was an end, but not the end of their search. In many ways it was just a new beginning. They had to go back home and begin the real journey, the one that I have been describing as being the journey of us all. Like Newman, the Magi too will only have been able to take one step at a time in th’encircling gloom. My friends, no matter how thick or dark the gloom, Christ our Light shines powerfully for the simple and sincere hearts who search and investigate, who get up and move and who ready themselves for the journey. I pray for all of you that this 2019 will be a big step forward in your moral and spiritual lives. May we become “living stables” with the Star of Bethlehem, not over us, but shining from deep within our hearts.