Epiphany, Year B
Today is the first Sunday of our new year, 2024. We are also at the beginning of the season of Epiphany. For many of us this is the weekend to put away our mangers and take down our Christmas trees (if we remember).
Today we celebrate the revelation of Christ, the light of the world, to the Gentiles, by revisiting the story of the journey of the Magi. Over the coming weeks in Mark’s Gospel we will read the story of Jesus’ baptism and transfiguration. In each of these Scriptures there are moments of a breaking through, a manifestation of divine presence.
Today we have heard the ancient, familiar and cosmic story of the three Magi, expert astrologers, foreigners from the East, who have seen a bright star which guides on a long and arduous journey to the place of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem.
They encounter the Christ child and are changed. They return home from their journey by a different route, one that frees them from the looming threat of Herod and is illuminated by the light of Christ.
The story of the Magi’s journey and their graced moment of encounter with the Christ child in the manger has captured the imagination of people for generation upon generation.
The story of the Magi also resonates with journeys we have experienced in our own lives, journeys where we venture into unknown territory. Sometimes we have a sense of being guided and are ready and prepared, and at other times we may feel like we are stumbling blindfolded into the unknown.
When Andrew asked me if I would like to preach a homily sometime in January, I was unsure what I might offer. Most months I have lunch with a friend Elaine. Each month we take turns to randomly choose something to write about. At our December lunch I shared a reflection on my journey with my parents in the last stage of their lives. I will share something of this time with you, anticipating that my experiences may well resonate with those of others in our community.
As my parents approached the last stage of their lives, I felt a deep desire and determination to stay awake to the realities of their ageing and inevitable death. Together with other family members, I wanted to be part of a circle of love and practical support as they set out on this journey.
My parents’ experiences in the months leading up to their deaths varied radically.
My father’s journey in the six months before he died was very difficult. He developed delirium after a hospital admission. He became disoriented and agitated. It was very difficult for my mother to manage his care at home. At the time vacancies in nursing homes in the regional area where Mum and Dad lived were scarce. Dad moved into at a local nursing home which was chronically short staffed and where up to four residents shared a room.
I remember Dad’s suffering: his regrets, his anger, his desperation, his sadness, as his life slipped through his fingers, his sense of control and independence fragmenting and turning to dust. He was ambushed by death.
I also remember graced moments, moments where the gift of “some manifestation of love…. undefined and abundant”1 just showed up. I remember a sense of quiet joy just sitting quietly at Dad’s bedside, conscious of the rhythm of his breathing while he slept.
After Dad’s death an image came to me of a bird with a gammy wing, having no choice about leaving this earth and having a lot of trouble getting off the ground and flying. I saw him limping off to God. Overwhelmed by sadness I wave him goodbye. I so much want him to be free, his wing healed. I want the love of God to wash away the debris that so encumbered his strong and freedom seeking spirit. And, I imagine his spirit unbound and transformed as he falls with trust and joy into the loving embrace of God.
Over the four years following Dad’s death Mum managed at home with an ever increasing level of support from aged care services and family members. Her weekly appointment with Gayle, her hairdresser, chatting and sharing life experiences with her cleaner and daily visits from my sister, held loneliness at bay.
During this time I regularly travelled up over the mountains to stay with Mum for periods of one or two days. These were times of doing what needed to be done, but also treasured times of just being together.
I remember one wintery Saturday morning when we set off for town about 10. Our first stop was Piccolo’s, for coffee and banana bread. After watching the world go by, sharing a laugh and protecting our legs from the cold draught with a blanket, we did a little shopping and then visited the Bathurst Regional Art Gallery.
We meandered around the art gallery exhibition stopping to take in the paintings that drew our attention and sitting to rest a while in the Lloyd Rees Reading Room.
At some time during that day Mum exclaimed: ‘what a perfect day!’ Her words touched me deeply and have stayed with me.
I recently read something Anne Lamott wrote that captures the fabric of these times. She wrote ‘Enjoying how unremarkable life is takes practice and time, and then the little things start to shine and delight. Life gets smaller and in its smallness it starts winking at you.’2
As Mum’s physical world shrank and she became less and less able to look after herself, she lost some of her spark. After being hospitalised for three weeks, she acknowledged she needed to make a change. She accepted up a place at a home she felt would be a good match for her.
And thus began a period of almost 18 months of life renewed. From the moment she entered her warm, light-filled and spacious room, she breathed a sigh of relief and proceeded to embrace everything her new home had to offer. She loved and cared for residents and staff alike.
As Mum’s health began to decline, she expressed a desire to have a weekly meal at my sister’s home. In the six weeks that preceded her death various family members gathered to have lunch every Friday, bar one, at Bron’s place.
It was winter. Mum held court or dozed from her throne, either sitting in a wheel chair near the wood fire or comfortably stretched out on Bron’s couch. She determined the menu. Most weeks it was prawns and oysters, with slivers of lemon, salt and fresh bread.
And then inevitably, one night my sister, my brother, a niece and myself gathered around Mum’s bed as she made the sacred journey from life into death.
In the midst of the activities in the days following Mum’s death, I strolled around King’s Park in the heart of Bathurst. It was early spring. The foliage of the majestic old pine trees had a fresh greenness, and the vibrant orange, red and yellow poppies had taken up their annual pride of place in the garden beds encircling the Carillon. Then the carillon bells began ringing: a joyously loud, reverberating, clanging cacophony of bells. It felt to me like the Park came alive, a riot of spring colour and clanging bells, a beautiful telling out of Mum’s life, and her passage into new life.
This year at South Sydney we are beginning another year of our journey together as a community. There are certain events and plans that are likely to provide a shape and focus to our year, including much needed building repairs and preparing for the time when Andrew will no longer be in placement with us.
What I have loved about being part of South Sydney is having a welcoming environment where I can contribute to our life together in ways that are life giving for me, and hopefully others. I am aware that we have people from such rich and varied backgrounds. We have an abundance of gifts in our midst.
Our Church Council has initiated some activities over February to support us in getting to know each other better, our gifts as individuals and across South Sydney as a whole community. I am looking forward to being part of this.
Reflecting on these journeys I have come up with some ‘guide post’ questions for myself:
• Am I seeing and accepting the reality of what is happening?
• What can I do to better prepare for the journey ahead?
• Who am I sharing the journey with? What support and encouragement can we offer each other?
• Am I listening for my the guiding voice within?
• Am I noticing the light filled moments that come unannounced?
1 Marlene Marburg, Grace Upon Grace, 173
2 Anne Lamott, Opinion: At 33 I Knew Everything. At 69 I Know Something Much More Important, Washington Post, 20 November 2023.