We have a Nativity set which I bought from Chester cathedral a few years ago. When we put our Christmas decorations up at the beginning of December, we place our nativity characters inside the wooden stable that my dad made; Mary and Joseph either side of the tiny manger, a lone shepherd with one sheep, and an angel. Our three kings, we place in another room. This year they were on the bookcase in our dining room, and every few days they slowly processed across the room, into the living room, upon the fireplace, and finally, today, they arrived at the stable, because today it is Epiphany.
Now, there's so much wrong with this whole set-up, that I don't even know where to begin, and that's not even mentioning the fact that our beautiful ceramic Nativity characters are all wearing cable knit-wear. Just for starters, as my eight year old pointed out, why is the shepherd there before Christmas Day? Or the Angel? Or indeed, any of them? In short, why keep the Kings (or wise men, or Magi, or whoever) from the party until January 6th when the whole thing is out of sync anyway, chronologically inaccurate, and largely arbitrary?
I don't have a good, logical reason, except that I like Epiphany. Here's why:
The business of Christmas is finally over; there's nothing left in the tub of Celebrations other than bounties and empty wrappers (if your family are complete monsters of course), you're starting to crave vegetables and salad, someone has callously shrunk your best jeans, and the only exercise you've had in twelve days is the upper body workout of cramming (unsuccessfully) a mountain of cardboard and wrapping paper into the recycling bin.
You're back at work. The kids are (probably) back at school. There is a cold, dead, empty space in your living room where your brightly lit tree once stood, and everything looks as bare and as lifeless as the naked trees outside. Normal programming has resumed on the telly; and honestly, there's nothing festive whatsoever about Homes under the Hammer, not when you could be watching a kids’ movie, or something to do with food, or anything other than regular daytime television. Advertising, which a short while ago was encouraging us to gorge and splurge and spend, is now telling us that we’re fat, debt ridden, missing out on endless bargains, and we probably need to buy a sofa. Again.
Lord, it is so depressing. No more lounging about, forgetting what day of the week it is, while you punctuate every trip to the kitchen by sticking your hand into an open box of chocolates, and when you answer every food or drink related query with “oh heck, why not. It’s Christmas.”
Now it's January, and it's not so much comfort and joy, as discomfort and despair. And you know it's right to keep these things in perspective, and remember those people who are really suffering right now, and wham: along comes guilt to add to the misery cocktail, and it's all just grim beyond belief.
Now is when you need an epiphany – a moment of sudden realisation. You see, all those lights which
marked the Christmas season weren't just there to make it look pretty. They were there to remind us all that light is the essence of Christ – He illuminates dark places, and no amount of darkness can extinguish Him.
No amount of darkness.
Not the darkness of January, brown and sloppy though it may be. Nope, not even on those days when it rains non-stop, and there is mud everywhere. Not on those days when merriment is a distant memory, over-indulgence a thing of the past, and self-denial and deprivation are the order of the day. Not on those days when here, in the Northern hemisphere, the days are still so short, and the darkness feels thick and all encompassing.
Not the darkness of Aleppo. Or Damascus. Or Baghdad. Or any of those dark, dark places, where it must feel like there isn't even the tiniest chink of light anymore.
I have hope that there is light, because God is with us; Emmanuel has come. We live in post-Christmas times.
Those three little kings on my living room side-board bear cable-knitted, sparkly testament to the knowledge Jesus is the light of the world; He came to bring light to the gentiles; to all of us. Those ancient magi travelled far to find Him, then they didn't quite know where to look. They probably didn't expect to find Him in such humble circumstances:
He was a child.
He was poor.
He wasn't powerful, or imposing, or bedecked in jewels and fine robes.
He wasn't remotely Kingly.
And yet, the magi (well, they were reportedly rather wise) knew Him and recognised His majesty.
So we know that light shines in unexpected places; it doesn't always look like we think it might. It might look like the very opposite of what we think it should. We might even mistake it for the dark.
Cling on friends. Cling on. Look for light and nurture it, like a hand around a flailing lighter flame, on a windy day. Look in unexpected places. And keep looking, for the darkness cannot overwhelm it. It really can't.
In place of the gaping wound that our Christmas tree left, we replace it on January 6th with our Epiphi-tree* - a bundle of branches collected from the woods, decorated with glitter, and placed into a slim vase along with some pebbles for ballast. We adorn it with shiny ornaments, and more kings. There's even a camel. It marks the season and it makes the demise of Christmas just that little bit easier to bear.
It reminds us to look for Jesus, in everything we do. It reminds us to keep the light of Christmastide shining all the year through. It also reminds me that I still have a few Roses chocolates left, so I better get cracking on them. Well…it is January after all.
*I would dearly love to take the credit for this term, but that honour must go to Homer Simpson.