One of the memorable moments from the consecration of Andrew Asbil as our new bishop was the recessional music, U2’s “Beautiful Day.” It was an excellent choice for the occasion. It occurs to me that another of the band’s biggest hits – “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” – might be a fitting selection for the Epiphany season, because it sums up the wise men’s experience quite nicely.
The wise men, or magi, were from Persia, roughly modern-day Iran and Iraq. They would have been well educated and culturally sophisticated; they had dedicated their whole lives to searching the heavens for signs of significant political events that were to take place.
They had observed a great star at the very beginning of its ascent. Different historians posit different theories about that star. Was it the conjunction of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn in 6 BC or a nova growing very brightly, or was it simply the regular occurrence of Venus at its most brilliant? That doesn’t really matter, but the timing does. “Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star appeared.” Later on, we are told that Herod ordered the slaughter of all children under the age of two in Bethlehem, and so the star must have risen two years previously. These men would have spotted the star, made mathematical calculations, reflected, researched and looked at the Hebrew scriptures, and then, and only then, would they have saddled up their camels and begun the 1,200-kilometre trek across deserts and mountains to Jerusalem.
They may have made some detours, and in the days before satellite navigation probably made some wrong turns. It took time for those magi – years, in fact – to get to Jerusalem, to have a look at this so-called “light of the world.” It was an enquiring, slow and difficult path that they took. They were searchers and saw their lives as a journey of discovery – “I still haven’t found what I am looking for.”
The neighbourhoods and villages that our churches are in are full of people who are searching for the light – the light of truth in an era of fake news, the light of hope in a culture of death and despair, the light of relationships and community in an age of loneliness and isolation. Local churches are marvellously positioned to be places of genuine welcome, where honest searching can take place and space is created for intellectual wrestling with the meaning and purpose of life – spaces Jesus wants to speak into.
In this past year, I have been encouraged to find an increasing number of parishes intentionally creating space for people like the magi to explore the Christian faith. These people may already be in the church, but many are those in our neighbourhoods who are searching for the light. I find parishes running the Pilgrim course, Refresh and the Alpha course, and spending time cooking meals to go with these programs and thereby creating that safe, non-judgmental atmosphere necessary for people to discover, reflect and search like the magi did. Studies show that it takes years and numerous positive interactions with Christians for people to move closer to Christian faith, so intentionally and repeatedly creating space for people to wrestle with and explore faith is critically important in our parishes.
At Christmas we stood back in awe and wonder as God put God’s cards on the table, revealing to us in Jesus the light that came to dispel the darkness. In this Epiphany season, I would encourage you to do two things. Begin praying for one person you know – a work colleague, friend or family member – who is spiritually curious. And begin to think through how your church could create space, outside of Sunday morning alone, for such a person to search after the light of the world – because they still haven’t found what they are looking for.