john davies
notes from a small curate

    Epiphany - Explorers

    Holy Trinity Family Communion 04/01/04

    Isaiah 60.1-6, Matthew 2.1-12

    It slid through the skies on Christmas Day. A small disc of light, burning through the darkness. And if there is life on Mars and if those Martians were in the planet's equatorial region just then, they may have seen that star, that sign, spinning to the ground. The space probe, Beagle 2. [1]

    The leader of the Beagle 2 project, Colin Pillinger, must be thinking now, if there is life on Mars then those Martians may have seen Beagle 2 descend. If only we could contact them; they could tell us what happened to our tiny craft.

    Pillinger has stepped quite literally from the dusty obscurity of late-night Open University TV lectures into the public eye this year. Some see him as a figure of fun - the archetypical mad scientist. Some are discomforted by his obsession - aware of other, better, uses for the sixty-million-dollars he has spent on a failed spacecraft. Others, rivals in the space race, are perhaps secretly pleased at Beagle 2's premature silence. And others again have been inspired by his work: like musician Alex James whose rock band Blur composed the Beagle 2 call sign. James described how rewarding he found working on the project, a team of scientists, artists and musicians working together. "We're all after the same thing, really," he said, "life." [2]

    Pillinger's search for life on Mars seems to have failed, this time round. But this single-minded man will carry on regardless. Because he's an explorer.

    Today is a day for celebrating explorers:

    Those whose search takes them far from what is familiar and comfortable and leads them into danger or terrifying loneliness.

    People like Joe Simpson, for instance, a mountaineer whose book - and now film - Touching the Void, describes his fall from a mountain in the high Peruvian Andes, and how he managed to get back to base three days later, despite a broken leg, shattered body and terrible dehydration, an amazing story of mind over matter. [3]

    Today is a day for celebrating explorers:

    Those whose ways seem sometimes strange or difficult to us; who use confronting or unusual language; whose motivations we can't relate to, because we do not share their search.

    People like Charles Darwin, for instance, who in 1831 joined HMS Beagle as the ship's naturalist, angering his father who said the journey was "a wild scheme - no good would come of it"!

    The outcome of Darwin's voyage on the Beagle was the book On the Origin of Species which revolutionised our idea of life and, in a scientific era, shook the faith of many religious people who had to look again at what they believed about the genesis of life. [4]

    Today is a day for celebrating explorers:

    Those who have been affected and shaped and changed by their obsessions, and who affect, shape and change us through the insights that they bring.

    People like Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, for instance, two Star Trek addicts who lost access to all computer facilities when they left college and saw no other way to feed their addiction but to build their own computer. It took them 13 days, and in April 1976 their Apple I heralded the beginning of the personal computer revolution which has in some way affected us all. [5]

    No greater explorers, no stranger explorers, no more influential explorers than the Magi who followed a star to Jesus' birthplace. How they suffered on their journey: T.S. Eliot imagined them travelling in the very dead of winter, carrying many regrets, with

    ... the camel men cursing and grumbling
    And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
    And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
    And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
    And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
    A hard time we had of it.
    At the end we preferred to travel all night,
    Sleeping in snatches,
    With the voices singing in our ears, saying
    That this was all folly.

    What discomfort the Magi's search brought to others - to King Herod, so alarmed at the news of a rival to his throne that he ordered a genocide; to the mothers of those murdered firstborn; and to Mary who must have wondered what it meant to have her child visited by strange travellers from faraway lands.

    What distress the Magi's search brought them too - imagine their horror when they discovered how Herod had used their information; imagine their lives changing forever having seen the object of all their dreams. "Were we led all that way for Birth or Death?" ask T.S. Eliot's Magi. For Death, they conclude, because home would never be the same to them again:

    We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
    But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
    With an alien people clutching their gods.

    But what insight the Magi's explorations brought them - and us.

    My favourite Christmas card this year was hand-drawn by an eight-year old I know. Its focus is an angel with fairy wings wearing a halo attached by wire to his/her head, a crucifix and stripey socks, and appearing to be standing on a levitating table. The angel's message to the crowned visitors is tremendous: "Here this. Jesus is the new King, but you Kings carry on." [7]

    This is very amusing but also a spot-on theology of empire. It describes perfectly how Jesus' coming shifted the balance of power in the world. God is letting the world's rulers carry on in their Herod-like ways, but regardless of what they do Jesus is the true ruler who will ultimately have his way.

    This is the Death which T.S. Eliot's Magi experienced. They couldn't take their old rulers seriously any more. They still had power over their people but all their authority had bled away.

    But this is also the life Mary celebrated when she sang her song of freedom and release, her magnificat:

    "He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty."

    This set of insights from the nativity scene gives us a whole new outlook on life.

    This odd incident in the story of our Saviour challenged the religious folk of the day to accept that the messiah was not just for them but for everyone, even strangers from the far east.

    It's a challenge still to religious folk like you and me that outsiders might have more insight into God than we have ourselves.

    But it's also a joy because it means that when at times we feel like outsiders, not good enough or clever enough to make the grade, then God sees us very differently; we're the ones God wants to draw towards his star. We're the ones God wants to discover the wonder and truth of his ways.

    The best thing about the story of the Magi is that it encourages us to keep exploring, to keep searching for God and the truth.

    Now we know that if we become obsessed by that search, it might turn us into people singleminded like Colin Pillinger or controversial like Charles Darwin, it could put us in the same category as trainspotters and birdwatchers, botanists and writers of diaries. Great enthusiasts, sometimes thought by others to be a bit odd in their obsessions.

    But each of these are explorers in their own way. And whatever they may look like, we know that explorers bring grace and wonder, truth and insight into the world. We should rejoice to be among them. Let us pray.

    We give thanks for those who explore in the cause of understanding; whose search takes them far from what is familiar and comfortable and leads them into danger or terrifying loneliness. Let us try to understand their sometimes strange or difficult ways; their confronting or unusual language; the uncommon life of their emotions, for they have been affected and shaped and changed by their struggle at the frontiers of a wild darkness, just as we may be affected, shaped and changed by the insights they bring back to us. Bless them with strength and peace. Amen. [8]

    Lord God,
    you have called your servants
    to ventures of which we cannot see the ending,
    by paths as yet untrodden,
    through perils unknown.
    Give us faith to go out with good courage,
    not knowing where we go,
    but only that your hand is leading us
    and your love supporting us;
    through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

    [1] Beagle 2 website.
    [2] Alex James: Out of this world, New Statesman, Monday 15th December 2003.
    [3] Joe Simpson - see blog of 22 December 2003.
    [4] Charles Darwin features on the Beagle 2 website.
    [5] Read more of the Wozniack and Jobs story on the Apple Computer History Weblog.
    [6] T.S. Eliot, The Journey of the Magi, in Ariel Poems, 1927.
    [7] Jessie Turner is the card's creator. I made it my card of the year - see it here.
    [8] From Michael Leunig: The Prayer Tree.
    [9] From The Lutheran Book of Worship - see blog of 31 December 2003.