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Epiphany Sunday

One of Stephi’s friends called in over the Christmas period and was wearing a sweatshirt that said: Three wise men. Really?

I said that it was a good Epiphany message and in essence the Epiphany refers to the significance of Jesus being acknowledged by the Gentiles.

The context in St Matthew’s account is the outright rejection of Jesus by Herod. Despite the failings of Herod, others also recognised his importance. He was for all people and not just a few. All people implies different cultures, ethnicity and experiences.

On a slightly different track I was reading an article this week about some of the secrets of aging well.

I met someone recently who said that he liked being old: “I don’t really care anymore about what other people think.”

Part of it is focused on mental agility and being open to new ideas and thinking.

It is not saying that you have to agree with everything but the ability to grapple with ideas and think around them is very good for your cognitive health.

“Ignore people who say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. You can. Despite the common perception that creativity is the preserve of the young, we can get more creative as we get older.

Our neural networks loosen up and we have the confidence and freedom to challenge groupthink.

Honoré was encouraged last year when the Turner prize abolished its age limit for artists. Michelangelo could have been a contender.”

On Epiphany Sunday I think it might also be good for your spiritual health.

Over the next few weeks I am going to be working with students on their Church History Module in St Albans.

It is really enjoyable and it is good to read through the module and get to know the students over the weeks ahead.

One of the challenges of being a student is that you are introduced to new ideas and that can be unsettling.

It is easy to absorb a particular perspective and mindset over a period of time and it can be difficult to see that people may think in different ways.

The reverse of this is that there may be things that you hear in church and really struggle with and it can be quite liberating to know that there are other ways of understanding a topic.

I had an interesting discussion with Gemma about Christianity and she made the point she struggles with the Christian emphasis on sin.

She does not find it helpful to be told that she is a sinner and is going to be punished. There is a historical context for this view of human nature.

In the history of the early church the most influential theologian was St Augustine who had an argument with a British monk called Pelagius about a key question in theology of what must we do to be saved. Augustine argued that essentially we cannot do anything.

We are totally dependent on God’s grace and we cannot win God’s favour by anything that we do.

Pelagius did not deny the importance of grace but felt that there was some inherent goodness in human nature that could respond to God’s love and reach its full potential.

Augustine by the idea of “original sin” argued that this was impossible. We might want to do the right thing but we always fell short and the reason was that we were fallen creatures.

In the Reformation period of Martin Luther and John Calvin this of divine grace was reinstated.

The view of human nature presented in this period was totally negative.

We might be able to do a few right things but in God’s eyes were depraved and guilty and totally deserving of divine wrath.

We are sinners that need help and God in His grace steps in and does for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

For a Calvinist some are predestined for salvation and some are not.

You could argue that the emphasis in this is not so much on human sin and its many failings, but rather on God’s grace and unconditional love, but the overall take on human beings is still very negative.

So rather than getting Gem bogged down in original sin, I have had an epiphany and have rediscovered the writings of the Celtic Saints for the 4th and 5th Centuries of British and Irish History.

There is a long list of men and women who are quite inspirational figures. Some of the most well-known are Ninian, Patrick, Columbia, Aiden, Hilda and Cuthbert. One of the things that they stress is that God’s goodness is revealed in the beauty of nature and also in human nature.

They were certainly not naive about what humans can do to each other and some seemed to have gone to great lengths to discipline the body of its strong desires and passions.

Yet, there is a sense that life is a gift and that anything that comes from God must have something of the divine spark.

The significance of Jesus is not so much coming to a world that was intrinsically corrupt, but liberating a world from its bondage to corrupt forces.

The emphasis is then not so much on a sin centred starting point for understanding the Christian faith, but a more creation based starting point that values what is good and sees Christ as bringing to perfection something that is damaged and incomplete.

So on Epiphany Sunday we can appreciate the gifts and treasures that the magi brought with them from their respective tradition and culture.

We can also remember that it never to late to be open to the new and unfamiliar.

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