In 1933 the American composer John Jacob Niles was at an outdoor meeting in the town of Murphy in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina. At that meeting a girl stepped out to the edge of the little platform attached to a car and began to sing. Niles, writing many years later, said,
‘her clothes were unbelievable dirty and ragged, and she, too, was unwashed. Her ash-blond hair hung down in long skeins.... best of all, she was beautiful, and in her untutored way, she could sing. She smiled as she sang, smiled rather sadly, and sang this line...
I wonder as I wander out under the sky,
How Jesus the Saviour did come for to die.
For poor ordinary people like you and like I...
I wonder as I wander out under the sky.'
There is nothing about this carol which places it especially in Epiphany. In a later verse, we have the Wise men, but they appear with the Shepherds at the stable door. There is, I guess, a focus on the star that led the wise men, rather than the Angelic chorus of the Shepherd’s. But in itself there is nothing that makes it essentially any different from many of the beautiful carols we have sung and will continue to sing through these weeks of Christmas and Epiphany.
But this always feels like an Epiphany carol to me. Unlike many of the carols of Christmas it has neither the bombast of Hark the Herald Angels, nor the sentiment of Away in a Manger. Rather it is reflective. It suits these weeks when we stay and ponder more deeply the Christmas story after the rest of the world has packed Christmas away and got back to normal life again. This reflective tone is complimented by the plaintive tune which, with the words, ensures that our reflections keep an eye on the whole of the story. Lifting our gaze from the stable door to Jesus our saviour who “did come for to die”. And these reflective themes come together in that deep virtue of this Epiphany season, one repeated through this carol, the virtue of wonder.
Epiphany is a season of wonder. We hear it again and again as we sing of the “star of wonder, star of night” that frames this season. We hear of it in one of the traditional themes of this season, that of “The Three Wonders”. This theme comes from the antiphon, the short anthem, sung either side of the Magnificat on the Feast of the Epiphany:
Three wonders mark this day we celebrate: today the star led the Magi to the manger; today water was changed into wine at the marriage feast; today Christ desired to be baptized by John in the river Jordan to bring us salvation, alleluia.
Through the weeks of Epiphany we mark these three wonders, reflecting on these three stories in turn – the visit of the Magi, the Baptism of Christ, and the Wedding at Cana – three great stories which mark what the early Church called in Greek the Epiphanous; what we would translate as the manifestation of Christ to the world.
But there is a danger with these wonders that if simply observe them, study them, look at them from afar. So on this Feast of the Epiphany we could look at this first wonder and simply study it. And as we did this we could be educated about the difference between wise men and Kings. We could reflect on the three gifts and the indeterminate number of Magi who visited the child. We could muse on whether these visitors arrived at a stable a house, and whether they visited a baby or a child of about two.
And as we consider this wonder we would discover that, by accident, it had lost its wonder
To reflect deeply on these wonders, we need to return to our carol and remind ourselves on what it is to wonder. The grammatically astute will have already noticed that I have been slipping between two uses of the word 'wonder'. The Three Wonders of Epiphany are wonders as a noun. These are events which meet the dictionary definition of a wonder, as a thing unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable. But Epiphany is also a time for us to spend time with wonder as a verb. This is what we find in our carol. Here we glimpse what it means to be surprised again by this great story, and through this wonder desire to know more about God’s love for us all. That as we wonder as we wander we glimpse afresh the extraordinary truth of what God came to do for “poor ordinary people like you and like I.”
In our lives of certainty and right and wrong wondering is not something we naturally do. It does not create clarity, it certainty does not encourage productive activity. But wondering is such an important part of faith.
Godly Play is the name for a form of creative Bible Storytelling. Often used with children, but equally effective with all ages, it uses beautiful objects to creatively tell Bible stories. It encourages those listening to the stories to learn about them not through their personal experience and response to the story that they have heard. These responses are encouraged, but not coerced, through a series of questions framed: I wonder…
I wonder what you like best about this story…I wonder which is the most important part…I wonder where you are in this story?
Through this a skilled Godly Play storyteller can help those who hear the story cut past those things we think we are supposed to do when we are learning; like gaining knowledge or learning the right answers. Rather they help foster a personal response and spiritual engagement with God’s word and God’s presence in our lives.
In this Epiphany season as we reflect on these great wonders we need to remember again what it is to wonder. We need to wonder, as those travelling wise men did, on the path that God’s quiet but insistent voice is calling us to follow. We need to wonder in the manifestation of this call not in the centre of power, but amongst the oppressed and the downtrodden, amongst the forgotten and the neglected. We need to wonder on God’s decisive act on this day, that this good news revealed in the birth of this child was not just for the lost sheep of Israel, but for all humanity.
Epiphany is a time of wonder: of manifestations and miracles, of proclamations and Godly power. And for us to find this we must wonder. We must wonder again about the deep and transforming truth God shows us in the birth of his son Jesus Christ, and wonder again on that deep truth that he
…did come for to die.
For poor ordinary people like you and like I...