Personal space – it’s something that we preserve for ourselves and observe in our dealings with other people. And how uncomfortable we feel when someone invades our personal space – I can see myself retreating backwards to a place of safety. In fact, our sense of personal space is very complex – our invisible boundary changes depending on circumstances and situation – on the whole we are happy to be be physically closer to friends and family than we are to strangers or people we don’t know so well. It is now thought that people who have no sense of personal space have an excess of dopamine in their brains. I suppose that, in a sense, this is a disability. Nevertheless it makes most people feel very uncomfortable. It’s interesting that we use the word ‘invade’ – a word associated with the unwanted arrival of an enemy with hostile intent.
Christmas and Epiphany are both about a change in accepted boundaries – drawing near. At Christmas, God draws near to us – in Jesus, God comes as close as it’s possible to get to humankind. This, if you think about it, is an incredible thing: God has always been largely remote, with a rare moments of revelation to selected individuals or groups – think Moses on Sinai. But at Christmas, we believe that changes – God comes to us fully and permanently, in the child of Bethlehem.
It is because of God’s first move, because of God’s drawing near, that we can, at Epiphany, consider drawing near to God. Mary and Joseph must have been very generous and open people, to allow the invasion of the stable: the space around birth is precious, almost sacred moments for parents and the new child. A delicate place where the child must be protected and kept away from any kind of danger. And yet we humans fill their personal space – Shepherds, Kings, Angels, the Mr and Mrs Innkeeper and, perhaps, nosy neighbours too.
And this set the pattern for Jesus’ life: Jesus continued to draw near to humanity in his touching of the blind, the sick the paralysed, the unclean. The unclean: here is the most closely and widely observed example of personal space: the unclean have been outcasts from the mainstream of society until fairly recently: leper colonies, Bedlam – institutions for the mentally ill ironically called after Bethlehem – a place of separation names after the place of encounter. And remember when Princess Diana touched a person with AIDS. Only 20 years ago, people were stunned by this.
And people ‘drew near’ to Jesus constantly – jostling him in crowds, following him everywhere he went, touching his cloak, listening to his teaching. People just couldn’t keep away!
And today we remember the wise men, the 3 kings, the Maji. They were an odd lot. They came from far away, from a different country, from a very different culture. But they were made welcome – there was no ‘keep out’ notice on the door of the stable.
But what of us? We need to ask ourselves how and if we put up large areas of space between us and God, how we stop God from drawing near, how we put up that sign that says ‘keep out’ – or think we do; in fact God is always near, we just don’t ,or don’t want to, notice. Not only this: do we do this to others – prevent them from drawing near, keep them from knowing that God is close – God is with us still.
There are a number of ways in which we can learn to notice God’s presence with us. We can pray. Perhaps particularly we can pray in silence, listening to and feeling God’s presence – not only asking for things. We can do something which is called ‘practising the presence of God – stopping for a few moments throughout the day to remind yourself that God is there beside you. And then, at the end of the day, there is an old spiritual practice called ‘examen’ – looking back over the day and thinking about where you met God, perhaps in another person, in the beauty of the world, in church, in prayer. All these are ways in which people learn to recognise God with them in ordinary life, and I’d be happ to help anyone we any of them.
In many ways these tools – silent prayer, practising the presence of God, and looking back at the end of the days, are ways in which we celebrate God with us; this is the message of Christmas. But, curiously, these are also ways in which we draw near to God; here we find that Christmas and Epiphany overlap. Maybe they’re the same thing, or two sides of the same coin. We are able to draw close to God only because God draws near to us. This is the meaning of incarnation; God with us.
But what of others? Do we play a part in keeping others away from God, or making them feel that it’s not for them? Many in the western church thrive on the ‘us and them mentality’, perhaps particularly in churches that focus entirely on personal salvation – are you saved, or not? John Calvin, during the Reformation, even preached the doctrine of predestination – God intended you to be saved or to be damned and there was nothing you could do about it. Imagine what it might be like to feel that God purposefully made you to go to hell. There is, arguably, a difference between people who actively follow or draw near to God, who purposely live Christian lives, and those who don’t. But our job is always to be helping people to find God, as we have; to know there is hope; to learn that there is more to life than possessions, money, even family life. So we really mustn’t see people off because they’re not like us, put people off by being sour faced, or holier than thou. It has become clear to me over the last year that many people think they’re ‘not allowed’ to come to church’ – it’s not for people like them – there’s that gap of personal space again. Or that it’s a club with a membership form and a membership fee. Or that it’s only for righteous people and they’re not good enough. It’s really sobering to be asked ‘but am I allowed to come to church? Someone like me?
This means that nationally or locally, we’ve got something wrong. We’ve somehow lost the idea that God draws near to us so we can draw near to God. And the remedy is down to each one of us as individuals, as well as to those who set the content and direction of the life of the church – from the PCC to the Archbishop of Canterbury.
So, this Epiphany, will you draw near and will you enable others to do so – the huge majority who never, ever, come to Church.