6th January 2022 

I don’t know about you but I often look into the sky at this time of year and wonder, what star these Magi were following. Was it a planetary conjunction?  A Supernova?  Was it the appearance of Haleys Comet, visible in 12bc? 

My middle son Louis has got a star-gazing book from Father Christmas  and his considered opinion is that the great wandering star  must surely be the mammoth ‘Arcturus star’.   

Though, in truth, it is likely a pious fiction it was real –  I think Louis might be right: Arcturus is one of the brightest in the sky. 

It played a very important role in Mesopotamian culture. And it forms part of the constellation of Bootes – the herdsman- The Shepherd who chases the great bear across the sky to save his flock… 

In his eloquent sermon on Christmas morning, Canon Roly also drew our attention to the significance of Christ as the Shepherd-King… the new David – I remember it vividly- an Epiphany, if you like, because his sermon spoke to me very powerfully, about two essential aspects of Christian experience: 

  1. The worship of the King.
  2. The caring of his flock. 

It struck me all the more because, having been absent through illness for some months, I didn’t miss the desk and the emails and the strategy and the problem solving. 

I missed worshipping with others very much. 

I didn’t find succour I the General Synod’ 5 year mission plan or the latest article on the future of the parish system… I did the draw immense succour from the fullness of that care and love  I received from fellow worshippers around the world-  from that fellow-feeling experienced amongst those who worship regularly together. 

I was reminded on Christmas day that these simple, essential things are what form the real MISSION of the church, such as it has one. 

It seems an extremely basic thing to assert but, at a time when confidence in the very nature and fabric of the Church in England is so low,  it is an important and striking thing to assert. 

As Paul says-  “it is through the church (that) the wisdom of God in its rich variety (is) made known” 

So, without expanding on its implications, I want to underline that assertion this Epiphany by reference to another, related idea  that also travels to us from the East: 

The idea of the walled garden.

The retired teaching fellow at Oxford, Stephanie Daley, has convincingly argued that that wonder of the ancient world – the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, were, in fact,  the gardens constructed by Sennacharib at Ninevah in the 8th & 7th Cs BC. 

This is the same chap against whom King Hezekiah joined Judah  in an international alliance and lost,  and was brought with his people into captivity. 

The Assyrians, and the Persians who followed them, loved gardens. 

And, whether or not, the hanging gardens were his, Sennacharibs gardens were the astounding exemplar of His age. A very paradise on earth, providing a protected spiritual, and leisurely space amidst the turmoil of life.   

It is very likely, therefore, that it is from this exile experience where much of the rest of the Genesis narrative was also woven that the Hebrew idea of Eden emerges. 

In Hebrew, Eden means ‘the terrestrial paradise’.    

And circuitously, since the Iranian word for garden was pairi-daēza- then made into paradeisos in the early Greek translation of Jewish scriptures – we now call it ‘paradise’ in English too. 

My point is not the etymology per se,  nor the fact that the image was borrowed but WHY 

Rather – like the notion of the Shepherd King – it is the nature of the metaphor that is of interest because it is central to the Christian story. 

 Remember – the first garden – from which humankind fell away from their purpose, through disobedience? Remember also, the second garden, in which Christ – the new Adam – goes with his friends to pray, obeys his Father, and goes from, to the cross. 

Remember that third garden- in which Christ arises, and is mixed up with the Gardener himself, and is worshipped.

Remember finally that last restored garden – in which humankind is fully restored because of Christ’s obedienceand of which – His Church is a foretaste. 

What is so particularly interesting about this is – just as the image of the Shepherd contrasts with many contemporary images and experiences of leadership – that tempt Christians and their Church. 

So, that adopted eastern image of the spiritual paradise contrasts with the outstanding contemporary metaphor of the religious life, the spiritual journey. 

It is an instantly recognisable contrast: 

One is communal.  The other is individual. 

One is created and given by God.  The other is achieved in the Self. 

One offers essential definition, the other resists all boundaries. 

The contemporary seeker wants to be on their own journey – to be spiritual without being religious. To remain, at all costs, existentially uncommitted, and free. 

You can even buy a t-shirt with Elliot’s famously misquoted ‘it’s the journey not the destination that matters’ on it, to wear on your journey and signal to your fellow travellers just how deep you are.

Yet it is really interesting to me that, for Elliot, as for St Paul, the real governing image for the spiritual quest – for salvation – is the garden, not the path. 

You’d need quite a big t-shirt to quote Elliot in full, where, at the close of his poem, Lady of Silences, he says: 

End of the endless journey to no end 

Conclusion of all that Is inconclusible 

Speech without word and Word of no speech 

Grace to the Mother 

For the Garden 

Where all love ends.  

the Garden 

Where all love ends.

I don’t have time to explore the implications of this simple assertion, about our worship of the Shepherd king and our care amongst his flock… 

All I would say, is that it is striking that the clear locus of ‘mission’ in Paul is not the individual on a pilgrimage of discovery – it’s not even ‘out there in the world or in the mission field… it’s not in a roadmap or a grand plan… it is in a garden – THE GARDEN of which that most unfashionable of creatures – the Church – gathered in its corporate worship is THE witness and foretaste. 

It seems to me it would make quite a big difference to how we thought of ourselves as a Church and of our mission – took that as seriously as Paul did. 

God – the great Shepherd chases us around the galaxy to bring us to this point: 

Let us do as our Wise, star-gazing, fellow-travellers did all those years ago 

Let us enter into his house and worship Him.