Canon Treasurer - The Reverend Canon Leanne Roberts
Isaiah 60.1-6; Ephesians 3.1-12; Matthew 2.1-12
When you’re ordained, you do tend to get rather a lot of religious-themed gifts, from earrings to fridge-magnets, and everything in between
But just when I thought that I’d seen them all, a friend announced to me yesterday that she’d celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany with the perfect treat: a company called ‘Chocolarder’, in Cornwall, has produced a bar of high-quality dark chocolate flavoured with frankincense and myrrh resin, and covered in edible gold leaf. Of course, I had to look it up straight away; it is described on their website as taking ‘Christmas treats to a new level’, as ‘all three kings come together in this spectacularly festive bar’.
Tempted though some of you may be to order some as soon as you can get online, I wonder if this 70% cocoa Peruvian chocolate bar illustrate how far we’ve come in terms of missing the significance of this important celebration.
The Epiphany, or, to give it its alternative title, the Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, focuses on the story we just heard in our reading from Matthew’s Gospel: wise men – also called sages, magi, or even kings – travel from far-off lands, excited by their calculations which indicate that a particularly bright star has unprecedented significance, heralding the birth of a king. However, contrary to the popular nativity-play narrative, there is no evidence that there were three of these persons, nor that they were necessarily men, nor even that three of them were called Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, as they are traditionally known.
I wonder how you feel about this? Perhaps you’re sorry to lose these shreds of story, or even feel deceived at the certainty with which they’ve been portrayed over the centuries. But this lack of firm detail is, I believe, helpful for us; it frees us to engage more deeply, more imaginatively, with this story of Epiphany, to come with open hearts and minds to see how God might wish to make manifest his love and glory in our lives.
The possibilities of the Epiphany have been the source of much creativity for artists, musicians, and poets, and their presentations and interpretations are gifts to us as we seek to engage with the mystery of the Incarnation as did those brave, wise strangers we meet in the Gospel account.
Many of you will be familiar with TS Eliot’s poem ‘The Journey of the Magi’, with its well-known opening line borrowed from our very own Lancelot Andrewes; but I’d like to share with you today a lesser known poem by one of my favourite poets, Elizabeth Jennings. It is rather provocatively titled ‘Words for the Magi’, which immediately makes us realize that what she intends to show us is different from how we’ve thought of this previously. Surely the Magi give gifts, rather than receiving words? She writes, from the perspective of the Magi,
“Shall I bring you wisdom, shall I bring you power?”
The first great stranger said to the child.
Then he noticed something he’d never felt before –
A wish in himself to be innocent and mild.
“Shall I bring you glory, shall I bring you peace?”
The second great stranger said when he saw
The star shine down on entire helplessness.
The gift that he offered was his sense of awe.
“Shall I show you riches” the third one began
then stopped in terror because he had seen
a God grown-up and a tired tempted man.
“Suffering’s my gift” he said
“That is what I mean.”
These strangers have had a long journey to Bethlehem, via Herod’s palace at Jerusalem. They came, not just with gifts, but with expectations. They wished to pay homage to a king, and they thought they understood what that would entail.
In her poem, Jennings translates those traditional gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, representing kingship, divinity, and death, into correlatives which show us more clearly their significance. In doing so, we are invited to share in the transformed understanding of these Magi; to wish for wisdom informed by innocence, power by mildness; to feel a sense of wonder that glory is revealed in helplessness; to accept the irrelevance of riches in the face of suffering; and to experience unsurpassed joy at being in the presence of divine love.
In an increasingly materialistic age, this time of year demonstrates perhaps better than any other how our spending, and our gift-giving, can veer out of control. The Magi are modern figures in that sense; but they come to realize that their carefully selected, ‘significant’ gifts are nothing compared to what they are given by being in the presence of Christ.
This helpless, vulnerable child shatters the certainty that all their riches, and learning, and insights had given them. They came to something they thought they understood, offering gifts to show that understanding; but in the face of pure innocence, helplessness, and suffering – the face of pure, divine love – they are silenced, awed, and transformed to such an extent that after their visit they headed home on a different road; not just to avoid the furious Herod, but more fundamentally because nothing could ever be the same for them again.
This can be so for us, too. We come together this morning in the presence of Christ who, despite our hesitation, our preconceptions, our lack of understanding, will always give us the gift that we need. Regardless of our experience, or riches, or talents, however impressive these might be in human terms, the truth of God made flesh in Jesus Christ renders us mere recipients of boundless grace, mercy, and love.
So let us rejoice in this revelation that the most important gift we can give the Christ-child is our empty hands, open to receive him at all times, but especially at the altar.
And through our prayer, our worship, our relationships we can seek to make, again and again, that journey to Bethlehem; to kneel in the presence of Jesus, opening ourselves to experience this epiphany, to be formed and transformed in the light of his love, and with the humility to receive all that we could ever desire or need.
Then, truly, we shall see and be radiant; we, with those Magi, will be overwhelmed with joy.
Thanks be to God.