A sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany
6 January is the day on which the Church celebrates the Feast of the Epiphany. It is also the last day of the Christmas season. Many of us will have already taken down our Christmas decorations, or will do so in the next couple of days. Christmas is behind us, and the new year lies ahead of us.
The Gospel reading set for the Feast of the Epiphany is the reading of the wise men visiting Jesus: a scene we often associate with the Christmas story itself. Indeed, it is the Christmas story in Matthew’s Gospel, who does not include shepherds or choirs of angels as in Luke’s version, but narrates the story of the Incarnation here. Hence, the Christmas story as we often hear it in nativities and see it in cribs is a conflation of the two different Gospel accounts.
Matthew does not tell us very much about these wise men. We know that they came from the East and followed a star. First the star leads them to Jerusalem, and later, on instruction of the scribes and Pharisees, the men follow the star to Bethlehem. It is a significant detail of the story, revealing Matthew’s purpose in telling it this way. The wise men are foreigners, non-Jews, gentiles. They do not know the stories of the Jewish faith, nor the God as revealed in the Jewish scriptures. But that does not mean that they don’t know anything about God, as they can see Him in the world around them. Hence, they follow the star.
Yet, the star on its own – their knowledge of God through their experience – cannot bring them to where they need to go: the understanding of the significance of Jesus’ birth. First, they need to go to Jerusalem, to hear from the scribes and Pharisees the Jewish story. It is only then that they can follow the star again and arrive at the Christ child.
It is the story of many who come to faith. More often than not it is not a rational decision to believe, but it is through personal experience, whether that is through nature or relationships, that people see something of God. They begin to wonder, to question and to search. They start following the star. This may also be the moment people first consider coming to Church, or coming back to Church. Just like the star led the wise men to Jerusalem. This is a crucial moment, because I suspect we all know stories of people who came to Church once or twice but were put off by what they found. Instead of finding what they were looking for, they conclude that they have gone to the wrong place. They go, either searching further, or giving up, thinking that they were wrong to look for something in the first place.
Maybe there is something we can learn from today’s Gospel on how we can lead others, each other, on to find our faith, to find the child born for us. So, let’s go back to the story, back to these wise men on their journey. The idea that there were three wise men does not originate in Matthew’s account, but became accepted in the Western Church in the 3rd century, most probably because they offered three gifts. In the Syrian church, however, it is often assumed there were twelve magi. Imagine singing ‘We twelve kings of Orient are’ …
Later in the tradition, in the sixth century, the three magi are named as Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, again only in the Western church. In other Christian traditions they have been given different names. Caspar is a beardless young man and Indian scholar, and offers Frankincense to the Christ child, signifying the priestly status of the child. Melchior, a bearded old man and Persian scholar offers gold, fit for a King. And Balthasar, dark-skinned and Babylonian scholar offers the myrrh that foreshadows Jesus’ suffering and death.
There are a lot of stories and pictures of the three wise men, which is not very surprising. In many ways, it is easy to identify with them. They are the first Gentiles, the first outsiders, non-Jews to recognise Jesus. They have made a journey to find the child, both under God’s guidance and with help and direction of others. And now, they worship at his feet, offering what they have and what they can.
In the offering of these extravagant gifts to Jesus lies a question and an answer. The question is, in the words of Christina Rossetti’s hymn: what can I give Him, poor as I am? The answer, in the words of the same hymn, is ‘give Him my heart’. And that is precisely what these wise men understood, and what we as a Church need to learn to do better.
These extraordinary gifts given to the child: gold, frankincense and myrrh have their symbolism, as I said earlier. But, on the other hand, these gifts are absolutely useless when given to a baby. But the point is, that they knew they had something to offer. Whether they knew it or not, these gifts would become invaluable in the years that lay ahead.
That brings us to the question whether we recognise the gifts in ourselves and whether we recognise them in others? ‘Gifts’ are not just the things we are good at, but it is more than that. By being who we are, we can be the most precious gift to one another. By listening, or by sharing something of our own lives; by offering some practical help, or by receiving what someone else might have to offer. So, in many ways, in receiving, we can help one another to recognise what we each have to give. We need each other to encourage us. We can only learn to give if there is someone to receive.
And that is the real challenge for the Church: how to receive, rather than how to give. How do we receive – welcome – those from the outside, those who seem to have not much useful to give? The gifts of the wise men were not much use to a baby, but fit for a king who would suffer and die. So maybe the gifts others have to bring to the Church too may be more precious worthwhile than we can even begin to imagine.
It is difficult for most of us to let strangers into our lives: it makes us uncomfortable and often vulnerable. But it is the message of the Christian faith, it is we hear today. So maybe as the new years lies before us, we could try to be more open to those from the outside, to those with their strange gifts and stories. Welcome them, as we have been welcomed too. There is room for each of us around the manger, not just at Christmas, but all year round.