EPIPHANY 5th Dec,2020
Today is twelfth night and for the majority of people Christmas is over for another year and on Monday all the shops businesses and offices will open and the young people will return to school. For some of us we will be pleased of the chance to get back into routine, and the only Christmas related task left is to pack away the decorations for another year and the festival of the Epiphany can so easily get lost in post- Christmas exhaustion.
1. If the shepherds were marginalised for their scruffiness and failure to adhere to the Jewish law; the Magi were marginalised because they were not Jews at all but pagans from the East with a culture bound up in magic and atrology and in no way acceptable to Jewish faith and practice. In many ways it is surprising that the story of the magi even found its way into the gospel, especially as so much of it is based on legend and yet it has so much to teach us about the coming of Christ into the world.
Despite the treachery of Herod the wise men eventually found themselves in Bethlehem having been guided there by a particularly bright star. No longer in a stable the young family have found accommodation in Bethlehem manger where the wise men go to worship he who they perceive to be a new King. And there is an old legend that having successfully guided them to their destination the star, its work done falls into a well where it can be seen by those who have pure hearts.
In the early days tradition was that there were 12 of them but the traditional view now is that there were 3 of them – based on the fact that they brought three gifts. Later legends suggested they were three kings, and later legend still gave them names and personalities. Melchior, an old man with grey hair and a long beard, who brought a gift of gold; Caspar, young and beardless with all the promise of youth brings frankincense; and Balthasar, swarthy and with his newly grown beard brings myrrh to present to the Christ child.
The real significance of the wise men is their gifts.
2. Gold – Seneca, the Roman philosopher tells us that in Parthia it was the custom that no-one should approach the king without a gift. And, gold the king of metals is the only gift fit for a king. Yes Jesus was born to be king
But the Jews found this difficult to accept because He did not act as they expected a king would…..he rode on a donkey and not a stallion to declare his kingship; a king who would rule by love and not force
Frankincense – a gift for a priest. It was used in the temple at worship and sacrifice. The latin word for peace is pontifex which means bridge builder. The priest was the one able to bridge the gap between God and humans. Of course paul makes it clear in his writing that Jesus is our high priest who made it possible for us to enter into the presence of God.
And Myrrh used to embalm the bodies of the dead, is the gift brought for one who is to die. The famous artist Holman Hunt painted a picture of Jesus at the door of his father’s carpenter’s shop in Nazareth. He is still only a boy and has come to the door to stretch his limbs which had become cramped over the work bench. He stands at the door with his arms outstretched and behind him, on the wall the setting sun throws the shadow of a cross. And in the background is Mary, his mother with the fear of coming tragedy in her eyes.
Yes the message of the gospel can be seen in the gifts of these wise men which foretold Jesus to be the true king, the perfect priest and the Saviour of the world. What foresight is shown by those pagans who so many would simply dismiss as legend.
Some years ago now my mother phoned me to ask whether or not I thought yoga was sinful. Somewhat taken aback by her question she went on to say that she had started going to yoga after my father died and some members of her church had criticised her for doing so. Initially I was shocked an then discovered that some churches refuse to even let out their premises for what they perceive to be new age and unchristian. My reply was influenced by the Epiphany story as I explained my view was that other Eastern religions could make a significant contribution to our own faith. A view certainly enhanced by my own experience of India which explains that my own nativity scene at home includes Hindu gods,
Significance of this story for us. – So what is the significance of this story for us? Let’s look at the three gifts again from the perspective of the second decade of the 21st century.
Gold – is a symbol of wealth and glory. It is the standard by which nations judge their power and prosperity; and yet it is also the symbol of human greed and selfishness. For this gift men have killed. On this gift injustice and oppression have been built. For this gift man has degraded men and women.
As we bring our gift of gold to Christ may we learn to share our resources justly; practise fair trade; respect the earth and exercise mutual deference.
Frankincense is a symbol of prayer and aspiration. The silent longing that makes people lift their eyes to heaven, the silent longing of that inner power that draws us from what we are to who we ought to be. As we bring our gift of frankincense may we promote freedom of thought and speech. May we find opportunities for all to grow in grace, exercise mutual encouragement, and take quietness with us wherever wo go.
Myrrh is the symbol of suffering – the tragedy of poverty, oppression and pain. Here is the agony of the mother who cannot feed her child; the father who has no work; and the family disrupted by homelessness , and the country disrupted by war. As we bring our gift of myrrh may we stand in solidarity with the oppressed and suffering; weep with those who weep and lament the atrocities of history and bring balm for tomorrow, May we learn to exercise mutual love.
Conclusion – As the wise men brought their gifts to the Christ child may we bring ours today. Amen