Epiphany - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons



Today we celebrate Epiphany. On this day, and indeed during the Epiphany season which last through to Candlemas, we remember those events where God became manifest amongst us and shone forth, in particular in the visit of the three kings but also in the baptism of Christ when a voice from heaven proclaims "this is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased" and the first miracle at the wedding at Cana when Mary says "whatsoever he saith unto you, do it".

This morning we heard of the visit of the magi from Matthew's Gospel.  This is actually the only account in the Gospels and much of popular piety comes from tradition rather than directly from the scriptures - no mention of kings, wise men from the east we are told, and no mention of their number, although we are told that they brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  I don't have any objection to the traditions by the way but I think it's important to know the difference.  

In the summer, when I took a river cruise down the Rhine and Mozel, I enjoyed seeing in the villages how many doors were marked with epiphany chalk - that's where the inscription 'CMB 2015' is written above the door.  Those letters represent both the names that tradition gives to those three kings (Casper, Melchior, Balthasar) and at the same time - Christus Mansionem Benedicat - Christ Bless this House.

The lectionary, which gives us the readings for each service, is itself the product of tradition.  It isn't a random selection of scriptures and often identify passages that through Christian history have come to be associated with one another.  Today's Old testament reading was a prophecy about the restoration of Jerusalem from Isaiah  that referred to a multitude of camels bringing gold and incense and showing forth the praises of the Lord.  It is easy to see how this passage became associated with today's Gospel be that through the suggestion of a direct fulfilment of this prophecy or that it provided a point of resonance that the Apostles found in scripture when they sought to make sense of the events of Christ's life and their significance.

In the epistle we heard Paul's assurance that the gentiles have a part in the Gospel.  The inclusiveness of the Gospel is an important theme.  The 'wise men' that the King James translation describes are actually referred to as Magi in the Greek text and we use that term sometimes as well.  The term magi was used to denote followers of Zoroastrianism.  So peoples from another land and another faith guided by a star came to worship the King of the Jews. When they visit King Herod the chief priests and scribes are consulted who advise that the messiah will be born in Bethlehem. Herod is threatened - that's another important theme in the Gospel, that it can be a challenge to those in positions of power - and Herod seeks to use his visitors to track down the child and destroy him.  When the magi find the Christ child they worship him and having been warned in a dream of Herod's intent they return home another way.

The tradition of presenting the magi as kings serves a purpose, it emphasises that Christ is above earthly kingship, his is spiritual and eternal and not material and temporal.  What receives less emphasis perhaps is that God speaks to those of another place and another faith and it is they who discern the true identity of the Christ child.  In Luke's gospel there was another inversion of our usual expectations, for it was to Shepherds, those at the bottom of social ladder of Palestinian society, to whom Christ's identity was revealed.

Where tradition perhaps downplays some aspects of the scriptures then, in others it expands it.  One of my routines at this time of year is to visit the National Gallery to view the nativity scenes.  One of those to which I often return is Bruegel's adoration of the kings, in it the Christ child appears to be recoiling from the gift of myrrh, used for anointing the body at the time of death.  This is no idealised nativity scene and rather than accompanying shepherds we have soldiers populating the scene, perhaps echoing the crucifixion.  In Greek Iconography the nativity is traditionally set in a cave and the Christ child is laid on an altar - again the connection is made with Christ's sacrifice.  In poetry too, in 'The Journey of the Magi' TS Elliot writes "where we led all that way for birth or death? There was a birth, certainly we had evidence and no doubt.  I had seen birth and death, but had thought they were different; this birth was hard and biter agony for us, like death".  Scripture tells us that the magi brought Myrrh amongst their gifts for the Christ child, these artistic traditions emphasise the impending sacrifice.

At the preparation of the gifts at the beginning of the Eucharist a few drops of water are poured into the wine.  This alludes to the incident in John's gospel when the soldier pierced Christ side and blood and water flow out.  At that point a prayer is said silently "By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity".

The heart if what we celebrate today is that God did not keep his distance from us but humbled himself to share in our humanity.  Today we, with the magi, kneel to worship the Christ child and in the Eucharist we share the cup of his sacrifice.  May we do so with thankful hearts.


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