Today we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany transferring it from the 6th Jan to the nearest Sunday so that we are able to share it together and it is important that we are able to do so.
I must admit though that there is part of me that regrets the bringing forward, not least because it reinforces those secular pressures on the Christian life at this time of year always to be rushing on. They have been telling us that its Christmas since Halloween and since boxing day that Christmas is now package away until next year. For us though this is a season of celebration, we mark not just the 12 days of Christmas but a full 40 days through to the end of Epiphany at Candlemas.
I came across a newspaper article claiming to reveal the recipe for an ideal Christmas. It suggested waking up at 8am, a glass of fizz to be served at 10.28am sitting down to lunch at 2.30pm with board games commencing straight after and at least two festive films to be watched. There should ideally be 13 presents to open, at least two mince pies eaten and there should be four inches of snow outside!
Apart from demonstrating the kind of misuse of data that sometimes gives the press a bad name it illustrates something of the challenge that Christmas presents, at least a Christmas where we seek to gather family and friends whose expectations and desires of the day might not necessary entirely align.
The article also pointed out the most common areas of anxiety for those feeling pressured by Christmas preparations – getting the present right, entertaining family and friends and preparing the food. There was a comment from the family support charity Home-Start UK noting ‘with the rise in heating and living costs, many are facing tough choices between food and fuel. This can feel especially difficult during the festive season, when parents naturally want their children to experience a little Christmas magic.’
A friend of mine shared a tweet which noted the first Christmas was pretty simple, it’s OK if yours is too. That’s a useful message for us to share I think as well as pointing out to people that we needn’t load Christmas day with so much pressure, there’s an abundance of Christmas joy to February and indeed beyond if we might be open to welcoming the Christ child into our hearts.
I wouldn’t for a moment want to dismiss the social pressures that many experience around Christmas though and I found myself asking what the most appropriate contributions might be to food banks at this time of year. Normally I’d focus squarely on essentials but when most of us have turned our attention to more frivolous plans shouldn’t our donations also afford a degree of luxury?
As we remember today the visit of the magi bearing gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh what significance should we take from their gifts?
They have been the subject of speculation over the centuries and there are a variety of suggestions informed from a range of different sources. That the gifts, and particularly gold, is symbolic of kingship is clear. Commonly the other gifts are understood to represent the humanity and divinity of Christ. Frankincense was temple worship and reserved for the high priest. Myrrh was used to embalm bodies. The association makes perfect sense but it’s useful to recognise that the church didn’t actually settle a clear theology of the full humanity and divinity of Christ until the fifth century, much later than the Gospel was written.
We approach these texts very differently from the original audience that the author had in mind. Matthew’s Gospels was written for a Jewish audience at a time when there were struggles between the evangelist’s community and other Jews. We see that reflected for example in particular criticism of the scribes and Pharisees. Matthew is very focused on the ways in which Christ is a fulfilment of Jewish tradition and particularly messianic prophecy.
To the modern western mind time tends to be viewed in a linear manner and the suggestion of events repeating the pattern of earlier episodes or fulfilling prophecy often taken to suggest fabrication rather than truth. The Semitic concept of time is different though, circular rather than linear, and events that resonate with earlier happenings or which fulfil prophecy reinforce claims of their truth.
Now there are several elements of the story of the magi that anticipate the passion. Here as there, Jesus’ kingly status is at issue, here as there, it is the Jewish leaders gathered against him, here as there, plans are laid in secret, here as there, Jesus’ death is sought. There are also important contrasts, here, a light in the night sky proclaims the Christ’s birth, there, daytime darkness proclaims his death, here, Jesus is worshipped, there, he is mocked, here, rejoicing, there, weeping. Matthew’s account is shot through with resonances of the earlier story of Israel. The holy families escape and return from Egypt has echoes with the story of Moses. Herod’s behaviour in seeking the slaughter of the innocents echoes that of Pharaoh.
These are not coincidental parallels and the Magi’s gifts carry symbolic meaning rather than practical purpose. I was surprised to come across commentary suggesting otherwise pointing to research at Cardiff University that Frankincense has an active ingredient that is useful for the treatment of arthritis. I have to say I’m not convinced, even if Frankincense was seen to have some medicinal benefit in the ancient world, that would hardly make it a likely gift for a new-born. No, the most significant gifts carry meaning as do the Magi’s gifts. One of the key characteristics of a world view informed by faith is the belief in a meaningful world. Rather than a universe defined by indifferent physical or evolutionary processes we see a universe that is meaningful and meaning filled and we live with the hope and belief that even the tragedies of our lives will ultimately be gathered up and redeemed in an unbounded love.
As others have said before, the meaning of Christmas is in the prescence not the presents. I’ll end with some teaching from Pope Francis, has says – It is not enough to know where Jesus was born, as the scribes did, if we do not go there. It is not enough to know that Jesus was born, like Herod, if we do not encounter him. When his place becomes our place, when his time becomes our time, when his person becomes our life, then the prophecies come to fulfilment in us. Then Jesus is born within us. He becomes the living God for me. Today we are asked to imitate the Magi. They do not debate; they set out. They do not stop to look but enter the house of Jesus. They do not put themselves at the centre but bow down before the Christ child.
To him be all glory, now and to the ages of ages.