Isaiah 60. 1 – 6
Matthew 2. 1 – 12
So soon, it seems, we have reached the celebration of the Epiphany – or the Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, as it appears in the Book of Common Prayer.
And that is what today’s feast is all about, at its heart. The promised Messiah is not just for one chosen people, in one special place – but for all humanity. This is signified by the arrival of wise men from far off lands – traditionally assigned to the three known continents of the time – Asia, Africa, and Europe.
These wise men, actually, aren’t all that far away from us now. The tradition has it that St Helena, the mother of Constantine, had the bodies of the three wise men brought to Constantinople. As if they hadn’t travelled far enough, they were then transferred some centuries later to Milan.
They only finally found rest from their journeying when they later ended up in Cologne, in Germany; and they remain in that great cathedral to this day. They’ve been given names – Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar – and even coats of arms, by their German guardians.
When the medieval Shrine was opened in 1864, the remains of three men were found – one elderly, one middle-aged, and one a youth. You’ll have to decide for yourselves whether these really are the same chaps who visited Jesus.
But it expresses another ancient tradition in the Church – that the three kings not only represent the whole world, but the whole life of a human being – youth, maturity, and old age. Truly, this infant Saviour is for every person.
But what I find really interesting is something in the Gospel account we’ve heard today. It’s how very differently the major characters respond to the revelation of the Christ-child – the good news of God.
Herod hears the good news of the birth of Jesus, but his reaction is one of fear – Matthew says he’s “frightened.” His response is to take – to grasp on to what he has, in fear of losing it. And with terrible consequences for the innocent children of Bethlehem.
The wise men, on the other hand, are “overwhelmed with joy.” And their response is to give – to give homage to the new-born king, to offer him rich and highly-symbolic gifts. Gold, for a king; frankincense, in recognition of his divinity; myrrh, a foretelling of the sacrifice that this child will make for the world.
Many a preacher has quipped that if the men had actually been three wise women, they’d have brought something more practical like nappies and wet wipes!
In fact things like gold, and costly myrrh, would’ve been very useful to this soon-to-be-refugee family, easy to carry with them and readily exchangeable for food and clothing.
But these gifts are more than just that. These men were the scientists of their day, using the stars to discern when it was best to plant and harvest crops, they used them to navigate, and so on.
In these strange gifts they offer, perhaps, the tools of their trade: they give something meaningful of themselves, what is most precious to them, in response to the good news of this birth
In just twelve verses, Matthew paints the perfect picture of joy and fear as opposites. And that’s a gospel in itself. The incarnation – the presence of God in the world – saves us from the need to be fearful; and opens to us the joys of everlasting life.
But this contrast is the challenge of today’s feast. As we, like the wise men, are drawn to the very presence of Christ – here today in word, and in bread and wine – how are we to respond?
It’s all very well for wise men to bring their rich and symbolic gifts. But what are we to give?
Last Sunday our choir sang what, for me, is the Christmas anthem without equal – Harold Darke’s wonderful In the bleak midwinter. Christina Rosetti’s text ends with that very question I’ve just asked:
“What can I give him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb. If I were a wise man, I would do my part. Yet, what I can, I give him: give my heart.”
The worship of the wise men was to open their treasure-chests, and to give something of themselves: and it is our worship to do the same. To open our hearts to the infant Christ. To find room there for him to make his dwelling – the child who was chased out of this world by the Herods who would not receive him.
This is the worship that the Lord desires of us – not gold, or frankincense, or myrrh; but a heart broken open to welcome him in. To clear away the clutter of fearful self-interest; and prepare a space for the infant Lord to live in love and safety, and to bless us with his presence.
Rosetti, I think, was drawing on a much older tradition; and I want to leave you with this beautiful 17th century reflection on this feast by Nathaniel Wanley. May it be our prayer as we begin this new year: that in opening our hearts to the Lord, we may come to know just how much he desires to dwell with us.
The off’rings of the Eastern kings of old
Unto our Lord were incense, myrrh and gold;
Incense because a God; gold as a king;
And myrrh as to a dying man they bring.
Instead of incense, Blessed Lord, if we
Can send a sigh or fervent prayer to thee;
Instead of myrrh, if we can but provide
Tears that from penitential eyes do slide;
And though we have no gold, if for our part
We can present thee with a broken heart
Thou wilt accept: and say, those Eastern kings
Did not present thee with more precious things.