Epiphany Jan 8th 2023 – Isaiah 60:1-6 and Matthew 2:1-12 – Rev Alison Way
In the name of the Living God, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit Amen
Every year I send and receive Christmas cards. It’s a tradition I rather like, and the cards are now sent to people I have encountered over the years, from those family members I have known all my life, those I have known most of my life (like my best friend at nursery school!) and from all the different contexts I have inhabited over my years on this earth. It is always nice to think about and pray for the people as the cards are written and sent, and as they arrive too. Occasionally like everyone I found out sad news of a friends passing, which hasn’t reached me by other means, but equally these annual greetings can be accompanied by happy news from my wide circle of friends.
What is on the cards always interests me, and since becoming ordained I have certainly received more cards depicting the Advent, Christmas and Epiphany stories than before. In the manger today are all the cards I have received thus far (as I got some in the post on Wednesday I am not sure I have finished yet). As the first cards sent in the days of Charles Dickens depicted Christmas merriment rather than the Biblical stories, I did receive one showing that kind of thing. Also a fair few contain wreaths, winter scenes, Christmas trees, churches, one with Father Christmas and a variety with animals (robins, dogs and in my case particularly cats!).
My favourite of the humorous cards this year (and I did get 2 different versions of it) – is this one with the four fork handle/candles (like the Advent candles) as a celebration of all things the Two Ronnies. When Ronnie Corbett died, I knew the Vicar of his local church who undertook his funeral, and on that occasion they too have 4 prominently displayed candles as a nod to this well-loved comedy sketch – which I remember thinking was a lovely touch for this man who made us laugh so much.
With my selection of story cards, I can tell the whole Christmas story – from the angel Gabriel visiting Mary, to the journey to Bethlehem, Bethlehem itself, the Madonna and child, the holy family, the holy family with animals, the visit of the shepherds and the journeys of the wise men and their visit. Eight of the cards had all the visitors there together. I think St Francis has a lot to answer for over this. He was the first to do a re-enactment of the nativity in 1223 in a cave near Greccio in Italy. Initially St Francis had just Mary and Joseph, appropriate animals and a new born baby in an animal feeding trough. Over the years since angels, shepherds and of course the wise men have been added!
In our mind’s eye however despite what the cards give us (I had several that do this and have sent ones that do this too!) I really don’t think these 2 events Shepherds and wisemen are that proximate to each other. The shepherds visited a newborn they found in an animal feeding trough. The angels clearly said the baby was born this day, when they visit the shepherds on the hillside. They don’t say the baby is in a stable but in a manger, though we have assumed that is where an animal feeding trough would be. But it could easily be something less substantial and more exposed than that, like a lean-to where the animals were kept overnight. Simple dwellings in this time period had one room, and a continuation of the roof over an area for the animals.
My other difficulty is that the account of the wise men in Matthew’s gospel says three things which suggest that wisemen and Shepherds together is just not the case. Firstly, the visit of the wise men involved ‘entering the house’ which the star had stopped over. This means that some time had passed and the new family had found some better temporary accommodation in Bethlehem (thank goodness). Secondly, Jesus was described as being with his mother (no mention of a manger). As the wise men knelt down to pay him homage I imagine a baby beyond the first few days of life in his mother’s lap, but that is supposition on my part! Thirdly there is no suggestion in the language here that it is a newborn the wisemen see, just a little infant.
There are other things we have embroidered our Christmas imagery with as well as the stables, particularly in modes of transport. There is no donkey in the account of the journey to Bethlehem and no camels are described with the wisemen. Camels are mentioned in that prophecy we heard from Isaiah today. It could well have been camels that the wisemen used but nothing is clearly specified in the gospel.
One of my cards (which is a particularly lovely image) conflated the stories together so much that the shepherds were guided by the star (which was only in the wise men account in Matthew’s gospel) and not an angel is in sight (which are only in the shepherd’s story in Luke’s gospel (In Matthew any angel appearances are in dreams!)).
In many respects none of this is the point of these stories. The two different visits and visitors to Jesus wherever they took place serve to make a number of important points. Firstly the shepherds, were of the Jewish faith, but outcasts in society. It was important for us to realise Jesus was for everyone in that faith and not just for those viewed as most pious and holy. The visit of the wisemen takes us further than this significantly, as this is short hand for people beyond the Jewish faith completely. For them to come and worship, is one of the most significant moments of revelation in Matthew’s gospel that Jesus had come for everyone. This is a really important point and one on which the saving love of Jesus depends. By coming to earth as he did – he was coming to save everyone and open out God’s love to everyone. The old ways of operating with a specific group and the law were passing, and a new way of love was being opened out to everyone.
I also think we need to address whether there were 3 wisemen too – as so many of my cards showed us. I think there would have been significantly more than 3 on this adventure and quest (along with their servants). The reason we think there are 3 is because they brought 3 gifts, there is nothing saying these 2 things (number of wisemen and number of gifts) are actually the same!
The gifts themselves are deeply significant (just as Jesus coming is for everyone). Let me explain. I have seen a cartoon of the wisemen offering gifts to the Christ child. Two of them holding traditional gifts and the third is holding an envelope. In response to the concerned looks of the other 2 kings. The king with the envelope says – Yes I know, but a token is so much lighter and easier to carry!
We need to think about this. Will our response to God and our journey into the unknown of 2023 be a token gesture or will we offer something precious to us? The most precious thing we have is ourselves and our capacity to love, and that is what God longs for us to give him. Perhaps we don’t always think of ourselves as precious. We may well be quite good at putting ourselves down, but the gifts the wise men brought are our gifts too.
Each of us is precious to God – in God’s eyes each of us is special, unique, pure gold. We may have to dig a bit deeper some days to find it, but that is God’s truth about each one of us – precious and uniquely valuable to God.
As well as being pure gold in God’s sight, we also offer our own unique frankincense of worship as we come to God this day and every day. As we attend to life prayerfully and learn about God and his amazing love for us. Through worshipping hearts we learn God’s truth about us as the prophet Isaiah puts it – You are precious in my sight, and honoured.
The third aspect of being precious, in relation to the gifts of the wisemen is the most challenging. We will be tested with the myrrh of suffering. Suffering all around us perhaps but also touching us more personally too. We all know that life has ups and downs and God is with us in all of it, every step of the way. When the going is easy or when the going is tough. Faithfulness to God’s love is part of our response and an important part of our love for God is to keep going, and living hopefully in the light of Jesus love which is as the wisemen so keenly demonstrated for everyone.
I am going to finish with a prayer to bring all this together Come to us now Lord God, as we offer our lives to you in response to your love for us demonstrated in the coming of Jesus and the visit of the wisemen. Renew in us your gifts, the gold of our potential, the incense of our prayers and worship and the myrrh of healing for our pain. Feed us and nourish us that we may grow in the life of Christ. Fill us with your spirit that we may overflow with your love and transform the world with your glory. Amen
© Prayer adapted from rootsontheweb.com, The New Revised Standard Version (Anglicized Edition), copyright 1989, 1995