04 January 2015: Epiphany Sunday
10.30 Sung Eucharist
Revd Simon Cowling
Isaiah 60. 1-6; Matthew 2. 1-12
‘On entering the house, (the wise men) saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.’ Matthew 2.12
Wise men from the East, unnamed, mysterious, exotic. Travellers who come vividly alive in just twelve verses of St Matthew’s Gospel. Foreigners who have caught the imagination of hundreds of artists across the centuries. And though a few of these artists have depicted the wise men on their journey, or at Herod’s court, most, from Fra Angelico to Francisco di Zurburán have taken Matthew’s brief reference to the offering of gifts as their starting point for their representations of Jesus’ visitors. These paintings of this moment of offering are invariably entitled The Adoration of the Magi : I have not come across a single work of art with this title in which the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh are absent. Yet in Matthew’s account the magi adore the Christ-child before they offer their gifts: the evangelist’s detailing of the sequence of events is quite clear: the wise men kneel and pay homage, they open their treasure chests and only then do they offer the gold, frankincense and myrrh. I want to spend a few moments exploring why I believe equating the adoration, the homage, with the offering of gifts runs the risk of undermining Matthew’s theological intent.
From New Testament times onwards a good deal of ink, and occasionally blood, has been spilt on the meaning of the Incarnation. Yet if I were to be asked to describe the mystery of God becoming human I would be tempted to offer just one word: gift. God offers himself, gives himself, as a child – the child whose birth we celebrated thirteen days ago, the child whose revelation to the world beyond Judea we celebrate today. In his second letter to the Corinthians St Paul speaks of Jesus Christ as God’s ‘indescribable gift’, and thus everything that flows from belief in Christ comes to us as sheer gift – God’s Holy Spirit, the fruits of that Spirit, and eternal life itself. One way of understanding Matthew’s story of the wise men’s visit to Bethlehem is to see in the homage they pay the Christ-child a model response to God’s indescribable gift of his only Son. The wise men are not just representative of the Gentiles to whom Christ has been revealed; they become for us a kind of advance party, representing all the nations who will become Christ’s disciples, the nations who will come to the brightness of the Lord’s dawn as Isaiah has it in our first reading. There is a charming (if entirely apocryphal) legend that St Thomas, on his way to India, met the Magi, now very old, and baptized them – thus enabling them to enter fully into a relationship with the God whom they had first recognised in the child of Bethlehem.
But back to the gold, frankincense and myrrh. These gifts, costly and rare, are given only after the wise men have paid homage, after they have bent the knee to the mystery of God made flesh, after they have responded bodily, spiritually, to God’s indescribable gift. Matthew is encouraging us to see that God does not seek as gifts in and of themselves the material substance of our wealth, the products of our worldly success, the fruits of our status. God seeks nothing more, or less, than hearts and lives that are open to receive the gift that he offers us – his very self. Having received this gift with true openness of heart we will then, like the wise men, be spiritually impelled to offer to God, and for God, the material substance of the wealth which, after all, has been entrusted to us by God in the first place. Reginald Heber, himself a son of great privilege whose devotion to Christ contributed to an early death in British India, sums all this up eloquently in the final verse of the hymn we sang at the beginning of our Eucharist:
Vainly we offer each ample oblation,
vainly with gifts would his favour secure;
richer by far is the heart’s adoration,
dearer to God are the prayers of the poor.