8th Jan 2017
with Maggie Cogan -Reader
May the words of my mouth and the thoughts of all our hearts be acceptable to you O Lord – Amen
I have always been intrigued by a statement in the glorious prologue to St John’s Gospel which we read at Christmas; ‘The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world’ (John 1.9).
And there is indeed a Light that shines on every human being without exception. A Light which is true, divine, eternal; a Light that is necessary for a true knowledge of God, and a true grasp of life in all its fullness. That Light came into the world at Christmas.
And it is this universal objectivity of the one true Light that stands at the heart of the Epiphany. It is an amazing irony that in St Matthew’s Gospel, the ones to recognise the coming of this Light into the world were not God’s people, the Jews, symbolised by Jerusalem, and certainly not King Herod, but what John Milton calls in his ode: “On the morning of Christ’s Nativity ‘star-led wizards’ from the east. They were probably astronomers and astrologers, who believed that the heavens themselves witnessed to significant events here on earth. Whatever they saw, Matthew’s star is a symbol of divine light, divine revelation, which they were able somehow to recognise and which led them on a journey until they beheld the Word made flesh. The Magi, who studied the heavens, saw what the Biblical scholars of Jerusalem, whom Herod summoned, could not see. They responded to that Light which enlightens every one that light which shines upon everyone. Of course, Matthew himself knew passages like our reading- from Isaiah:
Arise, shine, for your light has come;
the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
The Lord will arise upon you and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light, and kings to your dawning brightness.
The identity of that star has stirred perhaps more speculation over the years than has the identity of the men who saw it. Some scholars have proposed it was Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system. Other commentators have insisted it was the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, which formed the sign of the fish, the symbol for Christianity later adopted by the early church.
The star is itself a sacrament of Christ and his over-shadowing glory. ‘When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. This reminds us that if this Light enlightens every human being shines upon every human being, then Christ is for the whole world. He is not simply for Christians, the Church, the Jews, the religious, but for everyone. The nature he assumed was not simply for the benefit of part of humanity but for the whole of humanity in every generation. The baptism with which he was baptised was his full identification not only with some people, but with all people in their need of salvation. The death that he died was not some kind of limited atonement, but was for the sins of the whole world. The risen body of Easter was not simply in order to raise up a few, but to raise up the great harvest of the dead, of whom Christ is the first-fruits.
Among the beloved songs of this season is the hymn we sang before the gospel: “We three kings of Orient are.”
One commentator, Paul Westermeyer, remarks that this song “has the aura of coming anonymously out of the distant past.” Certainly many of us cannot recall the first time we heard it. But this wondrous hymn did have a beginning. It was written in 1857 by an Episcopal deacon, John Henry Hopkins, Jr.
The hymn produced by Hopkins is a dramatization of today’s gospel. It tells how the kings followed that “star of wonder, star of night- star with royal beauty bright” which led them to the new king ‘Born on Bethlehem’s plain.”
The gospel does not indicate how many kings travelled to Bethlehem, or even that they were kings. Their number is assumed on the basis of their three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. A verse of the hymn is devoted to each king, the gift he carries with him, and what that gift reveals about Christ, not only the infant, but also the man.
The hymn does not begin “Those three kings,” but “We three kings.” We find ourselves on the road to Bethlehem, dressed in royal attire, and our hands hold presents for the new King whose birth is foretold in the night sky. It is we kings who carry to the stable our gold and frankincense and myrrh. This gospel story does not tell simply what happened once, but it tells what happens, or can happen, in our lives here and now.
Perhaps no bright star beams above, portent of some tremendous event; perhaps we need not muddy our boots by long travel across “field and fountain, moor and mountain”; yet still, ours is a royal dignity, we are created in God’s image, and we can enjoy no rest until we look upon the King of glory face to face.
What gifts do we royal ones have for this Christ? Gold – frankincense and myrrh.
• Gold—fit for a king.
• Frankincense—whose fragrance rises to God.
• Myrrh—a resin used to embalm the dead.
These are the gifts we offer, not only to the infant Christ, but to the adult Christ as well; not just to the baby born at Bethlehem, but to the Risen One who reigns among us.
We give Christ our gold when we realize that our lives are not our own private possessions made secure by him against him. We give Christ our gold when we know we are not here to pursue our own pleasures, our own objectives, or even what we see to be our duty, but that we are here to do what Christ wants us to do. What he is calling us to do now or in the future
We give Christ frankincense when we make our lives a prayer offered in response to him. We give Christ frankincense when we try to pray even as we breathe–in season and out of season, in good times and bad. This incense we offer through prayer may be only a few poor granules, yet it is an offering that pleases the Lord of heaven and earth.
We give Christ myrrh when we join him in his sufferings for the life of the world. We give Christ myrrh when we do not suffer hopelessly, but offer up our pain in union with his. The choice is not ours whether to suffer, but how we will suffer; whether ours will be meaningless pain, or pain that brings new life, which lifts us up to heaven.
We are royal persons, made in God’s image, kings from the Orient, bearing gifts to Christ of gold and frankincense and myrrh. These gifts reveal him as lord of our lives, as God most high, as death’s conqueror. These gifts reveal us as people obedient to Christ, who pray- even as we breathe, who die with Christ and are raised with him.
These gifts also reveal the perennial Christian path, the way we take and walk with Christ from his birth to his death, from the wood of the manger to the wood of the cross, from the stable’s darkness to the tomb’s darkness, from the light of a midnight star to the light of resurrection morning,
Gold and frankincense and myrrh, but myrrh is not the final gift. The final gift is one given to us: this resurrection with Christ, our new life in him, a joy past all telling. The light of Christ
For me, a symbol of light at St Greg’s are the open doors of this Church, from ‘the rising of the sun to its setting’, every day, 365 days a year, and is a central out-working of the meaning of the Epiphany. For we seek to welcome all who come in, from whatever nation or faith, from whatever culture or creed, from whatever social status, from shepherd to king. For here, perhaps, people perceive and recognise the Light a little more clearly; here we have the opportunity – the joy, of interpreting its meaning, of pointing to Jesus Christ himself, for the true Light that enlightens every human being, has come into the world.
To encounter God in our lives is an experience of wonder. Like the glories of the night sky, God is vast, and full of surprises. To encounter God is to discover who we are, and who we might yet become. Like the wise men, we are changed by such encounters. The wise men were inspired to continue their journey by taking a different road. We too are offered a different road to travel on for our journey through life. It is a road that God will walk with us, as God shares the gifts of wisdom, imagination and love with us every step of the way. Epiphanies are those times when something calls us, moves us, to a new place and we see the face of God in a new way; so human that it almost seems ordinary, maybe too ordinary to believe.
“Glorious now behold him arise, King and God and Sacrifice; alleluia: alleluia – earth to heaven replies.”