Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on the Epiphany of Our Lord 2012
6 January 2012 at 17:00 pm
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
‘May all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service.’ Thus Psalm 72.
Were they kings, who came from the East to present gifts to the infant Jesus? Were they three in number? There were certainly three gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh, in St Matthew’s account. They were certainly rich if they could bring these gifts and travel from afar. And they were wise men, magi or in the Greek ‘μαγοι’, and St Matthew tells us they came from the ‘ανατολων’, from the eastern region. It could have been Arabia, as in the Psalm, but it is impossible to say.
Certainly St Matthew wants us to be clear that this infant Jesus, Son of God and Son of Mary, is to be worshipped by wise men, by those rich in the world’s resources, by rulers, in other words by those who exercise the authority of their learning and understanding and by those who exercise authority through their wealth and power. So, as in the psalm I quoted just now, they might as well have been kings. ‘We three kings of Orient are.’ Well, that is not exactly as St Matthew has it, but the tradition is strongly established and as we have seen reflects a biblical understanding.
They follow the star. They enquire of king Herod. They enter the house and find the infant Jesus. They bring their gifts. They fall down and worship. The rulers of this world worship the King of kings, the Lord of lords. That is as it should be.
On the feast of the Epiphany 1066, 946 years ago today, Edward the Confessor, king of England, was buried in front of the high altar in the church he had built on this site and that had been consecrated only a few days earlier. His successor, Harold, was crowned here as king on the same day. It is hard to imagine how the Abbey managed a funeral, a coronation and the celebration of the feast of the Epiphany all on one day. But they did. 95 years later, on 7th February 1161, Edward the Confessor was canonized and two years after that, on 13th October 1163, the body of St Edward the Confessor was reburied in a greater shrine.
Two men whose names are well known were here at that service on 13th October 1163. The king at the time was Henry II. He was present here. So also was the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas à Becket, who only the year before had been Chancellor of England but had accepted his king’s invitation to become Archbishop. Thomas famously subjected his loyalty to Henry to a higher loyalty to the Church, and – following the king’s cry of frustration, ‘Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?’ – was brutally assassinated by four knights in front of the altar in Canterbury Cathedral. Later Henry II did penance at the former archbishop’s shrine, which was to become one of the greatest place of pilgrimage in the Middle Ages.
We can see how strongly the argument ran when we read part of a letter written by St Thomas, when archbishop, in which he said, ‘All important questions that arise among God’s people are referred to the judgement of Peter in the person of the Roman Pontiff. Under him the ministers of Mother Church exercise the powers committed to them, each in his own sphere of responsibility.’ The authority of the Church over all matters amongst the people of God was asserted by St Thomas, with the clear implication that the authority of the king counted for little by comparison. And this authority was exclusively vested in the Pope.
I received a little more insight into the way of thinking in those days, when I recently visited Edinburgh Castle and read of the history of the Scottish monarchy, from which it was clear that it was the Pope in Rome who had decided whether and how the Monarch might be crowned. It is not hard to understand why Henry II and Henry VIII found cause to object to this papal authority in their realm of England.
Now it has to be recognised that the papacy does not seek to exercise such direct authority over national governments in the modern era, and has not in any case been in a position to exercise authority over the government of this country since Henry VIII’s dramatic break with Rome in 1532. Moreover, the Church of England has, over the intervening centuries, come to understand that the Establishment of the Church of England, including the place of Bishops in the legislature, in the House of Lords, does not allow the Church to lay down the law and to make demands of the government. But our history as a nation and the very existence of this Abbey Church, as the place of Coronation of Monarchs since this day in 1066, testifies to the importance of the influence the Church is able to exercise – and should exercise – for the good of all in our society. That remains controversial but it is important, especially since this is a Christian country.
So are we presented with an insoluble dilemma – on the one hand, kings and governments objecting to the authority of the Church; on the other hand, a clear expectation in today’s gospel reading that kings, wise men, the rulers of this earth, will bow down in humble obeisance to the King of kings and Lord of lords? ‘May all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service.’
In this diamond jubilee year, when we celebrate 60 years of The Queen’s reign, we can all thank God that The Queen’s Christian faith is of fundamental importance to her and held by her to be important for the kingdom. I have never known this more clearly expressed than in Her Majesty’s last Christmas broadcast. The media in reporting The Queen’s broadcast omitted any reference to the address’s religious content. Perhaps that is not surprising, since some people are embarrassed by explicit statements of faith, but it is a sad omission. The Queen had been speaking about the importance of the family and our national and Commonwealth communities but she also recognised that times are hard for many people.
Here is part of The Queen’s message about the meaning of the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ for a troubled world. She spoke of ‘finding hope in adversity’ as one of the themes of Christmas. And she recognised the world into which Jesus was born as being ‘full of fear.’
She went on, ‘The angels came to frightened shepherds with hope in their voices: “Fear not”, they urged, “we bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Saviour who is Christ the Lord.”
‘Although we are capable of great acts of kindness, history teaches us that we sometimes need saving from ourselves – from our recklessness or our greed. God sent into the world a unique person – neither a philosopher nor a general (important though they are) – but a Saviour, with the power to forgive. Forgiveness lies at the heart of the Christian faith. It can heal broken families, it can restore friendships and it can reconcile divided communities. It is in forgiveness that we feel the power of God’s love.’
The Queen quoted a prayer and concluded, ‘It is my prayer that on this Christmas day we might all find room in our lives for the message of the angels and for the love of God through Christ our Lord.’
As today we celebrate the Epiphany of our Lord, his manifestation to the Gentiles, and the worship of the magi, we might pray that all the authorities of this world – and we ourselves – might come to understand and obey their duty above all, not to any intermediate religious authorities, but to the ultimate authority of Jesus Christ, the King of kings and Lord of lords.