Aren’t gifts supposed to last?
The Reverend Dr James Hawkey Canon in Residence
Sunday, 19th January 2020 at 3.00 PM
We have all been there: despite the best plans and intentions, the gift you’ve bought for someone is discarded within minutes of them receiving it. Anyone who has young children in their family or circle will know the peculiar sensation of seeing something which has been at the top of the Christmas list since August summarily discarded at 9.02 on Christmas morning. Aren’t gifts supposed to last? They don’t need to be expensive, but in order to last they perhaps need to capture something of the relationship – actual or perceived – between giver and recipient. The abiding image of this Epiphany season is that of the magi – not kings, and not necessarily three of them – but astrologers from the East falling at the feet of the infant Christ with their gifts. This scene can become jumbled up in our minds with the normal gift-giving of Christmas, and if we’re not careful can fail to really hit home.
Last Sunday, I suggested that the Feast of the Epiphany, celebrated on 6th January, propels us further into the mystery of Christmas, as we discover the ramifications of Christ’s saving birth. For all the usual Epiphany imagery of the Three Kings, the celebration of the Epiphany is actually marked by three simultaneous wonders: the visit of the Magi to the infant Christ, the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, and the wedding feast at Cana, as Christ turns water into wine. At evensong on these Sundays after Epiphany, I am exploring each of these wonders in turn. Last week, we considered the Baptism of Christ. But today, I want to take us back to a feature of that most famous of the Epiphany signs, the gifts of the Magi at Bethlehem, and ponder their meaning at a slight distance.
This is no ordinary gift-giving. The traditional interpretation of the magi’s gifts is that gold symbolises kingship, frankincense the worship due to the Lord, and myrrh the death and burial which Christ would endure. Gregory the Great believed that the gold stood for wisdom. The famous traveller Marco Polo knew a tradition that instead of burial, myrrh symbolised that the Christ child would be a healer. There’s a diversity of interpretation here which should be taken as both-and rather than either-or. But these gifts also have a hinterland, a history, as well as a symbolic value looking forward. It seems likely their symbolism is at least partially drawn from the First Temple, where the vessels were fashioned from gold, where incense was burned to invoke the Lord’s presence, and where the myrhh, which could not be taken outside the Temple, was used for anointing, imparting holiness. Some early Christian texts also record a tradition that Adam, the first man, received gifts from three archangels to sustain him once he had been expelled from the garden of Eden. So, the gifts of the magi reveal Christ as the new Adam whose risen Body will be the new, restored Temple. These gifts show us Christ’s vocation. To think of them simply as straightforward symbolic treasures, isn’t quite to grasp the point strongly enough. They have a history, and a direction. At the beginning of the Gospel, they set the scene for a whole narrative. This is scene setting on an absolutely epic scale – not just gifts for a King, but for the Son of God, who is himself the new Adam, who restores creation and its relationships with its maker through his death which is also our healing. The magi’s gifts bear astonishing fruit as the Gospel story unfolds. The gifts themselves are an epiphany: they lead Christ the New Adam to his passion which reveals him as the new Temple for all who come to him in faith from the ends of the earth. The story of the Epiphany is the Gospel in miniature.
The commissioning of the Prophet Ezekiel which we heard described in this afternoon’s first reading tells us about another gift. After Ezekiel has been appointed by the Lord to recall the rebellious nation Israel to the covenant, he is given a scroll to eat. The text hints that this might not actually be the gift he has always wanted, “do not be rebellious like that rebellious house.” Probably easier to lay that gift to one side! But obediently, the prophet receives the scroll from the Lord’s outstretched hand, consumes it, and recounts that it tasted as sweet as honey. This, too, is a gift which sets the scene for a much wider story. Although Ezekiel will prophesy strange and terrible things, the vision which concludes in the Temple itself at the end of the book is one of healing and abundance. The taste of honey is a kind of down-payment, a sweet promise of what will be. The gift Ezekiel receives – his vocation – is inscribed with sadness, woe; and yet, it tastes sweet because ultimately this weighty gift will bear beautiful fruit for the healing of the nations.
This appears to be the pattern of so much of the scriptural record. Ordinary people, especially the weak, the strange, the young, the elderly, the foreigner or the vulnerable, are entrusted with extraordinary tasks which can only be completed by grace. The Bible offers very few reliable business plans. But as St Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians, the Gospel “is not of human origin.” Our encounter with this Gospel, which is somehow completely present in that extraordinary Epiphany scene, is itself God’s gift. It is not dependent on our scrutiny or judgement, rather the challenge of faith is for us to learn how to receive that gift. The Good News is radical, it will not be compartmentalised, and if it’s going well it will from time to time change us – it is that extraordinary free, graceful gift, costing (as T. S. Eliot put it), “not less than everything.”
Our response to the gift of the Good News, the gift of the Gospel, is firstly worship. When the Magi enter the house and see the Christchild with Mary his Mother, they fall down and pay him homage. The gifts they have to offer contain that extraordinary symbolic resonance which keeps on giving, but in return they receive the gift of encounter with Christ. As one ancient commentator on this scene put it, “[the Son of God] is heard in the voice of a crying infant, [but] this is the same one for whose voice the whole world would tremble in the hour of his passion.” Poets have pondered how the Magi must have coped with returning home to their own contexts, and how this mystery they had encountered must have shaped the rest of their lives. We do not know any details. And perhaps that is helpful. Because at the end of the day, the challenge posed to the Magi by the gift of Christ is the same challenge posed to us. It is a challenge only we can answer. If we decide to accept the gift of that Gospel not of human origin, the only remaining question is how that gift will bear fruit. It may be tinged with suffering, it will certainly be touched by doubt; but Jesus, the pioneer of our faith, leads us on into the New Creation his birth inaugurates for us and for our salvation, if we can learn to receive the gift which will last. As the psalmist put it, “The judgements of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb.”