Saint James Fordham • Epiphany • Tobias Haller BSG
Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.+
This year is one of those rare years (about one in seven) when the feast of the Epiphany falls on a Sunday. Epiphany is the day that marks the beginning of the post-Christmas season, the day after the twelfth day of Christmas — I assume the day when people go to the department store return-desks with arms full of geese a-laying, calling birds, French hens, a pair of turtle-doves and a partridge complete with pear tree. Perhaps they should go to the poulterer’s instead of the department store! I suppose one would hold on to the five gold rings, of course...
Which brings me to my serious reflection for this day; for gold was also one of the gifts the wise men brought to the Christ child on that first Epiphany so long ago. What a strange name, for a day of strange gifts from strange people! Epiphany — it’s an old Greek word that has a simple meaning in English. It means showing forth! And the subtitle of this holy-day helps us understand just what it is that is being shown forth. For the Prayer Book, on page 31, tells us that the subtitle of Epiphany is “the Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.” Starting today, and throughout the season of Epiphany, we will hear in our Gospel readings just how Christ manifested himself in his earthly life, what he did to show himself forth not only to his disciples but to the whole world.
So it is on the feast of the Epiphany we start at the very beginning, with the coming of the foreign wise men to bring their gifts to the infant Christ. Many traditions have grown up around this event, most of them not actually included among the scriptural details in Matthew’s gospel. We’ve come to think of these visitors as the Three Kings, but the gospel doesn’t call them kings, nor does it even specifically say there were three of them. The gospel calls them “wise men.” It tells us that they came to find a child at the prompting of the rising of a star, a child who was to become the new king of the Jews. And the gospel tells us that they brought three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. Because of the three gifts, tradition assigned a wise man to each — for who would show up without a gift!
In addition the tradition portrayed the three wise men as representing three different races of the Gentile world, joining with the shepherds reported by Saint Luke, who represented the common poor Jewish people of Judea. In this way the faithful down the years wove together Matthew and Luke, and added imaginative details to fill out the story, and fill up our table-top creche. And this is not entirely out of keeping, even though it isn’t strictly speaking scriptural — for as my old liturgy professor used to say, “Listen to the people of God.” The church has its wisdom, and that includes all the members of the church — and the wisdom in this case lies in seeing what this feast-day is all about: the opening of the doors of salvation, so that the whole world, Jewish and Gentile, is represented kneeling at the Christmas crib — the Jews represented by the shepherds first on Christmas, and the Gentiles represented by the wise men following on the feast of the Epiphany.
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However, today, rather than exploring the possible ethnic background of the wise men, or the church’s embroidery on the story, I would like to stick a bit closer to the fabric of the gospel text itself, and take a careful look at those three gifts that the wise men brought. For here the text is clear and explicit, and we need rely on no uncertain tradition. The gifts presented to the young child were treasures of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Although in these days the latter two gifts are widely available and reasonably priced — the frankincense we burn in our censer costs only about six dollars a pound, and a little goes a long, long way — at the time of the birth of Christ all three items were very valuable, and the frankincense and myrrh were even more costly than gold.
But in addition to their value as mere commodities, and far more important, is the symbolic meaning of these gifts. Remember, Epiphany is about showing forth, it is about symbolism and demonstration, and manifestation. In short, it is about revelation. So what do the gold and the frankincense and the myrrh reveal to us? What do these three gifts tell us about the one to whom they were given?
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Gold is the symbol of royalty. “Born a king on Bethlehem’s plain, gold I bring to crown him again” — so we sang in the hymn before the gospel. Royalty in just about every human culture for as long as we can tell were adorned with gold — from Pharaoh to the Inca to the Emperor of China. The first prehistoric person who found gold in the earth or in the river-bed recognized its special qualities: a shining metal that did not tarnish, flexible yet durable, which could be made into almost any kind of ornament; heavy and yet subtle, solid and substantial, and yet capable of being beaten into leaves as light as air, glowing in the firelight or the sunlight, a truly royal metal. So it is that golden crowns and necklaces have been cast for royalty for centuries. And so it was that the wise men offered gold to this child who was to be the king not just of the Jews but of the whole world.
Frankincense is the symbol of prayer and praise. Again, as our hymn at the gospel said, frankincense “owns a Deity nigh; prayer and praising gladly raising.” In ancient times frankincense was offered in temples all over the world as a sign of worship. As Psalm 141 puts it: “Let my prayer be set forth in your sight as incense; the lifting of my hands as the evening sacrifice...” This costly resin was harvested from trees that grew in Ethiopia, carried by caravans to the distant East, and into Europe, valued all over the known world, and offered in the worship of many faiths. We continue to do the same to this day. For we still burn frankincense in our liturgy, the symbol of prayer ascending in a cloud, a gift that is utterly consumed as it burns, something we must give up completely and offer to God, for once it is burned we can’t take it back; and as we offer this up, we commit to God’s gracious hands all our needs, concerns, and gratitude. And so it was that the wise men offered frankincense to this child who was the Word made Flesh, the nearer presence of the unapproachable God who dwells in inaccessible light, come down to earth to receive the prayers and praise of all people.
Myrrh is the strangest of the three gifts to be offered to this child. Yes, myrrh was another valuable kind of incense, a resin used in a number of different ancient brews. But the primary use of myrrh in the ancient world was in embalming the dead, preserving dead bodies and preparing them for burial. “Its bitter perfume breaths a life of gathering gloom; sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, sealed in the stone-cold tomb.” Hardly the kind of thing one brings to a baby shower! Yet this was the third gift of the wise men, and their wisdom was vindicated in the end. For myrrh is the symbol of death, and this gift reminds us that even in the joy of Christmas death is not that far away. Matthew’s gospel continues its story to tell how Herod would soon send soldiers to murder the innocent children of Bethlehem, so set was he on wiping out the threat to his throne. Only a dream to warn Joseph, and another to warn the wise men not to return to Herod give the Holy Family time to escape to Egypt. So even at the manger, death is looming not far away. And let us remember as well, that the village of Bethlehem where Christ was born is only five miles from Jerusalem where he died; Golgotha and its cross are also not so very far away from the stable and its manger.
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Gold, frankincense and myrrh: these are the gifts that the wise men gave to the Christ child, symbols of royalty, worship, and death. They show us what these wise men thought of the one to whom they brought the gifts. They honored his kingship, they acknowledged his divinity, and they foretold his death.
But these three gifts also show forth and reveal what Christ gave to us. He gave us his humble royalty, not lording it over us but coming to us as one of us. He gave us his divine presence, assuring us that we are not forsaken and alone, but companions with him on our earthly pilgrimage, as he walks with us to teach us and opens his words to us even as he hears the words of our prayers. And he gave us his saving death, that precious gift that opened the way of everlasting life. These are the gifts that Christ gave to the world.
And the gifts the wise men brought also show us what we are to give to Christ in return. For in return for his royalty and divinity and death, we give him our obedience, our worship, and —not our deaths — but our lives, dedicating ourselves to the pure service of the love of God and neighbor.
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The Epiphany season has begun, the time to behold God revealed to us as one of us, and it starts with the gifts at the birth of the babe of Bethlehem. May we throughout this Epiphany season remember the meaning of those gifts, and offer to our Lord and God all obedience and all worship, and the tribute of our selves, our souls and bodies, as a reasonable and holy sacrifice to him who saved us, even Christ our Lord.+