Sermon for the Feast of Epiphany: The Gifts of the Magi – preached at the Eucharist, Sherborne Abbey, on Sunday, 8 January 2023 by Canon Charles Mitchell-Innes. (Isaiah Ch 60: v 1 – 6; Matthew Ch 2: 1 – 12)
“When they had opened their treasures, they presented to him gifts: gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.” (Matthew Ch 2: v 11)
When I last preached about the Wise Men here, some four years ago, I chose a small selection of our Christmas cards that year which depicted the Wise Men, in various moods, attitudes and stages of their journey, to talk about. This year we have had fewer than before, but they fall into two significant groups – travelling and arriving. The first lot all show the travellers looking bearded and stately, with or without camel transport, and are clearly derived from the Orthodox Church. Their attention is fixed on the star and the journey ahead into the unknown. In the second group – mainly renaissance paintings – they have arrived at the manger in a scene suffused with warmth and light, the fulfilment of their journey, and kneel in adoration and wonder at the heavenly vision they have stumbled upon and which would change their lives. They put me in mind of U.A. Fanthorpe’s delightful take on this in her poem BC:AD. It imagines the slack moment in history when BC became AD, and some shepherds and three travellers from the east lighted upon the most important thing in their lives – and indeed of any of our lives.
“This was the moment when Before
Turned into After, and the future’s
Uninvented timekeepers presented arms.
This was the moment when nothing
Happened. Only dull peace
Sprawled boringly over the earth.
This was the moment when even energetic Romans
Could find nothing better to do
Than counting heads in remote provinces.
And this was the moment
When a few farm workers and three
Members of an obscure Persian sect
Walked haphazard by starlight straight
Into the kingdom of heaven.”
There is a nice ambiguity about the two words “nothing/Happened”. To the rest of the world the birth of Jesus was indeed nothing; but it happened, as the Magi have discovered when they come into the presence of the God-child and his mother. They have indeed stepped “straight/Into the kingdom of heaven.”
There is a story about a parish priest taking a children’s service about these events. He began with the Christmas reading from St John, ending “And the Word was made flesh …. and we beheld his glory … full of grace and truth”. He then launched into a quiz, where they were asked to identify various elements of the story from their initials. V.M. was correctly recognised as the Virgin Mary; K.H. as King Herod, and W.M. as the Wise Men. There was, however, some confusion when the vicar asked what Jesus was full of, beginning with G & T.
So these Magi – these Wise Men from the east – present their gifts: gold, and frankincense and myrrh. These might be seen simply as generic offerings, and certainly Matthew would have been well aware of the reference in our 1st Reading, from Isaiah 60, to “all they from Sheba” (v 6) bringing gold and incense; and another, in Psalm 45, to myrrh (v 9), as appropriate to royalty. But I, along with many others over the years, have always felt that each gift has a particular significance; after all, Matthew places them in pole position at the end of his description.
Elizabeth Jennings, distinguished 20th century poet, puts words into the mouths of each of the Wise Men as they offer their gifts, finding a meaning in each one.
Words for the Magi
‘Shall I bring you wisdom, shall I bring you power?’
The first great stranger said to the child.
Then he noticed something he’d never felt before –
A wish in himself to be innocent and mild.
‘Shall I bring you glory, shall I bring you peace?’
The second great stranger said when he saw
The star shine down on entire helplessness.
The gift that he offered was his sense of awe.
‘Shall I show you riches’ the third one began
The stopped in terror because he had seen
A God grown-up and a tired tempted man.
‘Suffering’s my gift’ he said
‘That is what I mean’.
Certainly the sight of the Creator of the stars of night lying in a manger, utterly vulnerable, should unlock in us the wellsprings of humility and devotion. Yet there is more for us to ponder, I think. Incense represents prayer and reminds us that a Christian disciple is one who prays regularly. Gold reminds us of our responsibility, both as Christians and as compassionate humans, to be generous, in the ordering of our worldly affairs, towards our neighbours and to those in need. Myrrh, used to anoint the dead and dying, reminds us of the gifts that Christ will bring to us – the promise and the sure hope of life beyond the gate of death; so that, in due time, we, like those Wise Men of old, may walk “straight/Into the kingdom of heaven.”