They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother.They prostrated themselves and did him homage.Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way. (Matt 2)
Astrologers, magicians, scientists,priests – we don’t really know where to put the Magi. Somewhere in between those, probably. The lines we draw today are a bit sharper than they were in the past. And then, of course – astrology isn’t a kind of religion. No, it’s a kind of science. As Maureen Lipman used to tell her fictional nephew – “you got an ‘ology, you’re a scientist.” It’s bad science: science that doesn’t work. But it isscience. It claims you can understand personality – even predict the future – if you know something about the state of the stars at certain times. So it’s subject to falsification and verification. It’s astronomy’s more personable, more extrovert – but less ambitious and nerdy, older sibling. It just doesn’t work, that’s the only problem with it.
Except, it seems, this time. They come seeking the King of the Jews, having read something right from the stars. Something – a star, according to Matthew; Jupiter, according to some theories – has risen in the East. Well, all stars and planets rise in the East. That’s how we tell them apart from the International Space Station. And the ISS wasn’t around in those days. But they saw it when it rose, and – driven by some mixture of understanding, their own kind of science and – who knows – the hand of God – they’ve ended up at Jerusalem.
Close, but no cigar. Only six miles out. Within the margin of error, I reckon, for a bunch of scientists using a science that doesn’t work. That’s not so bad. And there, the scientists run up against the experts in Scripture.
“Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.”
And it’s the theologians that give them the answer. “Bethlehem. You’re just down the road.” But though these theologians know the Scriptures – they do nothing about it. They just sit there on their theologically-correct, eschatological bottoms and do a bit more musing.
They know what they’re talking about, do these scribes. But maybe they’re divorced from their subject. You know what that kind of learning can do. What should be all about truth becomes instead just a thing to study. Scripture to them is a specimen – the book of Micah is, for them, like a butterfly with a pin through it. Stuck there to inspect, to tut over, to weight the words of. But run all the way over the Bethlehem, with the promise of a baby Messiah? Maybe not. In the same way you can study Thomas Hardy and never get the urge to throw a bag in your car and head for Dorset. There’s theologians, after all, who don’t believe in God. You want to be at a safe distance, lest you’re disappointed by the reality or overcome by it. Or maybe they’re just worried about what Herod will do if they run down and welcome this baby king. Itchy trigger finger, had Herod.
It’s the Magi – the maverick foreigners, the Gentiles with the odd star-gazing habit – who don’t think it’s just an academic matter. They’ve dragged their bums halfway across the known world, through danger, heat and cold, to get here. They’re not gonna quibble over half a dozen miles. They’re off and heading for Bethlehem.
Albrecht Dürer – Adoration of the Magi(Wikimedia Commons)
And this is where the theories stand back in awe, and worship with the rest. The study of those cold, twinkling stars – looking down at the Magi, just as they looked up. The understanding of the Scriptures. Science and Scripture – the application of our intellects to what we’re given. They’re brilliant and they’re important. They’re elements of truth. But they’re secondary.
All the promises of the prophets, all the wonders of the universe. All that is, and all that ever might be. The knowledge of the ages, and the darkness hiding the ages to come. They’re all held in the grasp of a baby’s hands. The mind that conceived the universe, conceived and brought into the world by a young girl.
The knowledge of sages and insights of prophets are secondary now. They’ve come to see, they’ve arrived and now they know. Listen. You can know the wonders of God through the study of science. You can see the mind of God written in the rules of physics, God’s wondrous carelessness and terrifying abandon in the laws that run the world. And you can try to fathom God’s will, to know your right behaviour and the ends of all things, through the Scripture. And when you actually know – just grasp a moment of the presence of Godself in this world. When you know, for a moment, for just a thumbnail of the wonder with which you are know, then you will find the resolution of all truths and the end of all our human strugglings.
They threw themselves down and worshipped, then they went home by another route. Changed forever and filled with the joy of knowing Christ’s presence. It’s open to us too. Offer your gifts, your knowledge, your wisdom and your searchings. Pour them all out before him. And know that the Christ born in Bethlehem is born in your heart. A third way to know, the glory and culmination of the other two. God is here with us.
EPIPHANY 2015 – Sermon – SMAA – Sunday 04 Jan. 2015 – 8am & 10am Masses
ISAIAH 60: 1- 6 EPH. 3: 2-3a; 5- 6 MATTHEW 2: 1- 12
Because the Feast of the Epiphany falls 12 days after Christmas – the 6th of January – which is on Tuesday, and people nowadays rarely come to church on Feast-days that occur midweek; the celebration has been moved to the nearest Sunday, which happens to be today. The main difference to the appearance of the crib, is that the figures of the Madonna and child – together with those of St. Joseph and the shepherds – have been added to, with the figures of the 3 Arabian Kings, the mysterious figures from the East, who brought the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Christ-child. The fact that most cribs are shown complete with the 3 Wise Men at pre-Christmas events has rather taken away the merging significance of Epiphany from the Christian Calendar – except for the Orthodox Christians, who normally celebrate Christmas on the night of the 6th of January, while reserving the commemoration of the Visit of the Kings for the morning of the 7th, thus separating the 2 events by just 1 day. However, whatever the actual historical time lag between the Birth of Jesus and the Arrival of the Kings, it is important to realise that the Shepherds were the first of the Jews to visit the Christ-child; while the Gentiles – in the persons of the Arab Kings – came later.
From today’s Gospel story in Matthew, which, perhaps surprisingly, is not echoed in the Gospel of Luke; we are told how three Wise Men from the East – who were obviously Arabic in origin – a small group of astronomers – had seen a particular Star rising in the East which led them to follow its path across the skies over the land of Palestine. Being themselves of foreign extraction, they probably felt the need to visit the local royal household to pay their respects, and to enquire of the whereabouts of the Infant King they had read about in the Jewish Scriptures, who was destined to be born in that territory. We are then told that King Herod, the puppet Jewish ruler under the provenance at that time of the Roman Governor, was secretly dismayed – fearing for his own position if ever such a potential ruler were allowed to survive his birth. Not knowing of the whereabouts, himself, of the location of Jesus’ birth; he sent the Wise Men on their way, asking them to let him know when they had found the child, so that he could pay him homage.
However, as the story is told, we realise that, when they had found the birth-place of Jesus and paid their own respects – leaving with him the gifts they had brought; the Wise Men were obviously wise enough to know that, if they revealed the whereabouts of Jesus to King Herod, this would end only in disaster for the Infant King. So, we are told, they went home by another route, allowing time for the Holy Family’s escape to Egypt.
What, then, should we make of the Visitation of these 3 Arab dignitaries? Well, probably we are meant to work out that this was the very first sign of the Kingdom of God being opened up to ALL believers, whether of Jewish origin or not. With the coming of Jesus into the world, God’s plan for the extension of his loving kingdom to the Gentiles was already being introduced, and how better than by drawing these three exotic strangers to the crib – offering the gifts of Gold for kingship, Frankincense for priesthood, and Myrrh, as a prophetic sign of the suffering that Jesus would be called to undergo in the cause of God’s redemption of the world from sin and death?
In today’s world, where fundamentalists who are zealous in sectarian violence, even against those of their own faith who do not believe in the same way as them – in the belief that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is concerned for only the strictest observance of their Muslim faith, we see a direct antithesis of the Christian understanding of the God of Love who, through the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus, has freed all humanity from the demands of Deuteronomic Law. God has opened up for all humanity the unique possibility of redemption and salvation, through the Incarnation of God as a human being in the person of Jesus Christ. The sectarian religious fundamentalist idea that human beings are saved from eternal death by their own righteousness was the very reason why God sent his only begotten Son into the world – to overcome the due penalty for our sinful human nature. In the divinity/humanity of Jesus, God was putting right our tendency to rebellion and selfishness – by His provision of a Prophet, priest and King who would rule, not with a rod of iron, but by a Kingdom built around the coming evidence of the world’s most powerful self-sacrificial Love.
The difference the Birth of Jesus was to make in the Jewish understanding of what God required of them as a people would be so radical, that even the hierarchy of the Jewish leadership would do their very best to destroy Jesus and His followers in the years to come. Having distorted the plan of God to spread the Good News of His divine rule into all the world around them – despite the prophetic warnings of their failure to embrace the prescribed cause of justice to everyone in their selective keeping of the Law – the Jewish Sanhedrin and the Temple authorities were often securing what was best for themselves – rather than looking after the needs of the poor and disenfranchised. They used the strictest penalties of The Law against others, while avoiding its consequences for themselves. With Jesus’ openness to the marginalised and the poor of Jewish society – and even to people of non-Jewish, Gentile origins – his fate was sealed. The irony of all of this was that it was his own Jewish co-religionists who eventually had Jesus arrested and crucified – in the strict interests of preserving their own quasi-religious agenda.
However, all that was to come in the future. Today we give thanks for God opening up to the Gentile Kings the possibility of salvation. It was later to be through the emerging ministry of the Gentiles that God chose to signify the ministry and calling of Jesus. His prophetic and life-giving ministry – to people on the very edges of society – was to bring hope and redemption to everyone who would come to believe in Jesus as, not only the Messiah of the Jews, but also Son of God, High Priest and Saviour and King of all creation.
“Never was God so great as when He became so small”. During this Season of Christmas, we are reminded of this significant reduction of God’s earthly power and might, which once became focussed in a tiny baby – the ‘Word made flesh’ that was the Incarnation of Jesus. This great act of humility on the part of God is an indication, if ever we need one in our world of today; that God’s plan for humanity is one of Love and Mercy, not the exercise of dominance and power. And as long as we act towards our neighbour (and that includes everyone with whom we come into contact) as God acts towards us; we are following the way of Jesus that leads to salvation.
In these weeks following his first Epiphany – or ‘showing forth’ to the Gentiles – we will contemplate how the Gospel sets out the various aspects of Jesus’ ministry. Next Sunday reveals the empowerment of Jesus at His Baptism by John. The following Sunday tells us of his revelation to the disciples of his destiny – to be sitting at the right hand of the Father in Heaven. The following Sunday, we celebrate the influence of the post-Resurrection Jesus on Saul, the zealous Jewish unbeliever – who, after his Conversion, became Jesus’ greatest advocate as the Apostle Paul. And finally, on the first Sunday of February, we relate back to the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple – recognised by Simeon and Anna – the Feast of Candlemas – of Jesus as ‘Light of the World’.
At the heart of it all, there is the figure of Mary, who shared her human nature with Jesus, thus enabling God to share in our common humanity. And so, in accordance with ancient tradition, on account of her willingness to be God’s servant, we are able to say:
“The Angel of The Lord brought tidings to Mary, and she conceived by the Holy Spirit…..Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blest are you among women and blest is the fruit of your womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God; pray for us sinners now, and in the hour of our death. Amen”.
‘Kalo Epiphania”. Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand