theunfamiliarname

Homily for Epiphany 2011

In Uncategorized on January 4, 2011 at 3:12 pm

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For the journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’

Famous words, those of TS Eliot from his “Journey of the Magi”.
Matthew’s Gospel alone has this curious story of oriental wise men, magi,
searching for the Christchild.

It stands like a marker at the very beginning of his telling of the Jesus story,
a marker which makes most sense
only when you get to the very, very end.

These magi, this encounter with the pagan, the gentile world,
sets the scene for the movement of the wisdom of God,
that embodied in Jesus of Nazareth,
from the tiny region of Palestine and a single people,
to throughout the world.

Matthew throughout his gospel is calling his Jewish readers to understand
that Jesus is the promised Messiah,
and that in him Israel is called to be what she was always *supposed* to be:
“a light to the nations”.
This is what Isaiah speaks of,
the gentiles drawn to the light of Israel’s witness to God.

Yet for all the prophet’s pleading and goading and prodding and promises,
Israel does not manage to embody that which God has called her to.
It is only in this Jesus who *becomes* the embodiment of Israel,
of all she could and should have been,
that God with humankind is recognised
– this Jesus portrayed by Matthew from the outset as a light to the nations.
An epiphany.
These wise men, these astrologers, these pagans, these Eastern sages
– all that was abhorrent to the Jewish culture of the day,
men from the east, where the land of Exile was –
these representative figures are drawn to the light of Christ,
the star which proclaimed a king in Israel.

This is the opening move in Matthew’s story of epiphany.

Epiphany means revelation. Showing.
The manifestation of divine or ultimate reality.

A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Folly? These wise men turn up unexpectedly,
gentiles in Jerusalem, at the heart of the Jewish faith,
knowing little or nothing of the Jewish Scriptures,
certainly not knowing about Bethlehem,
the prophetic place where the Messiah was to be born.

The wise men come, to Herod the Great,
celebrated king of the Jews for over three decades,
and innocently ask him where the child is “who has been born king of the Jews”!

At the centre of the Jewish world, in the court of, the very presence of the king,
these nameless pagans have the audacity
to inquire about *another* “king of the Jews.” Folly indeed.
Not really the act of wise men!
Here the brutal kingship of Herod,
who murders the Holy Innocents in and around Bethlehem,
is directly contrast with the kingship of Jesus.
An epiphany, a showing, of how far Rome’s king of the Jews
had moved from the image of one who will “shepherd my people Israel”.

The gifts these pagans set down, that they lay at the feet of the Christchild
are also representative of this epiphany: gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Gold, the ancient, near universal symbol of prestige, of kingship.
Frankincense, symbol of worship, prayer, priesthood.
Both of these gifts are those that Isaiah foretells will be brought by the nations,
represented in the wise men, to the true Israel.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different;…

And what of the gift missing from all that Isaiah says the gentiles will bring to Israel?
Gold & frankincense are there, as well as a “multitude of camels”,
which don’t appear in Matthew’s account…
the missing gift is myrrh, the spice associated with embalming.

Myrrh, the pointer towards where this journey will end,
where the ultimate epiphany of what this God is like will happen,
the astounding revelation,
the showing of the God’s glory, the rising light above thick darkness,
the star in deepest night…
this epiphany is not in triumphant dominance over, but in communion with us,
bearing the wounds and the hopes of a broken people –
the shepherd who lays down his life for the flock.

Eliot’s great poem ends with this ambiguity,
this prefiguring of death in birth, of a starting and an ending.
Of an already and a not yet.
And that is where we live, you and I.
The Church cannot live simply in the reverential awe of the wise men
at the feet of the Christchild, for like Eliot’s magi,

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.

Matthew’s Gospel alone has the magi,
standing like a marker at the very beginning of the story.
A marker that makes most sense only when you get to the very, very end.

For Matthew’s gospel ends with the words of the so-called “Great Commission”:
‘go, therefore and make disciples of all nations,
baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…”
We are sent out from our worship to our world.

The world we live in, with all its idols and illnesses,
is the world *we* must shed light within,
in the face of the Herods of this world and the hardness of journey.

“We have observed his star at its rising”
and we too have gifts to lay before him.

The beginning and the end of Matthew’s gospel
and of our discipleship is in our doing this.

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