Sunday, 5 January 2020

The Magi - not yet time for the cardboard box

Homily for Epiphany: Isaiah 60.1-6; Matthew 2.1-12.

Here’s a poem for this time of the year:

Christmas is being put away:
The Kings in a cardboard box,
Mary stashed in tissue paper,
Joseph wrapped in a woolly hat,
And the infant Christ in a nylon sock;
All tucked away under the stairs,
We’ll climb another year
Up to bed and down to breakfast.
And somewhere in the pantry of my thoughts,
A wistful coil of questions
Goes unanswered.

(Patrick Purnell: Imagine. Way Books, 2004)

It’s almost Twelfth Night, it’s time to take down the Christmas Tree - if it hasn’t gone already... And there are the other decorations to take down, the cards which now we might read - and we might think, “I really should get in touch properly with the people who wrote them…” And if we have a crib, we must dismantle it. The kings will head for their cardboard box…

Except that bit’s not right! The kings arrive only with the Feast of the Epiphany – properly on the 6th January, though we celebrate it in church today… a day early. The arrival of those three kings of tradition, more properly the wise men or magi, is the reminder that Christmas is not all over. These are the late arrivals as they come to pay homage to the child of Bethlehem. In their lateness and foreignness they stand for us… people who have heard a rumour at a distance, people who haven’t really got the message straight, people who take time to get things done because – we tell ourselves – we want to get them done properly (even if that is something of an excuse for putting them off). The magi are quite unlike the shepherds who’d heard the message of the angels and promptly abandoned their flocks to go into Bethlehem to find out just what was going on. Forget the idea that they took some pretty little lambs to set before the crib as an offering to the Christ-child. There’s no time for that. The shepherds bring nothing but themselves. And that is everything that God could want… If only we would hear the good news of Christmas, and bring ourselves in thoughtless, reckless joy!

But the wise men are not like that. They see a star in the East. They’re prompted to find out what it signifies. And they have to get things right. Practically, of course, there are all the arrangements to make for a long journey – we think of them travelling vast distances over cold deserts from a mysterious eastern land. But there are also all their calculations. The charts which tell them where the star will lead them. Getting the right presents to set before the infant king whom they expect to greet. And presumably they need the right clothes because they expect to find him in a royal palace – and all the other baggage. Isn’t that rather like us? We worry that we won’t get the right gifts for people at Christmas – because the right present is not the one we would buy, but the one we think we ought to buy because of who they are or because of what they will expect. It makes it all so difficult. But presumably that is why the wise men finally turn up with those such distinctly unsuitable gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Couldn’t they just get a couple of baby-gros, preferably not new-born but a size or two larger since it’s taken them so long to arrive?

What would the wise men bring today? Something more modern perhaps, yet nevertheless suitably lavish gifts. I find myself quite amazed by the latest must-have consumer technology, and actually acquired some which requires linking up my mobile phone through Bluetooth and a music subscription service to get the most out of it - thankfully I wasn’t left to set it up myself! If you’re listening to this in a state of incomprehension, then how must Mary and Joseph have felt when these richly-robed mysterious men of the east dismounted from their camels to produce their gifts for Jesus of gold, frankincense and myrrh? If you ask, who really needs such extravagant gifts, then perhaps we need to start by looking at the clutter in our own lives: all those things we could live quite happily – perhaps more happily – without.

But the story of the wise men and their gifts is one to make us think. They stand at the juncture of two worlds and two eras, they stand for what we think we know but don’t, and for the quest for knowledge in which we so frequently (like them) fall short. We think we know the story and sing, “We three kings…”, but of course the story doesn’t tell us the number of these eastern visitors, but the number of their gifts… and it doesn’t tell us that they are kings either. We need to re-visit this story, if for nothing else to remind ourselves how so often we don’t remember the stories of the Bible properly – faith needs to be based on something more than what we half-recall from our childhood or from an annual Carol Service.

The magi themselves understood the importance of knowledge. They knew the night sky, and spotted the difference when they observed something they took to be a new star. And they act upon their knowledge. They follow the star. But even so they can’t help going wrong. They assume the star indicates the birth of a king, someone whom the world will value according to the world’s scale of values. So when they can no longer follow that star, when they can see only by the cold light of day, they make assumptions. “We must find this child in the nearest palace.” They want their calculations confirmed. They haven’t the patience to wait for the re-appearance of the star by night when it will finally lead them to the child of Bethlehem.

And that is so like us too. We look for answers, but we think we know already what we want. Like people who read their horoscopes and do the stars to find the answers they want. Those magi in a way are no different, ancient astrologers as they are. And they miss the answer – they find Herod in his palace, intent on keeping his throne whatever the cost, when really they should be heading beyond Jerusalem’s suburbs to Bethlehem to find the child of a so-far quite unremarkable couple. We need to remember this. People want answers to their questions and problems. That’s why they turn out in huge numbers when supposed mediums appear at the Consett Empire, and that’s why the people who produce the horoscopes get richest from the premium phone lines they advertise in their newspaper columns. And that’s a warning to us. When people say that Christian faith doesn’t offer them the answers they want, is that what it’s truly there for? Faith is not about believing in supposed answers. It’s about believing in God, and that first requires that we seek him.

Seek God - but don’t expect all the answers at once. It’s a lifetime’s quest. Perhaps that’s where religion is failing for so many people these days. They just don’t have the patience. But religious faith is about living – so it’s about the whole of life, not just an annual observance like Christmas, or an answer given when I feel a question coming on. The word “Epiphany,” the name of the Feast we celebrate today, literally means “manifestation” or “setting forth.” It’s the showing of the child of Bethlehem to be God’s Son – if only we will see. It’s the opening of a door, but stepping through it does not give us all the answers… just a new sense of direction. “Arise, shine for your light has come…” says the prophet Isaiah in today's Old Testament reading. These are words of hope for God’s people, of promise to the Jews. Today we read them and see their promise fulfilled in Christ. But nevertheless, can we see that promise in a child still resting in his Mother’s arms, still dependent on her care?

The poem I started with concludes with these words:

A wistful coil of questions
Goes unanswered.

Is that how Christmas leaves us as we pack away the decorations?

In his poem “The Journey of the Magi,” T. S. Eliot has the wise men reflect upon what they had seen. Such a long journey it had been, and what had they found? Had they seen a birth? – yes, but also they had sensed a death foretold. This is not a single event standing alone without purpose. It’s the beginning of a life which desires to embrace our lives in their wholeness.

The invitation to us is to recognize the light which shines in the Christ-child, to walk through the door which he opens for us, and to continue on the journey. To be thankful for the answers we find, but to be ready also to live with the mystery – to recognize the purpose of God within that mystery, and in it to know our calling.

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