We are still in the Christmas Season, but the Feast of Epiphany falls on Wednesday, so our theme this morning is one of the themes of that Season, the visit of the Wise men to the Christ-child. And if you’re wondering why we are having the first half of that story this week, when we had the second half last week, it’s because Church tradition remembers Herod’s massacre of the children of Bethlehem on the 28th of December, the day called the Feast of the Holy Innocents.
But today our hymns reflect a more joyful theme, so let us worship God, beginning with:
Hymn CH3 201 Brightest and best of the sons of the morning
Call to Prayer In Isaiah 9 we read:
The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light. Those who lived in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined. …. For unto us a child is born, to us a son is given. And the government shall be upon his shoulders. And his name shall be called; Wonderful Counsellor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.
So let us come to God in prayer
Prayer of Approach and Lord’s Prayer
Gracious and wonderful God, our loving heavenly Father, at the turning of another year we turn again to you, in adoration, in penitence, in thanksgiving, and in praise.
As we look back on the year that is past, we are aware of things well done, and of things done ill. Of duties performed and duties ignored. Of sources of joy and causes of great trouble and sorrow. Of trials and tragedy endured, and of mercy and kindness and neighbourliness shining like a light in dark places.
Gracious Father, it was into a world of darkness and suffering that your Son came, to be a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel – a light which neither life nor death nor any power that is can ever extinguish. There are no words adequate to praise and glorify you, Father, Son and Spirit, for the wonder of creation, the mystery of redemption, and the promise of your Spirit to be a Counsellor and a guiding light to all; for without you we would indeed walk in darkness still. Hear us now as we make our private prayers to you. Pause
Now let us join together in the prayer which our Lord taught his disciples:
Isaiah 60: 1-6
Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
Darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
Lift up your eyes, and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.
Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.
St. Matthew 2: 1-12
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men (or astrologers – Gk magi) from the East came to Jerusalem asking:
“Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he enquired of them where the Messiah (the Christ) was to be born. They told him:
“In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the princes of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel’. (Micah 5:2)
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men, and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying:
“Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word, so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure – chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Hymn CH3 182
The twentieth century poet T S Eliot wrote a poem called The journey of the Magi which is often read at this time of year. Today I’m going to read some short extracts from the beginning and the end. The speaker is one of those wise men who made the journey to Bethlehem: in his old age he reflects on that journey and its significance.
Excerpts from T.S. Eliot’s Poem – The Journey of the Magi
‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’ ……
A hard time we had of it. …..
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; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
The three traditional scripture readings of the season of Epiphany celebrate the revelation of Jesus to the world. In St Luke’s story of the elderly Simeon and Anna, who witnessed the presentation in the Temple, according to Law, of the infant Jesus, we see Jesus revealed to, and recognised as Messiah by, devout Jews, who represent the true Israel.
In the story of Jesus’ Baptism, which we consider next week, we see Him recognised by John the Baptist as the Son of God.
And in today’s readings we see him revealed to, and worshipped as King of the Jews by, representative Gentiles. This story tells us that He came not just for Jews, but for the whole of humankind. That is obviously of prime importance for all of us in the non-Jewish world.
St Matthew who, more than any of the other Evangelists, is always keen to set the story of Jesus in the context of Hebrew Scripture, shows this particular revelation as the fulfilment of the writings of Israel’s great prophets.
The prophecy quoted to Herod by the scribes, that a great leader will come from Bethlehem, can be found in the Book of the prophet Micah, chapter 5 v. 2. This leader’s origin, Micah goes on to say, is from of old, from ancient days.
The passage which we read this morning from the beginning of Isaiah chapter 60, which the Church traditionally reads along with the story of the Magi, was written at the time that the exile of the Hebrew people in Babylon was coming to an end. The prophet writes an ecstatic poem anticipating the return of the exiles to their own country, and he dreams of the glory which will be theirs when the land has been rebuilt. In later verses this dream merges with a vision of Messianic times. For Christians the light is the light of Christ, and the coming of the Wise Men, star-guided, is read as fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy, as Christ, the light of the world, draws to himself the nations and rulers of the earth.
Turning to our New Testament lesson, St Matthew refers to the visitors from the East as Magi. The Magi had been a tribe of priests in Persia, men of holiness and wisdom who were instructors of Persian kings. At their best they were skilled in philosophy, medicine and natural science, but in later times their status dwindled, and they became more like soothsayers or astrologers. We know nothing about the group who came to Judea to find the new-born king – not even their number: the tradition that there were three arose because three gifts are mentioned. One thing we can perhaps surmise – they knew little about Judean politics, or the reputation of King Herod, or they would not have taken their quest for a new king to his court in Jerusalem! Nevertheless, they were sufficiently astute to take warning, and journey home by another way after seeing the infant Christ.
The wise men offered gifts to the infant Jesus. Comedians sometimes have fun with the gifts offered to this young peasant family, and this year I have seen a cartoon showing one of the wise men bringing a sleigh full of toilet rolls and bags of flour, with the caption – now that’s what I call a wise man!
So what can we say about these gifts, famously presented to the child before his – presumably bemused – parents; gold, frankincense and myrrh. The significance which tradition attaches to these strange gifts, as described in the favourite carol We three kings of orient are, derives directly from the references to these substances in the Old Testament, and also, in the case of myrrh, in the New Testament.
Psalm 72, which is described as a prayer for King Solomon, includes these words: “ May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute, may the kings of Sheba and Saba bring gifts. …Long may he live! May gold of Sheba be given to him. …
We can see that Gold, as described in the passage we read from Isaiah, and also in the story of Solomon and Sheba, is the gift of a king to a king. Who knows – perhaps that is why the wise men became transformed by ancient tradition into kings.
In the Old Testament, Frankincense and Myrrh are often mentioned together as sweet perfumes, as in the Song of Solomon: but they also have sacred uses. Exodus chapter 30 tells us that myrrh was a component of the sacred oil used for anointing both the sanctuary and the priests, while frankincense had a very specific use as the incense to be burned daily before the Lord on the altar of incense. It is clear why tradition saw the gifts of gold and of frankincense as denoting Christ’s nature and role as king and priest.
The symbolism of Myrrh is more complex. Old Testament references to it are usually in the context of a fragrance, whether sacred or secular; but the gum from which it is derived is said by modern sources to be bitter, and to have medicinal uses. Myrrh is mentioned three times in the Gospels – as the gift of the Magi; as an analgesic or pain-relieving drug when mingled with the wine offered to Jesus at his crucifixion; and as one of the substances brought by Nicodemus to anoint the Lord’s dead body. This symbolic significance of myrrh is well brought out in the carol; myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume breathes a life of gathering gloom; sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, sealed in the cold stone tomb. .
Gold, frankincense, myrrh – three symbolic gifts laid before the infant Christ, reminding readers of this Gospel of the destiny and significance of this holy child of Bethlehem.
But the story of the Magi’s visit is more than a beautiful, symbolic tale to brighten the dark days of December. It has lessons to teach us, and questions to pose to us.
Firstly, the lurking background presence of Herod reminds us that, although a light which can never be overcome entered the world with Christ, still, this side of eternity, the darkness persists in opposition to the light. Living through the year that has gone we have been forcibly reminded of that darkness; we have also been reminded of the calling of every Christian, indeed of every good-hearted human being, to light a candle, however small, in whatever dark place they may be.
Secondly, at this season of the Christian Year, when in Advent we are invited to accompany shepherds and wise men to that birth, we might ask ourselves what gift we might bring to offer to the holy child, who was also the Word of God, through whom the world was made.
Thirdly, as we read that the wise men went home by another way, we might ponder for a moment the closing words of Eliot’s poem, the Journey of the Magi. The old man who narrates his experiences remembers a hard journey, and a return to the kingdom which had been his home, but where he and his friends were ‘no longer at ease in the old dispensation’. The old dispensation had not changed, but the wise men had. They had been changed by their journey, by the hardships and perils through which they had passed, and, most of all, by the encounter with the Christ-child. Perhaps we should ask ourselves: if we are exactly the same people after Christmas as we were before, have we really been to that stable? Or is that a journey we have still to make?
You may care to ponder some of these things during the new carol which I have chosen for our brief meditation today. It is a less familiar version of the story of the wise men. Mary will play before I begin to read it, between the second and third verses, and at the end.
Three kings from Persian lands afar
To Jordan follow the pointing star;
And this the quest of the travellers three
Where the new-born King of the Jews may be.
Full royal gifts they bear for the King –
Gold, Incense, Myrrh are their offering
The star shines onward with a stead-fast ray.
The Kings to Bethlehem make their way,
And there in worship they bend the knee
As Mary’s child in her lap they see.
Their royal gifts they show to the King –
Gold, Incense, Myrrh are their offering.
Thou child of man, lo! to Bethlehem
The Kings are travelling –
Travel with them!
The star of mercy, the star of grace
Will lead our hearts to their resting-place;
Gold, Incense Myrrh thou can’st not bring –
Offer thy heart to the infant King;
Offer thy heart!
Prayer for the Offering
Loving Lord, King of the universe and friend of the poor and lowly, the wise men laid rich gifts before you. Accept, we pray, the offering of this money and bless it to your service, for we offer with it the love of our hearts, and the service of our lives. Amen.
Prayer of Thanksgiving and Intercession
Loving Father, from our hearts we thank you for the joy and the mystery of the Christmas Season, for the gift of your Son, and for the Revelation that he is the Saviour of all the world. Grant to us, we pray, the wisdom to be guided by our Counsellor, the humility to submit to the gentle yoke of his rule, and the peace in our hearts which can only come from the Prince of Peace.
Hear us, Father, as we bring to you our prayers for other people. We ask your help and your blessing for all who suffer the effects of the pandemic; we pray for those who are ill, for those who are worried, for those who are isolated, for those who are exhausted by caring, for those who suffer the pain of bereavement.
In moments of silence we name before you those known to us in special need of your blessing.
As we give thanks for the dedication and skill of scientists and healthcare workers, so we ask that you will bless their efforts, that an end may be brought to this suffering, and freedom and health, which are your will for all peoples, may spread across the earth.
We pray too that the lessons of this epidemic may be learned – the interdependence of all nations, the value of all people, and the worth and dignity of work which has in the past been undervalued.
Heavenly Father, we pray for all who hold authority over us. Give them, we pray, wisdom, integrity, and resilience for these difficult times.
As at this season our thoughts turn especially to those who are no longer with us, we give thanks for all whom we have loved and who loved us in their turn. We remember with gratitude those who have taught and influenced us, and those whose faith and way of life drew us to you. Keep us ever in fellowship with your whole Church, on earth and in heaven; and bring us in your time to rejoice with them in your nearer presence. These our prayers we make in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Hymn CH3 200