The feast of Epiphany unfortunately is often somewhat neglected and overshadowed by the bigger celebration of Christmas. Like most other people I love Christmas, but I think Epiphany also has a lot of power when it comes to actually living the Christian life.
What do I mean by that? First we want to know, who is this Jesus? St John (1:29-34) reminds us that He heals by taking the sin of the world upon Himself, and giving the Holy Spirit too. What is even more amazing, St John in this passage boldly proclaims himself witness to Jesus as the Son of God. What form does this Son of God take? At Christmas we have celebrated God becoming human and receiving a body. But now three foreigners come, take off the insignia of their position, and present that infant with some peculiar gifts. How do you react to the fact that the Magi are foreigners, coming from outside to recognize and proclaim who Christ is?
Usually the gifts the Magi presented to the Christ-child are taken at their material face value. Could they also be seen in a different light? Do they give some other clues to the identity of Jesus – and ultimately that of any Christian as heir of Christ? Gold is usually associated with kingship, wealth and beauty. What if it could also stand for purity, spiritual depth and being blessed in a special way? If all Christians have received the same gifts as Christ, how can we now influence and change the world, just as Christ did then?
Frankincense is now becoming ever more precious because the trees struggle to establish themselves to grow strong, and only in maturity their sap can be harvested. This may well point to the obstacles humans negotiate in their journey to become wholesome people, but it also reminds us that maturity is necessary to be useful, or perfect, in God’s kingdom. During his ministry Jesus healed many people who were given up as hopeless cases, or even revived those that were pronounced dead. The incense plant has many healing properties so researchers check if Frankincense is a still unknown cure for some cancers, in addition to the liturgical use we love so much at St Matthews.
Myrrh comes from trees with very sharp thorns, so the first thought that comes to mind is the crown of thorns during the passion. But the plant also has a number of medicinal properties, among which bacteria fighting and pain easing powers seem to be prominent. Myrrh is also one of the components used for the preservation of dead bodies. Traditionally myrrh was one of the magi’s presents to point to Christ’s death, but when I look at the other possible uses I think of Christ’s life and ministry too, rather than his passion alone. How relevant is that for Epiphany? Jesus invested a lot of his personality into healing people, easing their pain and distress. Even the Sermon on the Mount seems to have as its goal a restoration of values lost in religious practice at the time. In the 21st century those teachings have lost nothing of their importance in pointing to love as the main ingredient of Christianity.
I have called this essay ‘The day that God appeared’ because ‘appearance of God’ is the literal meaning of the word ‘epiphany’. If something becomes known and visible it usually has a physical substance. In that case it was a baby. That means God had received a body like ours, and could be seen and touched, hugged, kissed, and – yes – killed too. Imagine what it would be like to treat our own and the body of other people as if it were the extension of God. May be we would hug each other more, and treat our own body better.
Another take on this theme is to examine the way we treat the Body of Christ, and here I mean the Church in a wider sense too. How do you think and talk about Anglicans of other traditions than your own? Do you think of Pentecostals or Quakers as aliens or relatives? Then there is also our own congregation here at St Matthews. Who do you really know and have more than a fleeting contact? Even if you talk to someone every Sunday, how well can you really know that person? The amazing thing is that God knows us all, inside and outside. He knows all our real strengths and weaknesses, even if our fellow humans cannot see them, and he loves us unconditionally and without reservation. How wonder-full and how awe inspiring.
About fourteen years ago I read a book about God’s body, and it continues to make its mark on the way I see the world and present it to others. The most important point in it is that the author presents the whole universe as the ‘Body of God’. Imagine all those solar systems and galaxies – more than we know about – as making up the physical reality of God. I always found that really humbling, and at the same time uplifting, to realize that even with this unimaginable body size God really cares about all his creatures and creations. How then can we who are made in his image and likeness increase our level of care for each other and God’s Body too?
Although this would make a talk all of its own, I would like to take a last look at those three Magi as they approach the baby in his crib. Will they come in pomp and power? Will they take off their crowns and signs of wisdom and position? This Christmas Her Majesty the Queen has deeply moved me with her speech, talking like one Christian among many – not as the Head of State, nor as the Head of the Church. This is a perfect example how Christians could approach the world and so become the Image of God or, if you like, the Epiphany of Christ for everyone.