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Giving And Receiving

Giving and Receiving

Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12

A Sermon Given by Robert Shaw

St. Philip’s Episcopal Church

January 8, 2023

My first memories of Epiphany are Presbyterian. My grandfather was a prominent Presbyterian minister in Philadelphia, and the first church services of any kind that I can remember were in his church on Baring Street. Presbyterian services are not, as a rule, especially colorful. But for some reason, on Epiphany (or Twelfth Night, as they more often called it), things got a little wild. The service included a miniature pageant, with three elders (Presbyterian equivalents of our Vestry members) parading in homemade costumes as the Magi, while the congregation sang “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” In the early 1950s, against a background of soberly dressed churchgoers, these gentlemen draped in what looked like brightly patterned bedspreads (and probably were) really stood out. I was only four or five, and already given to a lifelong habit of daydreaming. For a long time I thought those three monarchs being impersonated came from a country called “Orientar.” But they certainly got my attention.

The actual Magi would no doubt have gotten plenty of attention, not only from children, appearing suddenly as refined, exotic visitors come from afar on a rough journey. Magi, which in the Gospel is translated as “wise men,” were members of a scholarly and priestly echelon in ancient Persia. From the word magi we derive our words “magic” and “magician.” The Magi were famous for their study of the stars, and their interpretation of signs in the heavens. Some of the trendier contemporary translations of the Bible call them “astrologers”—which in a sense they were, though not the sort offering predictions in daily horoscope columns. They were used to scanning the heavens to receive early notice of momentous events on earth, and following one particular star to Bethlehem was in line with their studies, though it called for more strenuous exertion than usual.

Matthew’s Gospel takes a mere twelve verses to tell their story, but that was the beginning of a much more elaborate tradition surrounding them. In the early centuries of the Church, and through the Middle Ages, the Wise Men were given names and sometimes highly detailed biographies. Most strikingly, they were promoted to Kings. To some extent, this could be explained by the very human urge to make a good story even more exciting. After all, a royal crown has a lot more bling than a Phi Beta Kappa key. But there was a more serious impulse behind this transformation: that of connecting the story of the Magi and their gifts with earlier messianic texts, such as those we have heard read today, from Isaiah’s prophecy and the appointed Psalm. In Isaiah, “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn,” and, even more pointedly, “They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.” And in the Psalm: “The Kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall pay tribute, and the kings of Arabia and Saba offer gifts.” So, a tradition filled with theological symbolism grew around the three Wise Men. Now conceived as Kings, and named Melchior, Casper, and Balthasar, they were assigned different parts of the known world for their realms: Arabia, India, Ethiopia and others were cited as the places they supposedly ruled. In works of art they were given identifying costumes and even skin tones: Balthasar, cast as an Ethiopian King, was often depicted as Black. The doctrinal point behind these imaginative embellishments is what was, and is, the most important thing about Epiphany. An epiphany is the showing forth, or manifestation of a divine being to human witnesses. The alternate name of this feast is “The Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.” The Magi’s worshipful encounter with the child Jesus made it plain that salvation was promised not only to God’s chosen people but to all people on earth. The Magi, then, represent all who had been outside of the covenant with Israel, and who were and are welcomed by Christ into his new covenant from all corners of the world, ours included.

The Magi in the Gospel are not spoken of as kings. Consider them as Wise Men then. To judge from the story, they don’t seem to have been what is called worldly wise. Their dropping by to ask Herod for directions to find a child who was bound to be a threat to his throne suggests a certain naiveté. Their wisdom was of another sort. It was characterized by trust and recognition. Trust: they trusted their own expertise enough to act in accordance with what they read in the night skies. They trusted the star that they had picked out (or that had picked them out) to lead them on a dangerous journey. And recognition: just as they knew what they were looking at when they first saw the star, they knew who they were looking at when they first saw Jesus. They came upon a man and woman of modest means in temporary lodgings, caring for a baby recently born; and without question, without a moment’s hesitation, they recognized that baby as the Messiah: that was their (and our) Epiphany. It was to that sight that their wisdom had brought them, over rough and winding roads.

Like the Wise Men themselves, their gifts were understood symbolically by the Church from early times. They were taken to represent different aspects of the Child to whom they were given. Gold stood for royalty, and thus was fitting for the King of Kings. Frankincense, which was offered in ceremonies in the Temple, represented Christ’s divine nature. And myrrh, which was used to anoint bodies being prepared for burial, signified Our Lord’s acceptance of the fullness of humanity, even including his passage through suffering and death. Symbolic readings like these have provided material for a lot of Teaching Moments. And of course, in the popular culture of some countries, the Three Kings as gift-givers take on the role that Santa Claus / St. Nicholas has in others, bringing the children their presents.

This is a time of year when it is unavoidable to think about gifts—about giving and receiving. Setting aside for a moment what there is to be said about the gifts the Magi brought to Bethlehem, I’d like to consider what they received. To put it bluntly, what was in it for them? We can easily imagine that they got satisfaction—a lot of it—from having succeeded in their quest. On the way home, the Persian equivalent of “Mission Accomplished” must have echoed among them. But I think they would have spoken more about the Child they had seen. The Gospel describes them as “overwhelmed with joy” even before they entered the building. And clearly, joy of the divine presence was the gift their adventure gave them. Speaking of biblical translations, where our version says, rather matter-of-factly, “they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage,” the earlier ones say, “they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him.” We can assume that this does not mean that they tripped coming in the door. It means that rather than only bowing, or even only kneeling, they prostrated themselves, which in their culture was the way to show highest respect, or, as in this case, reverence. The sacred joy they felt then would have stayed with them.

As we’ve seen, the Magi as Christ’s first worshippers from outside of Israel are our prototypes, representatives of us. Is there a way in which our own experience of giving and receiving can be viewed as a mirror of theirs? One way I can think of involves what we do here on Sundays when the Eucharist is celebrated. We are not likely to prostrate ourselves before the altar—after all, we’re Episcopalians—but when we kneel or stand at the Communion rail, we are not only receiving the bread and wine; we are giving something as well. The oldest Eucharistic Prayer in the Prayer Book (which until the 1970s was the one commonly used) makes this plain near its end, whcn the priest says on our behalf: “And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee”—with the aim, as it goes on to say, that Christ “may dwell in us, and we in him.” In sacramental religion, as in the visit of the Magi, giving and receiving come together to join in a charmed circle, or we might better say, in a blessed one.

And afterwards, when we go out from here, the circle widens. There will be more giving and receiving to be done, and what we have done here should open our hearts and minds to the ongoing material and spiritual exchange that makes up life in this world: not just an exchange of “goods and services,” as the economists say, but as we say, one of gifts and graces. Recently one of my oldest friends sent me a short poem that makes this final point very memorably in twelve forceful lines. This is an Epiphany poem for people like us: travelers in this world of good and bad surprises, who are not royalty, and who are not as wise as we might wish to be. The poet’s name is Philip Britts, and the title of the piece is “We Come with Open Hearts.”

We have not come like Eastern kings

With gifts upon the pommel lying.

Our hands are empty, and we come

Because we heard a baby crying.

We have not come like questing knights

With fiery swords and banners flying.

We heard a call and hurried here—

The call was like a baby crying.

But we have come with open hearts

From places where the torch is dying.

We seek a manger and a cross

Because we heard a baby crying.

Let us hope that as we go out from this place our ears will be sharpened to hear the children—the all-too-many children in all-too-many places—who are crying. And let us hope that we may be given strength and patience and spiritual stamina to bring comfort to where it is needed. For if that becomes our mission, what other offering, what manner of worship, could be more pleasing than that in the sight of God?

Happy Epiphany.

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