The Revd Brutus Green
An epiphany is an appearance, a manifestation, a revealing or revelation. It is not the appearance of the three kings that we are celebrating today, though, but the revelation, the appearance of Christ to the gentiles on the 12th day of Christmas; here represented by the 3 kings. This season also celebrates the baptism of Christ as the beginning of his ministry, when he is made known as the ‘Son of God in whom the Father is well pleased’, and also the wedding at Cana, the first ‘sign’ in John’s Gospel, again the first public appearance of Jesus revealed as God with us.
It is the kings, though, that people tend to focus on as the exotic element of the story in their pilgrimage from far away lands and their exorbitant gifts to the child born in poverty. As the Christmas favourite hymn has it: gold ‘to crown him again’ - for kingship; frankincense for the ‘priest on high’ and myrrh to ‘tell of his death’. ‘King and God and sacrifice’. The details are all of course apocryphal, whether they were in fact kings, how many there were, whether it was so shortly after the birth - Matthew’s Gospel does not include any of this, but they do make for a prettier, more glamorous nativity scene. That Matthew does record them bringing gifts to the child, though, merits our attention, not least because the significance of gift-giving has changed significantly since the time of ancient civilisations.
Giving presents is a notoriously complicated affair. As you may well have experienced very recently there are complex social negotiations that take place when deciding who you buy presents for and how much you spend. If you spend £10 on a friend only to have them spend £100 on you, or equally the other way round with you spending far more, the situation becomes embarrassing. There is perceived to be an inequality in how you see the relationship and how you value each other. There is an old Scandanavian proverb that ‘It is better not to bring an offering than to spend too much on it’ and that ‘The miser always fears presents’. The reason is that presents demand reciprocation, a return, and a return really of equal value. It can be embarrassing for us if we make some sort of gift-error, but in ancient cultures this was held at the level of taboo. Families, villages even, would bankrupt themselves in their effort to return hospitality or match gifts because in most early cultures honour demanded that your gift should exceed what had been given. To give less was shaming and in this way social and political hierarchies formed with the wealthy maintaining their place through extravagant generosity.
Our kings are offering what is the expected homage to a new king with their gifts. In the narrative of the Gospel Jesus’ return is significantly greater. He is shown to have given up for all creation the majesty of God ‘taking the form of a slave… humbling himself even to the point of death’, as Paul writes. As the hymn has it he is ‘on earth both priest and victim in the Eucharistic feast’, given for us as an acceptable sacrifice before God. And in his death and resurrection his gift far surpasses myrrh as the gift of not death but eternal life. Epiphany, if you like, is the feast that celebrates the gift of God given for all nations, which is himself, Jesus Christ. It is an epiphany, it is a revelation of God as love.
Jesus’ gift to us is the gift of life, the gift of the Spirit with us. But Jesus himself is the gift of God to the world. In this we see something of the Trinity as God’s love finds itself given and received endlessly and freely. It is up to the world to receive this love and return it as the kings modestly attempt with their gifts and as we promise in the post-eucharistic prayer. This process of receiving and giving is what gets us caught up in the divine life. It is the practice of Christian discipleship.
The world has lost a great deal of gift giving. In ancient civilisations gift-giving took the place of all acts of commerce and all socially significant events. We on the other hand live in a world of internet ‘one click shopping’, of anonymous charity, an impersonal welfare state, virtual reality and internet chat-rooms. It is not that these are bad things but if you have spent an hour bartering over a wooden giraffe in a far away land you will understand how much has been lost in the sociality of everyday life.
The events of 2011, the riots, the creaking and groaning of the welfare state and mistrust of public institutions are a clear statement of the weakness of social solidarity. When in giving we do not trust or participate in what or who we are giving to, or in receiving we do not feel any attachment to those from whom we receive, then society will be weak. It is often assumed that charity should be cold, selfless and disinterested, but the reality of human nature is that the processes of gift and exchange are more valuable, honest and helpful the more interested they are, the more they involve people personally.
Epiphany is a continuation of Christmas insofar as it is concerned with the revelation of God in the world: the revelation of Jesus, the gift of God’s love, freely given and giving the Spirit. It is a love to which the kings respond with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, which Jesus returns personally in his ministry, death and resurrection. It is a love to which we respond now in receiving the eucharist and being sent into the world to give others a taste of God’s love. The nature of this gift-giving is personal. It demands that we are involved with other people, that we work to build society. At the end of the day Amazon cannot love you, the state cannot love you but humans and God are able to love one another. Epiphany is a reminder to us to give, and, where we are able, to give extravagantly. To be gifts that keep on giving.