The Revd Margaret Legg
Gifts are a given as far as the feast of the Epiphany is concerned. And the obvious and perennial question is,’ what gifts do each of us give this Epiphany?’
3 gifts have a lot to answer for!
It’s partly because they brought 3 gifts that we assume there were three wise men, although this also springs from an idea by Origen, in relation to Genesis 26.26. Isaac escaping from a famine fled to Philistine territory. After some years the king, Abimelech, turned against him and confronted him, bringing Phicol his adviser and Ahuzzath the commander of his army as back up. The reconciliation between Isaac and these 3 pagans, Origen suggested, pre-figured the 3 Magi, representing the Gentiles, and the reconciliation Christ brought for all people. Matthew tells us they came from the East and we assume they were kings because Psalm 72:10, mentions Eastern kings bringing gifts to the heir of David: May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute, may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts.
John Milton the poet isn’t convinced. He describes them as ‘wizards’ in his 1629 poem ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’: See how from far upon the eastern road/ The star-led wizards haste with odours sweet!’ Before we go off to see the wizard of Oz, or pass through the gates ofthe wizarding school Hogwarts, where the wizard Dumbledore reigned as headmaster, maybe we should reign in our imaginations and settle on the more prosaic identification of them as priests of the cult ofZoroaster who were well versed in astronomy: the science of the stars. Zoroastrians were known for their astrological interests – the practical application of astronomy in human affairs (hence horoscopes). They had a theology of an expected eschatological virgin-born figure called the ‘saoshyand’ the world saviour. When they saw the astronomical phenomen of the large star in the east , they were so certain of the connection, that this presaged something miraculous and powerful, that they journeyed towards it. They wanted to find out the truth of what was going on.
Science and truth
Like religion, science is concerned with the search for truth. Although it would grieve Richard Dawkin’s heart to hear me say this, science and religion are friends! Science asks how things happen, what are the processes at work in the world? Religion asks what is going on in what’s happening? Religion raises issues of meaning and value. One of the many meanings that the wise men give to the Nativity celebration (eg God is found not in the powerful but in the weak; God comes in Jesus for the whole world) is centred on their gifts. Because they invite us to explore our God given gifts: our talents, skills, character traits all that makes us unique and to discern afresh how we can use them for God’s glory and in his service.
Simple gifts: Christmas slippers
One of the simplest and most amusing Christmas gifts I received this year was given to me in the Parish Office on Christmas Eve with the instruction: ‘You must open it tonight or tomorrow morning at the latest, otherwise it won’t work.’ Brutus and I immediately tried to guess what it might be. Something to wear, I hazarded? The donor nodded. Lingerie? Made of chocolate? ‘You’ll have to wait and see’ was the only response. Then it came to me: earrings! Well, I’ve brought it to show you and as you see, we failed to guess correctly! Theses Santa slippers have brought a smile to everyone’s face as I’ve worn them round home not just on the 25th, but for the full 12 days of Christmas. Perhaps we have been blessed with a wonderful sense of fun and that is the gift we offer to others: laughter can be great therapy. Or wisdom, culinary skills, computer...
How do we use our gifts?
The wise men took them out and gave them to Jesus. After the wise men came, 3 other visitors arrived. The immediate reaction of all around was to keep them well away from the family. They were obviously no more than thieves and tramps. One was very hungry, one very troubled and the third in chains. Joseph reacted differently. “Everyone can see this child,” he insisted “wealthy and penniless; sane and mad; honest and untrustworthy. They can all come in”. So the 3 strange visitors came in and drew close to the child. To everyone’s surprise, Joseph said to the one who was hungry: “Here is gold – buy what you need”. Then he addressed the one who was troubled: “Here is an aroma that will soothe your troubled soul” and he gave him frankincense. Lastly he spoke to the one in chains: “I can’t release you from the irons that bind you, but this will heal your wounds.” And he gave him myrrh. It’s a good teaching vehicle , appropriate perhaps for a school assembly, as it teaches the merits of using creatively what we have, of the value of sharing and that God loves all people, even the ones from whom we might , inwardly, withdraw. So what can we give him?
The queen addressed this at the end of her message this Christmas. "It is my prayer this Christmas Day that Jesus’ example and teaching will continue to bring people together to give the best of themselves in the service of others. And she quoted the from the carol, In The Bleak Midwinter, which ends by asking: 'What can I give him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb; if I were a wise man, I would do my part'. "The carol, she commented, gives the answer 'Yet what I can I give him - give my heart'. May we do the same, in whatever way we can. Amen