A Sermon by The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO

May 2022 not just be 2020 too – May it be a real new year

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

This week we will be celebrating the Feast of Epiphany, also known as the Day of the Kings after the wise men who visited Mary, Joseph and Jesus after his birth. Our gospel reading this morning (Matthew 2:1-12) gives the only biblical information we have about them, their visit and their gifts.

The traditions associated with the wise men are known through such carols as ‘We three kings of orient are’ and through the participation of children in nativity pantomimes; I wore a pig mask in my kindy pantomime performance at the manger. When we lived in Spain in the mid-1990s, our children were intrigued that Spanish young children didn’t write to Santa in the North Pole nor visit him in local shopping centres to make their wishes; instead, the three wise men who would fill the bill for them. Furthermore, they would have to wait until Dia de los Reyes Magos – the Day of the Magi Kings – for their wishes, hopefully, to be fulfilled.

In western Christendom, we talk of three people having visited the Holy Family and, by oral tradition, even have names for them – Balthazar, Caspar and Melchior. While in the eastern church, they have long considered that there were twelve, not three, visitors to the manger. Matthew’s gospel gave us very little information about the Magi other than that they were wise and were from the east. Such paucity of information readily invites speculation; a whimsical one coming from Readers’ Digest cited in 2001 by a Church of England minister, Rev Martin Dale, where the question was asked “what would have happened if there had been three wise women instead of three wise men?” In summary, the article answered the question by suggesting that:

  1. The women would have asked for directions to the stable locally instead of going to Herod.
  2. They would have arrived on time and helped to deliver the baby.
  3. They would have cleaned the stable and brought something practical – like a casserole.
  4. Finally, there would have been peace on earth.

While Matthew is the only canonical book to mention the visit of the Magi, they appeared in a couple of apocryphal writings; namely, the Protoevangelium of James and the Revelation of the Magi. The first of these, also known as the Book of James, largely repeated Matthew’s account. The Revelation of the Magi, however, is a little-known work of which the earliest extant report is the Chronicle of Zuqnin from C8. This apocryphal work dealt both with the society from which the Magi came and the consequences of their visit that star-led night in Bethlehem. Brent Landau, of Harvard University, has written a paper on this obscure work.[1] According to the book, the Magi were from the distant, eastern land of Shir and were direct descendants of Adam and Eve’s lesser-known son, Seth. From those primordial times they had been charged with maintaining a monthly ritual of:[2]

… praying in silence upon the mountain’s pinnacle for two days, (and then) on the third of the month they (were to) enter the Cave of Treasures of Hidden Mysteries, where Seth’s books were kept and where treasures were housed in expectation of the star.

The Star of Bethlehem not surprisingly being that awaited star; the book telling us that, at one particularly seminal monthly practice of the ritual:[3]

The star appear(ed) in the sky, descend(ed) from the heavens, and enter(ed) the cave, inviting the Magi to come inside (12:3-5). In the cave, the star (took) the form of a small and humble human being and (told) the Magi that such a form (was) necessary for the inhabitants of the world to see the Son of the Father – indicating that this being (was) none other than Christ himself (13:1-2). Christ (told) the Magi that he (had) been sent from the Father for the salvation of all humanity, and (instructed) them to follow the star to Bethlehem to see his birth in human form (13:8-13). 

The book then narrated their visit to Bethlehem followed by the story three decades after that natal visit. It told of the coming of an apostle, Judas Thomas, who travelled to the Magi homeland where he heard their account of what had happened in Bethlehem all those years before. The apostle, after converting the people, led:[4]

… the Magi to a spring, takes oil, and sings a hymn over it (30:1-9). He baptizes the(m), and when they come up from the water, Christ descends to them from heaven in the form of a glorious youth (31:1). He produces a loaf of bread and gives it to Judas Thomas and to all of the Magi, proclaims to the Magi that their ancient mysteries have been accomplished, and … commissions the(m) to preach throughout the entire world (31:10),  

In essence, the story relates that the Magi who had brought gold, frankincense and myrrh to the baby Jesus, were then tasked with communicating the gift of Christ to ‘the entire world’. What did that gift look like? These gentile travellers, who had anciently adhered to monotheism, became a prophetic proclamation of the universal nature of an amazing covenantal relationship that the one true God established with His creation through the incarnation of His Son. The very word Epiphany means a ‘manifestation’ and, in the context of our reading today, it was the encounter of non-Jewish wise men with the baby Jesus which represented the first universal manifestation of divinity. In the fourth century, Bishop Chromatius of Aquilea, stated that the wise men had journeyed from afar to find the King of the Jews:[5]

… there in his cradle (and) they venerated him with offerings of gifts, though Jesus was merely a whimpering infant. They perceived one thing with the eyes of their bodies but another with the eyes of the mind.

These two significant ideas offered by Matthew’s report of the wise men’s visit – the affirmation of the special relationship God has with humanity through Jesus, and the universal reach of that relationship – are very important thoughts to be taken from today’s reading. But we can also discern another key message of personal significance for each of us. Our gospel reading this morning finished with:

And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. [v12]

Quite reasonably, we take this to be a tactical gesture on the part of the wise men not wanting to place the infant Jesus at risk by betraying him into the hands of Herod. But citing Bishop Chromatius again, there can be another deduction to be drawn from this verse about the decision of the group to journey on by a different route from that which had brought them there. He wrote:

… once we have come to know and adore Christ as King, we may abandon the path we were travelling before, which was the path of error. We may now proceed by the other path, on which Christ is our guide.

Surely this is a key message given to us every time we come to worship. Our Eucharistic liturgy contains an aspiration that our encounter with the body and blood of Christ will see us lead different lives. Listen to these words from the preparation for Holy Communion which we will share together shortly:

Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of your dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.

This is a statement of our hope to live changed lives henceforth after our encounter with Christ. But it is in the Book of Common Prayer where I feel the message is put more closely to the idea of returning home by a different route. Listen to how it is put there:

Ye that do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbours, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways …

The wise men from the East had encountered the living God in the form of baby Jesus, the profundity of that encounter would certainly have left them intending to lead new lives and walking in holy ways and not retracing their past ways.

So, as the season of gift giving draws to a close for another year and we are about to take down all the Christmas tinsel, I want to suggest that the key question for each of us on this Feast of the Epiphany is: do we appreciate the gift that God, through Jesus, has given to each of us by the birth of his Son? Each year, like the Magi, we have journeyed towards the manger weighed down with the worldly burdens of the year that has gone before – and what a year 2021 was! As we encountered that natal scene on Christmas Day, did we resolve to ourselves to walk henceforth in Jesus’ holy ways? Or have we departed that encounter none the wiser, simply ready to journey on into this new year no differently than we have travelled through the past year? Will the burdens of the past continue to weigh us down, or will we take on the lightness of the yoke of Jesus and show this in our lives?

The three wise men might have brought symbolically significant gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, but they left washed clean by the light of Christ; healed of brokenness, they ventured forth on their homeward journey as new beings in Christ. As we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany today, has Christmas 2021 meant the same for each of us?

We are thirty-five hours into the New Year and while we may have made personal resolutions for the coming twelve months, I am reasonably certain that, in the wake of the past two years, whether expressed or held silently within us, we all will have significant aspirations, if not even desperations, for 2022. 2021 has finished, it has been an even stranger year than 2020. It wearied us. As Archbishop Geoff Smith said on my program Sunday before last:[6]

People are becoming resigned to not knowing what Christmas is going to be like … (or) what tomorrow or the day after is going to be like.

We may have sung carols but our collective psyche almost seems to cry out a lament. We so very much want the new year to be a new beginning, but we are not optimistic. It brings to mind a part of the liturgy used at Roshashanah, the Jewish New Year. Traditionally, (based on Numbers 29:1), the shofar, or ram’s horn, is sounded. Resisei Layla explains this practice of sounding such a discordant noise:[7]

The unmusical piercing blast of the shofar symbolises the inarticulate cry from the heart of a Jew who has strayed far from God’s path. It is the longing of a stained soul that begs to be cleansed but does not know how … it is like a bugle blowing reveille for a slumbering soul, saying ‘Awake, sleepers …’ God perceives this yearning and remembers that we are still His children who depend on His mercy.

2021 was an unmusical piercing of our lives, so it is hardly surprising that we have cried out an ‘inarticulate cry from the heart’ – a cry the shofar echoes in our wanting the world to be cleansed but not knowing how. God does hear our crying out, he hears our yearning; and he has responded. Again, quoting ++ Geoff Smith:[8]

God has not forgotten us, he has not abandoned us, he has not given up on us, he is with us.

As we look at the nativity scene laid out symbolically before us here at the Nave Altar, will we take away that gift of God – this Emmanuel as we embark on 2022?

[1] Landau B, The Revelation of the Magi in the Chronicle of Zuqnin, Apocrypha 19, 208, pp182-201.

[2] Op.cit. p187

[3] Op.cit. p188

[4] Op.cit. p189

[5] Excerpt from Tractate on Matthew

[6] Audio of ‘Sunday Night with Lynn Arnold’ interview with ++ Geoff Smith on 19/12/22 – starting at 7:03

[7] The Complete Artscroll Machzor: Roshashanah, P426

[8] Audio op.cit – starting at 6:13