5th January 2020


Isaiah 60.1-6 Psalm 72.1-7,10-14 Ephesians 3.1-12 Matthew 2.1-12

LOOK at your Christmas cards before you (hopefully) bring them to church, to be recycled through the school. Look at them, and you are sure to find a number depicting today’s gospel. It’s not hard to understand why. The account of the wise men’s visit to the infant Jesus is graphic and yet puzzling and mysterious. We enjoy trying to solve puzzles and unravel mysteries, (hence, our love of detectives stories), and so we puzzle over this one.

‘Wise men’ our translation calls them. The original Greek word is ‘magi’, and some versions keep that. Other translations call them ‘astrologers’, because of their interest in the stars: it seems that there wasn’t the sharp distinction between astrology and astronomy then as there is now. Perhaps they were just men of learning, seekers after truth. We are told they came ‘from the East’. We should like to know where. Does it mean Persia, that ancient land now called Iran and tragically in the news again. Carols such as Three kings from Persian lands afar’ suggest such an identification, but without any real grounds, so far as I know. And were they kings, as we frequently call them? It’s probably only the Old Testament prophecy of ‘kings [coming] to the brightness of your rising’ and the psalmist’s prayer, ‘May.. kings… bring their gifts .. [and] fall down before him’ that lead to their being called such. And what was the significance of their so impractical gifts? And what was the star they saw and which led them to Jesus? (Halley’s comet, or Sirius, or a conjunction of planets have all been suggested.) We can go on asking these questions, and people have done so down the centuries. Legends have grown up around the wise men’s story. They have even been given names- Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar.

It is tempting to speculate, though we know we are never going to come to any firm conclusion. But, fascinating though it is, we should resist the temptation, because it can lead us to overlook the real message of Epiphany. For that we have to turn to today’s much less fascinating Epistle. There we hear St Paul sharing with Christians in Ephesus the real mystery and the significance of the wise men: which is not their identity or origin or profession or anything else about them, except their foreignness. ‘… the mystery of Christ … not made known to [those] in other generations, he writes, ‘has now been made known to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit; that is, how the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus’ (Ephesians 3.4-6).

We don’t find that very exciting. It’s now a commonplace of Christian teaching that Christ is the Saviour of the whole world, that ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female; for [we] are all one in Christ Jesus’, as St Paul came to see (Galatians 3.28). But it certainly excited him when it was first revealed to him. True, the message is already there in the Old Testament: It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob..;I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth’, God says in Isaiah (49.6). But the message doesn’t seem to have been heeded: certainly, not by the Jewish leaders, to judge from the gospels. And the early Church was slow to grasp it. But when it did, it became a main theme of its teaching, especially for St Paul, the previously strict and narrow rabbi.

And if it doesn’t exactly excite us, we should be thankful for it, and to St Paul and others down the ages who have preached it, because it is our entrée into the kingdom of heaven.

In his Christmas Day sermon 400 years ago, Lancelot Andrewes, Bishop of Winchester, said: “These that came from the East were Gentiles, and that concerns us, for so are we… These wise men… not only in their own names .. came and sought after, and found and worshipped, their Saviour and ours, the Saviour of the whole world.. So desirous were they to come.. that they broke through all difficulties. And we,’ Lancelot Andrewes challenges, what excuse shall we have if we come not? If so short and easy a way we come not, as from our chambers hither?… To come to Christ,” he goes on, “is one of the wisest parts that ever these wise men did. And if they and we be wise in one Spirit, we will follow the same star, tread the same way, and so come at last whither they are happily gone before us. And how shall we do that?… The good Bishop answers his own question by referring to the cover of the container in which the Blessed Sacrament used to be kept. On it, he says, there was a star engraven, to shew us that now the star leads us thither, to his Body there.” Christ is not only to be found at Christmas, in effigy, in the crib, but all the year round, in reality, in the Blessed Sacrament to be found, and received in Holy Communion. A last thought: in the first sentence of today’s gospel we read:’.. wise men came to Jerusalem’, and in the last: ‘… they returned to their own country.. The Christian journey always involves coming and going: coming to the holy place to be made holy, and then going back to our own place, to make that holy, too.