Scripture for Epiphany:
Isaiah 60.1-6; Psalm 72.10-15; Ephesians 3.1-12; Matthew 2.1-12
Epiphany might be regarded as the culmination of gift-giving for the Christmas season; God opens it with the priceless gift of the Christ child, and the Magi conclude it with unsolicited gifts vastly disproportionate to the situation of the baby Jesus and his family.
We engage with the spirit of this season by participating in gift-giving, which in the community around us will reach its peak tomorrow morning. Miroslav Volf, a professor at Yale Divinity School, who also happens to be a former professor of mine at Fuller Theological Seminary, wrote an article some years ago in which, apart from confessing the stress of giving, he examined the way in which gift-giving aligns with Christian principles. He observed that, even though a loving community of faith will celebrate their mutual love by wanting to share with one another, an inwardly-focused group is missing much of the point of the Christian gospel. He challenged his readers to consider the impact of giving as much to those outside the circle of our intimates as we give to those who are inside.
In many respects, the Magi are examples of doing so. Although we make much of their alien nature – they are Gentiles, not Jews, and therefore outsiders, prefacing the ultimate reach of Christ’s reign beyond the boundaries of Jewish faith – we need to remember that the birth of a Jewish Messiah was outside their community’s boundaries and on the face of it irrelevant to the practice of their own faith and their own lives. Yet they persisted in pursuing their pilgrimage quest to find the child, not balking at his poor situation, and offer their gifts without any expectation of reciprocity.
The Anglican priest and poet, Malcolm Guite, captures much of the essence of this in his Sonnet for Epiphany:
It might have been just someone else’s story,Malcolm Guite
Some chosen people get a special king.
We leave them to their own peculiar glory,
We don’t belong, it doesn’t mean a thing.
But when these three arrive they bring us with them,
Gentiles like us, their wisdom might be ours;
A steady step that finds an inner rhythm,
A pilgrim’s eye that sees beyond the stars.
They did not know his name but still they sought him,
They came from otherwhere but still they found;
In temples they found those who sold and bought him,
But in the filthy stable, hallowed ground.
Their courage gives our questing hearts a voice
To seek, to find, to worship, to rejoice
So where do the Magi and Miroslav Volf lead us with regards to our own gift-giving? There is nothing that any of us can ever offer up as something reciprocal for the gift of life, and the gift of renewal of that life in Christ Jesus. So what can we offer? Christina Rossetti, in her poem (also a Christmas Carol), In The Bleak Midwinter, offers an answer: “Give my heart.” How do we do so?
Another, more recent poet, Katie Cook, offers this answer.
Let us go in peace now;
We have brought our gifts to the manger—
and for some of us
it was merely our broken selves—
but now, like the shepherds,
we must go back to our fields;
like the magi,
we must go home another way.
Let us go in peace now;Katie Cook
May this Holy Child guide our steps
into the new year
And give us the courage
to give birth to God’s realm.
To give our hearts means to be willing to bring before Christ our broken selves; to be willing to go back to our everyday lives with a spirit of enlightenment and renewal; to be willing to listen to God’s voice and change our direction. Most importantly, it means to be willing to be an agent of God’s realm – and to do that means being willing to share our gifts beyond the boundaries of family, or friends, or even our community of faith.
Through the example and words of Christ, God can and will repair what is broken; will inspire and refresh the everyday, ordinary parts of life; will direct our dreams and footsteps in new ways – and will offer us ways in which our gift-giving may be shared as much with those outside our circles of intimacy as with those within.