Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Sermon at Parish Mass, Feast of the Epiphany 2011

Sermon at Parish Mass Epiphany 2011

Isaiah 60:1-6
Ephesians 3:1-12
Matthew 2:1-12

When I was a little boy, I am told on reliable authority, I used to sing “We three kings of holly and tar”. I suppose I didn’t know what the word “orient” meant, and holly was clearly something to do with Christmas, so I put it in the carol. Where the tar came from I have no idea.
We might wonder as well why we sing of three kings as well, since the story that Matthew gives us doesn’t say that the mysterious visitors from the east were kings, or that there were three of them. There are three gifts, of course, gold and incense and myrrh, so it’s easy to visualise three people carrying them.  The idea that they were kings is suggested by a loose link with psalm 72, “May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute, may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts. May all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service.” And this idea was readily adopted by Christian kings and emperors of the early centuries as it seemed to offer divine approval to their own autocratic power. So the magi became, in popular imagination, three kings.
This story really grips the imagination, so it’s not surprising that people have tended to put their own interpretations on the text and read things into it.
In our own day people are periodically interested in the latest theory of what the star of Bethlehem might have been – perhaps it was a supernova, a gigantic stellar explosion that looked like a new star appearing in the heavens. Or perhaps it was a comet or a meteor, or a rare conjunction of planets, or a UFO.
All of this is interesting, and there may be something in some of these theories, but they are not what the story in Matthew’s Gospel is about. We need to read the story as it is, and let it speak for itself.
The word Magi signifies people who have spiritual insight – people who are seers and prophets – but who are not Jews. There’s only one other example in the Bible, the prophet Balaam, you may remember the one with the talking donkey, who appears in the book of Numbers and is described by Jewish commentators at around the time that Matthew's gospel was written as a Magos[1]. Balaam is a pagan diviner and prophet who, in spite of not following the Jewish faith, receives a true revelation from God about his blessings on his people Israel. In his prophesies Balaam says that he “bows down” before God – just as the Magi “do homage”, before Jesus, that is they fall prostrate. And then Balaam says, “I see him, but not now, I behold him, but not near – a star shall come out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel.”
Matthew’s story is making a clear link with the star and the Magi – what Balaam saw afar off, has now arrived. The star has come, the sceptre has risen, the Messiah is here.
The Magi represent religions, peoples and cultures outside Judaism. They haven’t received the particular revelation of God to his chosen people, the covenant with the law and the prophets. But they have nonetheless received illumination and insight from God which has enabled them to seek and find the Messiah. All human longing and searching after God is fulfilled in Jesus.
This is one of the great themes of Matthew’s Gospel which is introduced right at the beginning, with the long genealogy of Jesus which includes four gentile women. It’s unusual enough for a Jewish genealogy at this time to mention women at all, but with gentile women Matthew is making a definite point: the Messiah is born for all people, Jew and Gentile, the fulfilment of all human longing for God.
This theme is taken up again in this story of the visit of the Magi. And Matthew’s Gospel will finish on the same note as the risen Christ gives the command to go and “make disciples of all nations”. This is the “year of Matthew” as we read through this Gospel in the course of the lectionary, and this is one of the themes to listen out for as we go through the year.
We live in a society in which there are many different cultures and religions which we are familiar with in a way, perhaps, which no generation before has known.
Matthew’s Gospel tells us that our approach to other religions should not be hostility, but openness to the truth that they have received. As Christians our dialogue and co-operation will of course point to Christ as the true and complete revelation of God. Not to Christians, who don’t always transparently show God to the world, but to Christ. When we have got to know people of other faiths as friends and neighbours, when we have reached a relationship of deep mutual trust and respect, we can in all humility point away from ourselves and to Christ as the fulfilment of all human longing for God. He is the one who calls both us and our neighbours into that intimate and full relationship, the knowledge of the love of God made visible in a human life.
That is all well and good. But it is not all that this story of the visit of the Magi has to say. There is Herod, too. Matthew draws a sharp contrast between the response of the Magi to Jesus, and the response of Herod.
The Magi come in faith and trust to the one who has been revealed to them, so that they can bow down before him. Although they represent the accumulated faith and wisdom of thousands of years, there is no sense that they are at all defensive about that. There is no sense that they are trying to hang on to anything of their own. They surrender all to Christ, without fear, without resentment, because they find in him all that they truly desire and need.
Not so Herod. His response to Jesus is entirely one of fear. He can only see Jesus as a rival to himself, and indeed when the Magi say that they have come to seek the “King of the Jews” they are using the official title which the Romans had conferred on Herod himself.
We know from history that Herod was indeed ruthless, cruel and paranoid. He had three of his sons killed when he feared they were becoming rivals for his power. The emperor Augustus once joked that he would rather be Herod’s pig than his son, as Herod, observing the Jewish dietary laws, would never have slaughtered a pig. So the response of Herod as described in this story, and the massacre of the Innocents that follows, is entirely in character.
And this is another of the themes of Matthew’s Gospel. People respond to Jesus either with acceptance or rejection. No-one’s response is ever neutral. And when people accept Jesus in faith, like the Magi, their response liberates them from fear and rivalry and violence. The God revealed in Jesus is love. He is entirely free from these dark forces, and if we turn to him in faith then he will liberate us from them as well. On the other hand those who reject the revelation of God in Jesus, like Herod, are left in the darkness and fear that gnaws in their own hearts.
So Jesus presents us with both the fulfilment of our longing for God, and with the crisis of choice, to accept him or reject him.
We who are already disciples of Christ have made that choice in our baptismal promises, which we renew every year at Easter. But we also try to live according to those promises every day. Do you turn to Christ as Saviour? I turn to Christ. Do you submit to Christ as Lord? I submit to Christ. Do you come to Christ, the way, the truth and the life? I come to Christ.
At the beginning of this new year, let us give thanks that Christ has called us to be his disciples, to find in him the fulfilment of all our longings and needs. And let us renew our response of faith to follow him in the way of life and love, the way which liberates us from all darkness and violence and fear.

[1] There is also of course the story of the "Jewish false prophet named bar-Jesus", called "Elymas Magos" in Greek, Acts 13:6-12, but there is no reason to suppose that the author of Matthew knew of this.

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