The Adoration by the Magi ... an Ethiopian artist’s impression (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Sunday 6 January 2013
11.30 a.m., Covenant Service with Holy Communion,
Brighton Road Methodist Church, Rathgar, Dublin 6.
Jeremiah 31: 31-34; Mark 14: 22-25.
May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Already the Christmas decorations are coming down, the summer sun holiday brochures have been well-thumbed through, the crème eggs are on sale on the sweet counters, the sales are exhausted and everything is telling us that Christmas is over.
But it’s not.
I hear someone on a radio show – oh less than two weeks before Christmas – saying the countdown had begun, that he was counting down the 12 Days of Christmas.
But today is the Twelfth Day of Christmas – not the Twelfth Day after Christmas.
In some parts of Ireland this day is known as Little Christmas, or Women’s Christmas. Twelfth Night was an occasion for partying and merry-making in many parts of Ireland.
This is the day that ought to bring to a climax our celebration of the Feast of the Epiphany. This is the day my true love sent to me “12 Drummers Drumming,” and all the other gifts too. This is the day for placing the figures of the three Magi, the three Wise Men, or the three Kings, with all their gifts, in the Crib.
The Adoration of the Magi, by Peter Paul Rubens ... the Altarpiece in the Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge
TS Eliot’s poem The Journey of the Magi recalls the journey of the Magi to Bethlehem from the point of view of one of the Wise Men, now elderly, world-weary, reflective and sad. Instead of celebrating the wonders of the journey, the wise man recalls a journey that was painful, tedious, and seemingly pointless.
The speaker says that a voice was always whispering in their ears as they went that “this was all folly.” The magus may have been unimpressed by the new-born infant, but he realises that the incarnation changes everything, and he asks:
... were we led all that way for
Birth or Death?
The birth of the Christ Child was the death of the old religions. Now in his in old age, he realises that with this birth his world had died, and he has little left to do but to wait for his own death.
Our Christmas celebrations over these 12 days of Christmas are robbed of meaning and significance unless we too are brought to the sorrows of the Cross and the joys of the Resurrection.
The Gospel story in the lectionary this morning (Matthew 2: 1-12) tells us that when the Wise Men from the East entered in the house in Bethlehem and saw the Christ Child with his mother, “they knelt down in homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh” (Matthew 2: 12).
It is a story that is unique to Saint Matthew’s Gospel. And it prepares us for Saint Matthew’s emphasis on the kingdom throughout his Gospel: he mentions the “kingdom of God” four times, he mentions the “kingdom of heaven” 33 times, and the term “kingdom” is used in 17 other times.
In the story of the visit of the Wise Men at the beginning of Saint Matthew’s Gospel, we are reminded that the Kingdom of God is not just a promise for a few, but a promise offered to the whole world, to the all the kingdoms of the world.
Why did these wise men present these gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Christ Child? Why give a small child gifts that are of no practical use at the time? Why not give the child a toy, or food, or a new clothes? Why, of all things, did they give gold, frankincense and myrrh?
These were rare, precious and expensive gifts. Not the sort of gifts I would buy every day, and not the sort of gifts I would risk taking with me on a long and dangerous journey.
But for these wise men, their gifts represent their best efforts to honour the new-born king. They represent that they are willing to give all to the new-born king.
The three gifts represented the future roles of the Christ Child.
Gold was the usual offering from by subjects to their kings. When the wise men present gold, they are honouring Christ with the very best they possess, and recognising him as king.
Frankincense represents Christ’s divinity. It is a very costly and fragrant gum distilled from a tree. It was used in worship, when it was burned as a pleasant offering to God. But it also had uses as a medicine and a perfume.
While frankincense represents sweetness, myrrh represents bitterness. Myrrh is an aromatic gum, used for embalming the dead (see John 19: 39). The wise men bring myrrh as a gift to acknowledging the suffering the Christ Child is going to suffer as an adult.
So, gold is a gift for a king; frankincense is a gift recognising Christ’s divinity, and myrrh is a spice for his burial, symbolising his future roles.
But the presents they bring also symbolise the kingdoms of the world coming to recognise the Christ Child as their true king, and being prepared to lay everything they have at its feet, for his use for the sake of the kingdom that truly matters.
This is one of the wonderful insights Methodists have at the start of every year, at Epiphany time, with this service for renewing our Covenant with God in the Covenant Prayer, laying everything before God, all our treasures and all our sufferings, all our hopes and all our for the future, before the Christ.
The Covenant Service and the Covenant Prayer are a sober end to the celebrations of Christmas and a realistic looking forward to Good Friday and Easter Day.
They encapsulate and summarise our necessary reliance on the grace of God and our trust in his promises. It is a patient, humble and tender expression of dependence on God’s grace, acknowledging all our weaknesses yet willing to wait and to endure all for the God-come-among-us-in-Christ:
I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you or laid aside for you,
exalted for you or brought low for you;
let me be full, let me be empty,
let me have all things, let me have nothing;
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal.
Glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours.
So be it.
And this covenant now made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.
Covenant and Kingdom are concepts that are woven together so closely so tightly in the Old and New Testament that one American writer has called them the “DNA of the Bible.”
These great Biblical themes of Covenant and Kingdom are brought together in our Gospel reading this morning (Mark 14: 22-25) when Christ’s meal with his disciples becomes the meal of the covenant and the kingdom. Covenant relationship calls for Kingdom living.
These great Biblical themes of Covenant and Kingdom find their fullest expression in the life of Christ, from Incarnation, through teaching and healing, to passion, death and Resurrection. The theme or concept of Covenant goes all the way back to the beginning, when God builds a bridge with us in Covenant after Covenant, covenants that find their fulfilment in Christ, inviting us into the Kingdom.
We lay everything we have and hope for before the Christ Child, before the Cross, at the feet of the Risen Christ, because we know that relationships more valuable than possessions, that that hope is greater than fear, love calls us into the kingdom.
Speaking of God’s covenant with us in Christ, and the Methodist Covenant Prayer, there is a third covenant that I am conscious of too. And that is the covenant between the Church of Ireland and the Methodist Church, signed over 10 years ago on 26 September 2002.
In that covenant, we make many promises to one another, including sharing pulpit and altar, and sharing with and strengthening each other in ministry and in mission.
But this is not just good neighbours agreeing to be good neighbours. Covenant is about relationship and kingdom. And at the end of that covenant we spoke of our hope “to achieve a fuller sharing of ministries at a later stage of our relationship.”
Ten years later, we must surely be close to that “later stage of our relationship” … Yes? … No?
In the words we heard from the Prophet Jeremiah this morning, “The days are surely coming …” (Jeremiah 31: 31).
If we want to realise that covenant dream for the sake of the kingdom, then I think we must be willing to lay down some of the things that are so precious to us that we are hindering that covenantal relationship so that together we can be a new, fresh and inspiring sign of the kingdom.
Words must be transferred into action if they are to have meaning, and if the covenant between our Churches is going to become part of God’s plan for the kingdom.
And that’s a New Year resolution I think we can all share.
Meanwhile, what covenant presents do we bring to the Christ Child this morning, this Epiphany morning, this Covenant morning. In her poem In the bleak midwinter, which has become one of the most popular hymns in the English-speaking world, Christina Rossetti asks the same question:
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;
yet what I can I give him —
give my heart.
And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.
The Adoration of the Magi ... a window by Meyers of Munich in the south transept of Saint George’s Church, Balbriggan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
The Journey of the Magi, by TS Eliot
A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times when we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities dirty and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wineskins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
The Adoration of the Magi ... a stained glass window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This sermon was preached in Brighton Road Methodist Church, Rathgar, Dublin, on Sunday 6 January, the Epiphany, 2013.