Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Did Mary and Joseph send Christmas cards to
the three wise men from their exile in Egypt?

‘Star of Bethlehem’ by Edward Burn-Jones

Patrick Comerford

Saint Bartholomew’s Church,

Ballsbridge, Dublin 4.

12.45, 8 January 2014,

Mid-Week Eucharist

Isaiah 60: 1-6; Psalm 72: 1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3: 1-12; Matthew 2: 1-12.


Matthew 2: 1-12

1 Τοῦ δὲ Ἰησοῦ γεννηθέντος ἐν Βηθλέεμ τῆς Ἰουδαίας ἐν ἡμέραις Ἡρῴδου τοῦ βασιλέως, ἰδοὺ μάγοι ἀπὸ ἀνατολῶν παρεγένοντο εἰς Ἱεροσόλυμα 2 λέγοντες, Ποῦ ἐστιν ὁ τεχθεὶς βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων; εἴδομεν γὰρ αὐτοῦ τὸν ἀστέρα ἐν τῇ ἀνατολῇ καὶ ἤλθομεν προσκυνῆσαι αὐτῷ. 3 ἀκούσας δὲ ὁ βασιλεὺς Ἡρῴδης ἐταράχθη καὶ πᾶσα Ἱεροσόλυμα μετ' αὐτοῦ, 4 καὶ συναγαγὼν πάντας τοὺς ἀρχιερεῖς καὶ γραμματεῖς τοῦ λαοῦ ἐπυνθάνετο παρ' αὐτῶν ποῦ ὁ Χριστὸς γεννᾶται. 5 οἱ δὲ εἶπαν αὐτῷ, Ἐν Βηθλέεμ τῆς Ἰουδαίας: οὕτως γὰρ γέγραπται διὰ τοῦ προφήτου:

6 Καὶ σύ, Βηθλέεμ γῆ Ἰούδα,
οὐδαμῶς ἐλαχίστη εἶ ἐν τοῖς ἡγεμόσιν Ἰούδα:
ἐκ σοῦ γὰρ ἐξελεύσεται ἡγούμενος,
ὅστις ποιμανεῖ τὸν λαόν μου τὸνἸσραήλ.

7 Τότε Ἡρῴδης λάθρᾳ καλέσας τοὺς μάγους ἠκρίβωσεν παρ' αὐτῶν τὸν χρόνον τοῦ φαινομένου ἀστέρος, 8 καὶ πέμψας αὐτοὺς εἰς Βηθλέεμ εἶπεν, Πορευθέντες ἐξετάσατε ἀκριβῶς, περὶ τοῦ παιδίου: ἐπὰν δὲ εὕρητε ἀπαγγείλατέ μοι, ὅπως κἀγὼ ἐλθὼν προσκυνήσω αὐτῷ. 9 οἱ δὲ ἀκούσαντες τοῦ βασιλέως ἐπορεύθησαν, καὶ ἰδοὺ ὁ ἀστὴρ, ὃν εἶδον ἐν τῇ ἀνατολῇ, προῆγεν αὐτοὺς, ἕως ἐλθὼν ἐστάθη ἐπάνω οὗ ἦν τὸ παιδίον. 10 ἰδόντες δὲ τὸν ἀστέρα ἐχάρησαν χαρὰν μεγάλην σφόδρα. 11 καὶ ἐλθόντες εἰς τὴν οἰκίαν εἶδον τὸ παιδίον μετὰ Μαρίας τῆς μητρὸς αὐτοῦ, καὶ πεσόντες προσεκύνησαν αὐτῷ, καὶ ἀνοίξαντες τοὺς θησαυροὺς αὐτῶν προσήνεγκαν αὐτῷ δῶρα, χρυσὸν καὶ λίβανον καὶ σμύρναν. 12 καὶ χρηματισθέντες κατ' ὄναρ μὴ ἀνακάμψαι πρὸς Ἡρῴδην, δι' ἄλλης ὁδοῦ ἀνεχώρησαν εἰς τὴν χώραν αὐτῶν.

1 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

6 “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel”.’

7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

For most of us, Christmas is over. The tree and the decorations traditionally come down on 6 January, the Feast of the Epiphany.

As I was doing this at home, I must have been like so many other people: going through the Christmas cards I was taking down, feeling guilty about those I had forgotten to send a card to this Christmas, and then finding I could not remember where I put this year’s Christmas card list, frustrating my efforts to ensure I need not make the same mistake when it comes to Christmas 2014.

Do you think the three wise men were the sort of people Mary and Joseph had on their Christmas Card list when they were in exile in Egypt?

Would they have said thank you to Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar for their presents of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh?

The Visit of the Magi is a popular image for Christmas cards, but very often we have taken down the Christmas cards by now, and so we are left without a visual reminder of what they represent.

Saint Matthew’s phrase “from the east” (ἀπὸ ἀνατολῶν, Matthew 2: 1), more literally means “from the rising [of the sun],” but does not tell us who they were or where they came from.

But tradition develops, and the three wise men have been transformed into kings who have been named as:

● Melchior, a Persian scholar;

● Caspar, an Indian scholar;

● Balthazar, an Arabian scholar.

In Western art from the 14th century on they are portrayed in these ways:

● Caspar is the older man with a long white beard, who is first in line to kneel before the Christ Child and who gives him the gift of gold.

● Melchior is portrayed as a middle-aged man, giving frankincense.

● Balthazar is presented a young man, very often black-skinned, with the gift of myrrh.

Saint Matthew names their gifts as: gold, frankincense, and myrrh: χρυσον (chryson), λιβανον (libanon) and σμυρναν (smyrnan) (see Matthew 2: 11).

These are ordinary offerings and gifts – for a king. But from Patristic times these gifts have been given spiritual meanings:

● Gold as a symbol of Christ’s kingship;

● Frankincense as a symbol of worship and so of Christ’s deity;

● Myrrh as an anointing oil for his priesthood, or as an embalming oil and a symbol of his death.

Origen summarises it in this way: “Gold, as to a king; myrrh, as to one who was mortal; and incense, as to a God” (Contra Celsum).

Sometimes this is described more generally as:

● Gold symbolising virtue;

● Frankincense symbolising prayer;

● Myrrh symbolising suffering.

These interpretations are alluded to by John Henry Hopkins (1820-1891), the son of a Dublin-born Episcopalian bishop, in his carol We Three Kings (# 201, Irish Church Hymnal), in which the last verse summarises this interpretation:

Glorious now behold him arise,
King, and God and Sacrifice
.

Do you think the Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph took those gifts with them as they fled into exile in Egypt?

Several traditions have developed about what happened to these gifts.

There is a tradition that suggests Joseph and Mary used the gold to finance their when they fled.

Another story says the gold was stolen by the two thieves who are later crucified alongside Christ. Yet, another says the gold was entrusted to Judas, who misappropriated it.

And another story says the myrrh was used to anoint Christ’s body after his crucifixion, before his burial.

But whatever the tradition, whatever the myths, whatever the legends may say, the truth they are trying to get at is that Christmas and Epiphany find their full meaning, and their fulfilment in Good Friday and Easter Day, in the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, when we see the Suffering and Risen Christ fully revealed to us as Prophet, Priest and King.

And they challenge us to ask ourselves are we offering our best, or merely our second best to Christ – to Christ in the suffering world, to Christ in the Church, to Christ who is to come again.

It was a challenge that was thrown down over a century and a half ago by John Keble (1792-1866), who concludes his poem Epiphany with these words:

Behold, her wisest throng thy gate,
Their richest, sweetest, purest store,
(Yet owned too worthless and too late,)
They lavish on thy cottage-floor.

They give their best – O tenfold shame
On us their fallen progeny,
Who sacrifice the blind and lame –
Who will not wake or fast with thee!


And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Collect:

O God,
who by the leading of a star
manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth:
Mercifully grant that we, who know you now by faith,
may at last behold your glory face to face;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

Lord God,
the bright splendour whom the nations seek:
May we, who with the wise men
have been drawn by your light,
discern the glory of your presence in your incarnate Son;
who suffered, died, and was buried,
and who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
now and for ever.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was prepared for the Mid-Week Eucharist in Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Ballsbridge, Dublin, on 8 January 2014.