Sunday, 6 January 2019

‘They saw the child with Mary his mother;
and they knelt down and paid him homage’

The visit of the Magi in the sixth century Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 6 January 2019

The Feast of the Epiphany

11.30 a.m.: The Epiphany Eucharist (Holy Communion 2), Saint Brendan’s Church, Kilnaughtin (Tarbert), Co Kerry.

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

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

We have completed the 12 days of Christmas.

‘On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me:

‘12 drummers drumming …
‘11 pipers piping …
‘10 lords a-leaping …
‘9 ladies dancing …’

And on and on it goes. Not very useful gifts at all, as Frank Kelly reminded us in his parody of this song as Gobnait Ó Lúnasa.

But this morning, in our Epiphany Gospel reading (Matthew 2: 1-12), we remember the Three Wise Men, the Three Kings or the Three Magi, who brought their true gifts to the Christ Child in the Manger.

In many parts of Ireland, today is also known as both ‘Little Christmas’ and as Nollaig na mBan or ‘Women’s Christmas.’

This makes it appropriate to refer to a popular joke on social media that asks: ‘Do you know what would have happened if it had been Three Wise Women instead of Three Wise Men?’

The answer is:

‘They would have asked for directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole, brought practical gifts … and there would be Peace On Earth.’

Many of us have probably put Christmas behind us at this stage. We’ve probably taken down the tree, the decorations and the holly. Why, we have probably even forgotten our New Year’s resolutions too.

So, why should we remember this morning’s story of the visit of the three Wise Men? And how practical were their gifts?

Although Saint Matthew does not mention the number of wise men, the number of gifts they gave to the Christ Child has given rise to the popular tradition that there were three Magi.

I received Christmas greetings a few weeks ago from a friend, an icon-writer, who lives in Crete. For fun, I decided to run her message in Greek through Google Translate. And I was disturbed that it translated the three Magi as the three Wizards.

Our Old Testament reading (Isaiah 60: 1-6) and Psalm (Psalm 72: 1-7, 10-14) speak of gifts given by kings and of the Messiah being worshipped by kings.

Saint Matthew’s account was reinterpreted in the light of these prophecies, and so the magi became kings rather than Persian wise men or priests. Perhaps this interpretation was influenced by the negative image of magi not in the Old Testament but in the New Testament.

The magi were members of the Persian priestly or religious caste. In the Old Testament, for example, the magi or wise men are led by Daniel (see Daniel 2: 48). But the same term later has negative connotation when it is used in the Acts of the Apostles to describe the sorcery of Simon Magus (Acts 8: 9-13) and the magic of Elymas (Acts 13: 6-11).

As the tradition developed, the three wise men in this Gospel story were 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 a middle-aged man, giving frankincense.

● Balthazar is 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) (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.

Saint John Chrysostom suggests that these gifts were appropriate not just for a king but for God.

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 our carol We Three Kings (Hymn 201), 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 these gifts with them as they fled into exile in Egypt?

Do you think they sent thank-you cards when they got to Egypt, or when they eventually got back to Bethlehem?

Several traditions have developed about what happened to these gifts.

There is a tradition that suggests Joseph and Mary used the gold to finance them 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.

But in the Monastery of Saint Paul on Mount Athos, there is a 15th century golden case that is said to contain the Gift of the Magi.

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

But whatever the traditions, whatever the myths, whatever the legends may say, the truth they are trying to get across 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 whether we are 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.

What gifts do we have to offer Christ?

If strangers came offering gifts to the Church, would we allow them to do so?

What gifts do you have that you think the Church is not recognising, but that are gifts for Christ, that could help the whole Church to look forward in the Easter hope?

Christmas is not over yet. It does not end with our Epiphany readings this morning. There are two more important Epiphany events in the coming weeks:

● the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan, which we read about next Sunday [Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22; 13 January 2019]

● the Wedding Feast in Cana, which we read about on Sunday week [John 2: 1-11; 20 January 2019].

In fact, Christmas continues as a season in the Church until Candlemas or the Feast of the Presentation on 2 February, and which we read about on the first Sunday in February [Luke 2: 22-40 or 21-30; 3 February 2019].

On the feast of the Presentation, Mary and Joseph bring the Christ Child to the Temple, along with their meek gifts to offer to God, two turtle doves or two pigeons.

Their simple, poor gifts are acceptable to God, and the old priest Simeon realises that the Christ Child is born as ‘a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel’ (Luke 2: 32).

No matter what gifts we bring, how rich or humble we are, they are acceptable to God. And the Christ Child is God’s gift to all humanity.

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

‘Star of Bethlehem’ (1887-1890) by Edward Burn-Jones (1833-1898) … the largest watercolour of the 19th century, and now in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

Matthew 2: 1-12 (NRSVA):

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.

The Visit of the Magi seen on a panel on the triptych in the Lady Chapel in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical Colour: White (or Gold)

The 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.

The 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.

The Penitential Kyries:

God be merciful to us and bless us,
and make his face to shine on us.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

May your ways be known on earth,
your saving power to all nations.

Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

You, Lord, have made known your salvation,
and reveal your justice in the sight of the nations.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Introduction to the Peace:

Our Saviour Christ is the Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
there shall be no end. (cf Isaiah 9: 6, 7)

Preface:

For Jesus Christ our Lord
who in human likeness revealed your glory,
to bring us out of darkness
into the splendour of his light:

The Blessing:

Christ the Son be manifest to you,
that your lives may be a light to the world:

Hymns:

202, What child is this, who laid to rest (CD 13)
201, We three kings of Orient are (CD 13)
189, As with gladness men of old (CD 12)

‘Chalking the Doors’ on the Feast of the Epiphany at the Rectory in Askeaton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Chalking the Doors: an Epiphany tradition

We introduced the Epiphany tradition of ‘Chalking the Doors’ at Saint Mary’s Rectory in Askeaton, Co Limerick, last year. I was first introduced to this Epiphany tradition when I was visiting Westcott House, the Anglican theological college in Cambridge some years ago.

The formula for this traditional rite – adapted for Epiphany 2019 – is simple. Take chalk and write these letters and figures above the doors into the Church or the house: 20 + C + M + B + 19.

The letters have two meanings. Firstly, they represent the initials of the Three Wise Men or Magi – Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar – who came to visit the Christ Child in his first home.

Secondly, they also abbreviate the Latin phrase, Christus mansionem benedicat, ‘May Christ bless the house.’

The ‘+’ figures signify the cross, and the figures ‘20’ at the beginning and ‘19’ at the end mark the year.

Taken together, this inscription is a request for Christ to bless the building that has been marked, church or home, and that he may stay with those who worship or live there throughout the entire year.

The chalking of the doors is a centuries-old practice throughout the world, though it appears to be somewhat less well-known in Ireland. But it is an easy tradition to adopt, and a good symbol of dedicating the New Year to God from the beginning, asking his blessing on our homes and on all who live, work, or visit here.

The timing for chalking the doors varies from place to place. In some places, it happens on New Year’s Day. More commonly, though, it takes place on the Feast of the Epiphany, 6 January, the Twelfth Day of Christmas.

In many places, the chalking takes place after the Epiphany Eucharist or Liturgy, and it can be carried out at any church, home or dwelling. Traditionally, the blessing is done by either a priest or the father of the family. This blessing can involve simply writing the inscription and offering a short prayer, or more elaborately, including songs, prayers, processions, the burning of incense, and the sprinkling of holy water.

After many Epiphany Masses, satchels of blessed chalk, incense, and containers of Epiphany water, blessed with special blessings for Epiphany, are distributed. These are then brought home and used to perform the ritual.

Another common practice is to save a few grains of the Epiphany incense until Easter, so that it can be burned along with the Easter candle.

The Wise Men on their way to Bethlehem … a scene at the ‘Live Crib’ in Astee, near Ballybunion, Co Kerry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Prayers and blessings:

Blessing the Chalk:

Priest: Our help is the name of the Lord:

All: The maker of heaven and earth.

Priest: The Lord shall watch over our going out and our coming in:

All: From this time forth for evermore.

Priest: Let us pray.

Loving God, bless this chalk which you have created, that it may be helpful to your people; and grant that through the invocation of your most Holy Name that we who use it in faith to write upon the door of our church the names of your holy ones Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, may receive health of body and protection of soul for all who dwell in or visit our church; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Blessing the Church:

Using the blessed chalk, mark the lintels of the doors as follows: 20 + C + M + B + 19, while saying:

The three Wise Men, Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar followed the star of God’s Son who became human two thousand and nineteen years ago. May Christ bless our home and remain with us throughout the new year. Amen.

Then this prayer:

Visit, O blessed Lord, this church with the gladness of your presence. Bless all who live or visit here with the gift of your love; and grant that we may manifest your love to each other and to all whose lives we touch. May we grow in grace and in the knowledge and love of you; guide, comfort, and strengthen us in peace, O Jesus Christ, now and forever. Amen.

Christus mansionem benedictat.

May Christ bless the church.

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org



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