06 January 2022

What gifts are we given?
What gifts do we bring to
the Christ Child at Epiphany?

The Magi arrive at the Crib … a scene in a shop window in Askeaton, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

Thursday 6 January 2022 (The Epiphany):

11 am: Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, the Epiphany Eucharist

Followed by traditional Epiphany chalking of the church doors and the doors of the Rectory.

Readings: Isaiah 60: 1-6; Psalm 72: 1-7, 10-15; Ephesians 3: 1-12; Matthew 2: 1-12.

There is a link to the readings HERE.

The Magi arriving at the Crib in Saint Brendan’s Church, Tarbert, Co Kerry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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

The Twelfth Day of Christmas is the day, traditionally, that the Christmas decorations come down. But over the next few weeks, the Epiphany readings in the Lectionary remind us that the Christmas story is not just about the Crib and the Christmas or Nativity stories, but about God coming to dwell among us, and pointing from the beginning towards the promise and revelation to all nations, to all people.

Epiphany is part and parcel of the Christmas celebrations, with two more important Epiphany events to mark in the coming weeks:

● the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan, which we read about next Sunday (Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22, Sunday 9 January 2022, Epiphany I).

● the Wedding Feast in Cana (John 2: 1-11, Sunday 16 January 2022, Epiphany II).

But this morning’s Epiphany Gospel symbolises the Gentiles coming to Christ, and bowing before him in worship, laying their gifts and treasurers at his feet. It is a reminder that Christ was made manifest to all nations and to the peoples of the earth.

The promise of Isaiah (Isaiah 60: 1-6) after the return to Jerusalem is that the ‘nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn … the wealth of the nations shall come to you. A multitude of camels shall cover you’ (Isaiah 60: 3, 5-6).

The images in the Psalm (Psalm 72: 1-7, 10-15) of the kings across the known universe coming to visit the king in Jerusalem after the return from exile in the Persia empire also inspired Saint Matthew’s account of the visit of the magi.

Saint Paul reminds us in our Epistle reading (Ephesians 3: 1-12) of the promises in Christ being brought as gifts to the Gentiles and in the Gospel we are reminded of the Gentiles bringing their gifts to Christ and worshipping him with all they have.

In this Epistle reading, Saint Paul’s ‘few words’ about the ‘mystery’ referred to in verse 3 ask us to turn back a few pages (see Ephesians 1: 8-10) to the place in this letter where he says God ‘God has made known to us the mystery of his will’ (μυστήριον τοῦ θελήματος)’

The word ‘mystery’ (μυστήριον, mysterion) refers to something hidden, a secret or religious mystery, not known to uninitiated, ordinary people. The Church came to use this word to refer to a sacrament, particularly to the Eucharist.

In many Churches, when we celebrate the Eucharist on Sundays at this time of the year, we are inviting people to approach Christ, in an Epiphany celebration, to lay our gifts before him, and to meet him in this sacred mystery.

The Magi, as the ‘Three Kings’ or ‘Three Wise Men,’ are regular figures in traditional Epiphany celebrations. Despite these traditions, Saint Matthew does not count the number of wise men, although the number of their gifts gives rise to the tradition that there were three Magi.

The magi or Persian wise men or priests then become kings, and we have even named them: Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar.

In our cribs, they are often portrayed as European, African and Asian, with the European giving gold and the other two giving myrrh and frankincense.

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

As the tradition developed, the three wise men 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 portrayed as a middle-aged man, giving frankincense.

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

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.

Do you think the Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph took those gifts with them as they fled into exile in Egypt? There is a tradition that suggests Joseph and Mary used the gold to finance their escape 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 what gifts to we offer today to God through Christ? Do we offer God our best? Do we see the gifts we have in life as gifts that God has given to us in love, and that we too, in humility, can offer to the Christ-Child, seen in the poor and the hungry, the lonely and the lowly, the marginalised and the oppressed.

And do we accept the gifts being offered to God in the whole world by the whole world, and not just in the Church. If the three wise men were to walk in here today with their gifts, would be welcome them coming from all nations and all ethnic backgrounds, with tastes, smells and sounds that seem strange but that affirm God’s love for the whole of humanity?

For too long, the Church turned away and spurned the gifts being offered by women, by those seen as unacceptable because of their ethnicity, social background, gender or sexuality?

Whose gifts and innate goodness do we decline or even spurn today?

And, once again, what gifts have we to offer, but are reluctant to recognise, to affirm in ourselves, to recognise and affirm in others?

It is a challenge 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.

The Adoration of the Magi … an image in Saint Mary’s Church, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

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 Magi and the Christmas Crib scene in a shop window in Askeaton, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Liturgical Colour: White (or Gold)

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.

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.

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)


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 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 Blessing:

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

The Epiphany in a stained glass window in the Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, Kilmallock, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)


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)

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

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

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