Mother Katherine’s sermon preached on Jan. 2, 2022

Posted by on Sun, Jan 2, 2022 in Christmas, Epiphany, Feast Days, Sermons

The Second Sunday after Christmas Day: The Epiphany

Jan. 2, 2022

The Magi, as Matthew calls them, are not Jewish—they are not planning a move to Jerusalem nor seeking to convert. Yet still they “came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?’” And when Herod hears the news he is frightened enough (along with all Jerusalem) that he summons them requesting he be told the pertinent details when they’ve found the child. We aren’t told why Herod’s own chief priests and scribes didn’t foresee this, and yet God does not always send us on the most direct route, in this case neither metaphorically or literally. The first to hear the news of Jesus’ birth weren’t important leaders or wealthy merchants — it was shepherds. The Magi are next, and I note that Matthew calls them Magi, not kings or Wise Men or even men at all, nor how many there are. They are the next we hear have come to find this infant Messiah; whether they were astronomers of stature or people of great wisdom or even kings (as possibly presaged in Hebrew Scripture), the distance traveled and the gifts they bring tell us these are people of ample means. Through these gospel writers we hear how God’s invitation has gone out to rich and poor, near and far, and even now to those outside of Judaism itself. From the beginning of Jesus’ life, God reaches out to all people. It began this way and continued through Jesus’ life this way, through history and to today. There is no us or them, local or foreign, insider-outsider, it is everyone. Even at his birth, the story begins to show it is Christ and all humankind he comes to love and to save. 

As a faith community centered in Christ we are like the shepherds and the Magi; we have been led here in some way, by a messenger we were willing to trust. We too need to come and see, kneel and give thanks, praise glorify, and then we too will go back out with good news, often unaware of what has happened to us. We cannot help but be changed. Neither the Wise Ones nor shepherds were drawn to the Christ Child by predictable ordinary means, yet they understood the invitation and trusted it enough to go. Luke tells us the shepherds got it from an angel and “a multitude of the heavenly host” who spoke to them amidst their sheep, urging them to get up right then, in the night, and go. The Wise Ones are drawn to him because they “observed his star at it’s rising.” Not by scripture or angels, but through something surprising revealed in their own field of study; a new star, wild enough to tell them something or someone important was being born. A message carried by a star was trustworthy enough to send them all the way ‘from the East’ and laden with great gifts.

It’s possible to get overwhelmed by the gift-giving aspects of Christmas, and we rightly eschew the materialism championed by ever-burgeoning expectations. To my eyes, the focus this year is subtly different, shifted. We are much more aware of the gift of each other, of time close to those we love, of telling the stories of those we love who have died. People are finding ways to be together in celebration and joy, even if online. Mike and I received the gift of virtual tickets to the Nutcracker this year, and even on a screen in our bedroom, it was magical and transfixing. Several have described our live-streamed services as a gift, and many have felt blessed by the Advent Activities, crafts, prayers, and wreaths in ways important and appreciated enough to come back and say so. Although we’ve shopped online more than ever, the emphasis on the relationship seems to outshine material worth or concern. We are changed as we re-evaluate what we care about and where we have seen Christ around us and within us. The rewards of our faith life feel like great gifts—and we’d be here until tomorrow if we counted them all! Remember hearing “Its the thought that counts”? It’s usually said to redirect the receiver (of an odd or unlikely gift) to the intent of the giver, emphasizing the relationship more than the material thing. What is conveyed between giver and receiver in this act? What is conveyed between the Magi and the infant Jesus in this peculiar visit? In today’s gospel the gifts they bring have just such a tone, and are certainly nothing a baby or even his parents would have asked for. I can hear Joseph leaning close and putting a hand on Mary’s hers, and whispering, “I know these are really odd gifts, just smile and accept them; it’s the thought that counts!” 

We are not told why they bring the gifts Matthew tells us of, so we get to do a bit of midrash thinking and learning to fill in what is unexplained. I want to look at just one of them today, the Myrrh. It stands out to me ever since I learned a bit more about it, stirred by an experience on my sabbatical. It was extolled as medicinal, to relieve pain, as an antiseptic, and for embalming a body. Mostly we know it as incense made from resin, or in oil form. The word itself means ‘bitter’ and that’s how it tastes! The sap is harvested by repeatedly wounding the trees so to ‘bleed’ the sap out. The drips become hard and glossy, starting out a pale yellow darkening to oranges and even deep red as it ages, giving the illusion of a tree bleeding. Burnt as incense it smells at once both familiar and exotic, sweet even.

From ancient times it has been highly prized and expensive, and still is. Myrrh is enthused over in the poetry of the Hebrew Scriptures, and it’s also in Exodus, when the Lord tells Moses to use it to make holy anointing oil. “With it you shall anoint the tent of meeting and the ark of the covenant, and the table and all its utensils…” “You shall anoint Aaron and his sons, and consecrate them, in order that they may serve me as priests.” “This shall be my holy anointing-oil throughout your generations. It shall not be used in any ordinary anointing… it is holy, and it shall be holy to you.” In Mark’s gospel we read that Myrrh was mixed with wine and offered to dull the pain at Jesus’ crucifixion, though he did not take it. John’s gospel says Nicodemus brought a hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes to use for Jesus’ burial. 

For an infant it is an odd gift; though for one called ‘King of the Jews’ at both his birth and his death it makes a bittersweet kind of sense. A substance known and used for healing gifted to the one who will heal so many, to the one who brings the ultimate triumph over all pain, brokenness, even death, by his rising. How fitting that at his birth the Myrrh is brought by traveling Gentiles from the East, Magi who are also children of God, and they too were drawn to see the grace and mercy sent in this infant savior to us all.

The star alerted them that something was up. For us, any Epiphany of Christ should be a flag for us that transformation is afoot — not just Easter’s new life, but the mystery of how we are changed by the encounter, by the relationship with him. When we read “They left for their own country by another road” I wonder if their lives changed. Could they have travelled so far, led only by a star, knelt in that barn and paid homage and given their gifts without being changed? T. S. Eliot wrote a poem as if one of them were talking to us and wonderingly revealing how meeting the Christ Child has ended part of who they knew themselves to be. Being born into something new and difficult to understand also meant the death of who they once knew themselves to be.

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?

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods…

from Journey of the Magi, by T. S. Eliot

No, this infant Messiah doesn’t make life especially easy for us or any more comfortable. In fact the closer we are to Christ the more we may feel the un-ease, perhaps dis-ease, of being in a world which seems determined to put so very much above and ahead of him. What have been the gifts from God in this difficult year? Where have you found yourself ignoring the ordinary in order to receive the extraordinary in Christ? In doing so each becomes the gift-giver of what was found in that Bethlehem stable.

© 2022 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved. Posted with permission.