St Andrew’s Parish of Indooroopilly
The Feast of Epiphany
Sunday 5 January 2020
Aligning heaven and earth ©Sue Grimmett
The sign of a star in the sky is full of symbolic power. Perhaps it is because in amongst darkness is when they shine the brightest. As in our country we face catastrophic bushfires which have taken lives and destroyed habitats, and continue to leave many in fear as the heavens are obscured by smoke, perhaps the star we find in this story as we celebrate Epiphany could be a hopeful sign. Images coming from the bushfires are being frequently described as ‘apocalyptic’ or ‘hell on earth’. In the Gospel story we have the image instead of heaven and earth aligned. What can we find in this story of a guiding star and foreign pilgrims and a few strange gifts to speak to us this day?
Of course the signs are not interpreted the same way by all the characters in the Gospel story. The wise ones from the East come filled with joyful expectation, but the star has the opposite effect on King Herod, who is filled with murderous intent. The prophetic possibilities are threatening to his power and control, and the transcendent presence and mystery is missed, as it always is, by the primal urgency of fear. There is always the choice available to us, too, to listen to the voice of our fear and turn away from the visitation of God.
Where Herod sought to destroy a perceived threat, these wise men became icons of Gentile perception and receptivity to this unexpected incursion of the divine. For the writer of Matthew’s Gospel, these visitors proclaim Jesus as a king whose reign of peace is for the whole earth. They recognise in the promised child a fulfilment of human longing- that God and humanity are reconciled. Rejoicing, they give gifts that recognise Jesus’ identity: gold for a human king, frankincense for divinity and myrrh foreshadowing his redemptive death.
Gift-giving can reveal our own nature as well as show our understanding of the one to whom we offer a gift. We know this instinctively whenever we scour shops and catalogues for that perfect something for someone we know well and love dearly. It is a way of making our love of someone visible.
G.K Chesterton famously took issue once with Mary Baker Eddy, a Christian Scientist who told the press that at Christmas she never gave gifts to friends or family but rather meditated on Truth and Purity so that her friends would feel the benefit. Chesterton, however, told her roundly that she was being unchristian because the whole point of the incarnation was to embody goodwill. Gift-giving is a material way of expressing relational love: of showing that we know and are known, that we love and are loved. Christ himself can be seen as a Christmas present, a human embodiment of divine love.1
So this Epiphany, where a star and child are in alignment, the question may be, “How do we become a gift to the world, to bring heaven and earth into alignment through our lives?” At this time of fear and loss, where can we find hope? So many in our country are feeling such despair. Where is our guiding light?
Just as the choice of gifts by the wise ones from the East were symbolic of the narrative the Gospel writer is weaving, so too the gifts that we bring need to be part of a larger narrative. I believe our culture is starved of narrative and symbol. An individualistic self-focussed culture robs us of the deeper connection to the great sweep of history and the wider human story; we all need to find our place in the collective dreaming of humanity if we to be able to live a life of meaning beyond ourselves and our short time on earth. Consumerism and hyper-competitive isolationism will no longer serve us. A culture which has lost its dreaming will struggle to respond to a crisis such as the one we face now.
The gifts the magi brought are not only seen as symbols of kingship, divinity and redemptive death. Poets have found meaning in the gold as
human virtue, frankincense as prayer and myrrh as a willingness to sacrifice; three gifts that could shape a courageous life of self-giving love and bring hope to a fearful world. But a commitment to human virtue, a life of prayer and self-giving are not the kinds of gifts we talk easily about. Life is difficult and complex and we find it difficult to live up to our own best selves, aligning our values and our actions: something witnessed to by the failure of most New Year’s resolutions. So how could can embody lives of virtue, prayer and self-giving love in the here and now?
The magi recognised in the child Jesus, the alignment of heaven and earth, and the only fit response was to worship, offering gifts of love. The text tells us they were overwhelmed with joy, but soon this story would bring terror as Herod acts in violence and paranoia, murdering innocent children. Then, as now, hope sits close to despair. As human beings we walk through days of darkness, which is why we need to see ourselves as embodying a greater story that is big enough to carry us through the times of darkness.
The greater story of love is that we have been found as we are, in our violence and confusion, in our failed resolutions and our desire for more. Into this world as it is, a child has been given. In recognising the identity of the holy one amongst us, we are also given the gift of seeing the divine all around us- in ourselves, one another and in this earth we call home. This recognition can come with immense sadness as we feel the pain of others and the harm done to creation. But it also comes with the recognition of the sacred ties of relationship that hold us all and a promise that death does not have the last word. We are enabled to bring our offerings of acts of kindness, work for justice, the power of encouraging words, a healing touch and persistent faith to our shared story- a story that does not begin and end in our single individual life. It is this collective story which our self-giving God has entered, aligning heaven with earth and giving us the courage to offer to one another and the world the gift of ourselves, and in doing so, make love visible.
as we witness the tragedy and destruction of bushfires, and grieve all that we have lost,
Help us to see with fresh appreciation
The beauty and purpose of all creation.
Surround those whose loved ones have died
with your tender compassion.
Give hope to those whose homes and livelihoods have been lost, courage to those who are facing fires this day
and strength for those whose energy is failing.
Inspire in us all generosity and solidarity as we face this crisis together, so that we may with one voice
lament the devastation and loss
to all living creatures and habitats.
May we regard the world with renewed tenderness.
May we walk gently on this earth,
and may we bring forth gifts of wisdom
and healing for our land.
We ask this through Jesus, the human one,
whose coming was for all creation. Amen.
1 John Shea, Following Love into Mystery: The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers, (Liturgical Press, Minnesota, 2010) p 59