Epiphany Sunday 5th January 2020 – Matthew 2, 1-12
Revd Canon Leonard Doolan – St Paul’s Athens
Most of the well-known Christmas narratives come from St. Luke’s gospel, but for the Feast we call Epiphany, Christ being revealed to the Magi, or Wise Men, we look to St. Matthew for the sharing of the details.
These visitors to the crib are a stark contrast to the shepherds, not only in wealth and background, but also in the slow astronomical calculations that lead them to the place where Christ is born. The shepherds heard the message of the angels in the sky and ran; the Magi spotted a significant star and plotted their course. There is, if you like, a message to each of us in the response of these two groups. Some people find the pathway to faith quite natural and trouble free; others are slower for faith to mature, and the intellectual processes create an arduous, even tortured, journey into belief.
So it is. What matters is that we are journeying towards the same Christ who is the Word of God who comes among us, and the same Christ whose cross is the point of our reconciliation with God our Creator. There is no harm in a mystery being exciting; there is no harm in a mystery demanding much thoughtful debate. Quite the opposite, there is only joy waiting to be discovered
St. Matthew shares information about the gifts that are brought by the Magi; gold, frankincense and myrrh. This is quite a ‘baby shower’ as Americans might refer to it. Each gift is calculated to be symbolic – it seems they are not chosen at random. Majesty, sacrifice and death seem to be the message foretold in the gifts. The child in the manger is King of Kings, and Lord of Lords – for him the majesty of the minerals of kings. Sacrifice – incense is the smell of the temple where the sacrifices of the priests take place. This child is destined to be the new Temple, and his priesthood and sacrifice removes the need for any further sacrifice. Death – from the moment of his birth, death is in the air. Myrrh is for the embalming of a body. Mary is told that a sword will pierce her own heart because her child will suffer and will transform the suffering of the world.
The child in the manger is King of Kings, and Lord of Lords – for him the majesty of the minerals of kings. Sacrifice – incense is the smell of the temple where the sacrifices of the priests take place. This child is destined to be the new Temple, and his priesthood and sacrifice removes the need for any further sacrifice. Death – from the moment of his birth, death is in the air. Myrrh is for the embalming of a body. Mary is told that a sword will pierce her own heart because her child will suffer and will transform the suffering of the world.
I looked up the Greek for 2 of these three gifts, to discover with delight that incense is λιβανός (the name Lebanon), and myrrh is σμύρνα (the Greek city in Asia Minor, Smyrni, now Izmir, a city that will always be associated by the Greeks as a place of persecution, suffering and death).
These then are the 3 gifts of the Magi. In many of our Christmas and Epiphany hymns we sing of these gifts and their meaning. One of the best known is ‘In the bleak mid-winter’ whose final verse is
What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb.
If I were a wise man, I would do my part.
Yet what I am I give him, give my heart.
The final line is, of course, a challenge to all of us at the start of this New Year, and at this Epiphany, to consider again our response to the glory of God revealed in Christ in Bethlehem. However I would like to take this challenge just a little further to ask what gifts we bring to the Christ in the crib, who is the cosmic Christ our great high priest, and foundation stone of the church? What are the distinctive gifts that we as Anglicans bring to Jesus?
Later this year hundreds of Anglican bishops from our global Anglican family will gather in Canterbury at the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is the principal bishop of our whole Anglican ‘koinonia’, our Anglican ‘household’. This holy gathering of our bishops is called the Lambeth Conference, and happens every ten years. These five or six hundred bishops represent the mind and practice of a significant part of Christ’s church here on earth, offering a distinctive understanding of the very nature of what the church is. Among the bishops there will be differing views on many issues. I don’t recall the synods of the early church being places of quiet acceptance, but of robust debate, and sometimes real conflict.
However there are four guiding principles that will have formed the minds and hearts of these bishops when they gather, and which are the very core of our Anglican identity. On this Epiphany Sunday I would like to offer these as four gifts to present before our Christ.
These four principles are referred to as the ‘Lambeth Quadrilateral’. This started out its life known as the ‘Chicago Statement’ and the four principles of the early statement were: Scripture, Tradition, Episcopacy, Sacraments. This was reviewed, revised and matured over decades, and the 4 principles are now: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, Experience. These four principles guide the Anglican church in all its national and ethnic forms whether you are an Anglican in New Zealand, or Rwanda, Cyprus, Poland, England, and even here in Greece. Perhaps a very brief word about why each principle is so essential, and over the next few weeks I will develop each one a little more.
Scripture is the historic word of God as received by both in Jewish and Christian tradition. These are historic documents, but in faith we believe them to be God-inspired, and as relevant to the church and our lives now as when they were written. The Anglican Church is deeply rooted in scripture – our worship is nearly all taken directly from the bible, or to be found in biblical imagery. We are a church that is a child of the Reformation, and at the heart of the Reformation is the bible.
Tradition. The great insights of the Reformation permitted the western church, dominated by the Church of Rome, to discover again the texts of scripture in Greek, and the writings of the early fathers of the undivided church. We connected again with our ancient foundations. As a distinctive part of the Reforming spirit that spread across Europe, we remained faithful to the patterns of the New Testament church, and the unbroken traditions of bishops, priests, deacons, sacraments, prayer. Thus as Anglicans we are uniquely catholic and reformed.
Reason. Christian theology has always encouraged thought, and intellectual energy. The early fathers are proof of this with their profound writings. The reformation began to make intellectual demands on the inherited faith, and deep questions were being asked about the received beliefs and practices. The Enlightenment and scientific discoveries placed huge question marks over inherited world views that had been supported by the church, and other influences such as the Industiral Revolution and biblical criticism, all required us to be a church that was willing to think, willing to debate, willing to balance scripture, tradition with the development of the human mind. If scripture can be God-inspired, so too can the mind.
Lastly Experience. If we are not open to the possibilities of things being different, then we run the risk of being left behind, just as parts of the church were left behind at the reformation, at the Enlightenment etc. We have a phrase ecclesia semper reformanda , a church always open to reform. Human experience is one area where the church must have an open mind and an open heart to new anthropological discoveries. This will always be a challenge to church, but we must offer our insights from scripture, tradition, and reason to the huge global debates that are current, or we run the risk of being considered irrelevant. We have deep insights about the human person that need to be heard alongside other views.
So, in an insultingly brief overview, these are the gifts that we as Anglicans offer to the life of the whole of Christ’s church here on earth. As the Magi followed a star to the Christ-child, so we follow our guiding principles. I believe these to be gifts that honour the glory and majesty of Christ, and are also a precious gift of our won tradition to the life of the whole church in all her parts.
What I can I give him, give my heart. This is a challenge to each of us. What do we together as Anglicans give to honour Him? I hope we lay these gifts of Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience, as gifts worthy of the altar of our High Priest.