SERMON PREACHED BY FR. TONY NOBLE
ON JANUARY 4th, 2009
Isaiah 60:3 “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.”
This and other prophecies in the Old Testament have always been understood as looking towards this day we celebrate – the arrival of these wise-men at the baby Jesus in Bethlehem. Despite the well-known carol: “The twelve days of Christmas” many people do not realise that the visit of the three kings comes quite sometime after Christmas day. January 6th is the official day, and it is kept with local traditions in places such as Mexico and Bavaria.
In the Eastern Orthodox Churches the Feast of the Epiphany is more important than Christmas – in fact December 25th passes and they look forward with great joy to January 6th. In the Episcopal Church our calendar acknowledges this by naming Sundays from now until Lent “After Epiphany” rather than “After Christmas”.
However, in most of the English speaking world three kings are part of Christmas day. The carols sung in December always include those referring to the kings, Christmas cards often have the three kings, and outdoor displays and shop windows always have the three kings standing near the manger at Bethlehem. Good Anglo-Catholic parishes like ours avoid this, or try to – the three kings are usually at the east end of the Church on Christmas day, and we omit verses in carols that refer to “Star-led Chieftans”, etc.
There is good reason for this. Not only is the visit of the kings in accord with Saint Matthew’s Gospel and its description of the birth of Christ – but also there is a deeper meaning implicit in these mysterious Magi that take us beyond Christmas.
Of course we don’t know that there were three. The tradition has arisen because of the three gifts. They have various names – Astrologers, Wise-men, Kings but perhaps the most significant is the word Magi, coming from the Latin word “Magnus” meaning “great”. In the Eastern world, these three imposing people were great indeed – philosophers and astrologers, thewise-men of that era, were seen as the great ones of their community and society. And with their rich clothing, turbans, and camels, they add to the mystery of that Christmas event.
But their significance is more than just mystery – and is indicated by the ancient title of this feast” “Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles”. For this occasion is the first time our Blessed Lord has been shown to Gentiles. Since nearly most of this congregation are gentiles – therefore they represent us. I don’t know if you ever thought of the three kings as representing us, but consider – we are not descendants of Abraham by birth. The Church is the new Israel, but we are only descendents of Abraham spiritually.
On Christmas day all those involved – Mary, Joseph, the Shepherds, and the Inn-Keeper – are children of the Old Covenant. Now these three persons appear from the East – and they mirror our Christian journey, being Gentiles. The Jews had expected a Messiah for themselves, who would release Israel from its captivity, and lead them to the promised kingdom first made to King David. One who would be their leader and Saviour.
But in believing that he was only sent for the House of Israel, their expectations were too small. They didn’t have a big enough dream.
These three star-gazers, who dream dreams and follow their dream, show a bigger dream for the world. It can happen with us. For today in this event God is busy fulfilling a dream for us bigger than we dare dream.
These Magi represent different cultures and races in a world where such differences were important. But in their appearing they also give a hint of the prophecy that Jesus uttered in Luke 13: 29: “Men will come from the East and West, and North and South, and sit at table in the Kingdom of God”. And today they do, even before Jesus reminds us that this is the mission of the Gospel.
The great doctor of the Church, Saint Augustine, takes up this theme and says: “Perhaps this was the reason why, twelve days after the birth of Christ, the Magi, the first fruits of the Gentiles, came to see and to worship Christ; and were found worthy not only to receive their own salvation, but also to symbolise the salvation of all the Gentiles”.
This dimension is probably lost – for we mainly associate them with a star and three gifts. What is even more significant is that they actually left on the journey in the first place. If they came from Africa, Persia, and Arabia, as tradition suggests, the journey was both long and arduous. Think of them that winter, gazing at the stars, marking astrological charts, wondering where their journey would end. Important men, respected for their knowledge – we know their arrival at Herod’s court caused quite a stir.
All this adds to the significance of their part in the Christmas story. Being intellectually and spiritually curious (as all astrologers are) surely they were prompted by the Holy Spirit to go on the journey – and at the journey’s end to find nothing less than God himself. And perhaps they had a sense that the great Creator was doing something new.
Would we be so willing to follow God’s prompting or leading in our own lives? Yet these three people – not even Jews, with perhaps only an academic interest in the God of Hebrews – followed both their hearts and their minds. In following this path they came across something unexpected. The promised Messiah was nothing less than a baby in a manger.
Would we embrace a similar experience?
Even in the questions we have about what 2009 holds for us, we still have our own ideas of what the future will bring. How many times have we prayed for something – and found that God had an answer we had not imagined?
So today the Magi have a lesson for us. If like them we allow God to lead us on our journey – then he will be with us, as well as ahead of us, in this year of Our Lord 2009.