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Friday 6 January 2023 The Epiphany

Context: a congregation consisting mainly of adults in a medium-sized Catholic parish on the South Coast of England

Aim: to encourage people to reflect on the inclusivity of the Gospel message

By Tony Milner

Parish Priest in Arundel & Brighton Diocese

All Are Welcome!

Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

At about this time of year a lot of memes appear in a priest’s social media feeds speculating about what three wise women would have brought to the Nativity. Nappies, a casserole, and a supply of gin and tonic are among the things that have been suggested.

Mind you, Matthew does not actually tell us they were all men. Nor indeed does he say that there were three of them. We get this from later tradition, which also gives them names (Casper, Melchior, and Balthasar), different ages (one a youth, one middle-aged, and one elderly), different places of origin, (Arabia, Persia, and India) and, therefore, a variety of skin colours. These have then been set in stone (or rather paint) by western art.

While I am busy debunking stuff, we should also note that the Gospel does not call them ‘kings’, and Matthew does not say they turn up at the stable on the night of the Nativity itself. By the time they arrive Jesus and Mary are in a house, not a stable, and Joseph is not mentioned at all. Perhaps he was at work at the time! Given Matthew later tells us that Herod orders the slaughter of all the children under two (Matthew 2:16), it could be as much as two years later. Our school nativities combine the stories from Matthew and Luke, as well as some traditions from outside the gospels. (There are no innkeepers or animals mentioned either, but that is for another day).

Why bother with all this debunking?

Well, for one, it can help us look afresh at what the Gospel does say. That is not to say that all these traditions are useless, or worse, misleading. But it is good to look at the story afresh.

So, a group of religious astrologers (that is what ‘magi’ likely refers to), having seen a celestial sign, interpret it as indicating the birth of a new ‘King of the Jews’. Accordingly, they, logically, go to the current holder of that title to find out where he is and to ‘do him homage’.

The story that follows is full of irony. Herod and indeed ‘all Jerusalem’, are ‘frightened’. From what follows it is clear they are aware of the prophecies of the coming of the Messiah, the Christ. But they greet the message that this is being fulfilled not with joy, but with fear! So, the ‘outsiders’ – the Magi – respond correctly to this news, seeking to ‘do him homage’, while the ‘insiders’ – Herod and Jerusalem – see it as a threat.

And it is here we connect with a key theme of the New Testament. Jesus is rejected by those who are closest to him: his own townspeople and his own religious leaders. It is above all the outsiders, the ‘sinners and tax collectors’ who respond positively to him. Similarly, when Paul’s preaching is rejected in the synagogues, he turns to the ‘outsiders’, the Gentiles, with the Good News (compared with, for example, Acts 13:13-48). Indeed, writing to the Romans, Paul interprets this as part of God’s plan so that the message might reach all humanity (Romans 9-11).

This brings us back to our story. For the Epiphany is a celebration of the truth that the incarnation, the coming of the Messiah, was not just for the Jewish people. It is for the Gentiles also. As we read in the Letter to the Ephesians ‘the Gentiles have become fellow heirs’ (3:6). And that means the Gospel is for everyone, since a Gentile is simply someone who is not a Jew. In that sense, portraying the Magi as from different places and of different ages actually strengthens that message of universality. Perhaps we should continue that development by depicting them as mixed in gender also. School nativities often do this anyway!

The scandal of the inclusivity of the Gospel message is a challenge to us. The Epiphany reminds us that everybody is welcome. Whatever race, class, colour, creed, gender, past history, orientation, political opinion. The only thing that is excluded is exclusivity!

Some may say: ‘Yes, but their lifestyle contradicts the Gospel’. But while it is true that all are called to conversion, it is not for us to point fingers. Let the one without sin cast the first stone. Take the plank out of your own eye before removing the speck from some someone else’s. And that, of course, means that we are welcome, too. You and me. With all our history, with all the compromises we have made. With all the baggage we carry. With all our mistakes and downright failures to do what we know to be good.

So let us travel, with those astrologers, along with countless others, to meet our God, revealed in an infant in Bethlehem.

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