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Saturday 6 January 2024 The Epiphany

Bright and broken

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

By Kevin O’Donnell

A Catholic (and former Anglican) priest, now assisting at the basilica of Notre Dame de Pontmain, France

Context: a congregation of average educational level and of varying levels of commitment in an urban setting

Aim: exploring the darker dimension which sits alongside the brightness of the star, the mysterious nature of the visitors and their shining gifts – here powers are dethroned, hearts are humbled, and broken people reach out for love

Matthew’s story of the visit of the magi, with its bright star and splendid gifts, is integral to the celebrations of the Christmas season, rounding off ‘The Twelve Days’. The stories are deep wells of inspiration, but who were these wise men? Were there three? The text doesn’t exactly say that, but there are three gifts. Later tradition gave them names, Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, while paintings sometimes show them as being of different races and colours of skin, reminding viewers that the gospel is for all nations. In popular culture they became kings but Matthew calls them magi and some very early Christian images show them in Persian dress, implying that they are pagan priests. Whoever exactly Matthew had in mind, the key point is that they were not of the Jewish faith. They too are welcomed, and they too adore the new-born king. As St Paul states in the Epistle today: ‘the Gentiles…now form the same Body and enjoy the same promise in Christ Jesus…’ (Ephesians 3:6)
The text is usually approached as a celebration, rejoicing in the birth and the finding of the Christ. It is a great celebration, but I want to present it differently. The story of the wise men is also about brokenness. By brokenness I mean both positive changes of heart, giving things up, personal sacrifices, and also, sadly, very destructive events which can overtake us. How so?
Firstly, there is the baby Jesus, born in a stable. This is a humble and messy start for a king Messiah. Social status and its attendant pride had been broken, and now something new could arrive, a kingship without pomp and ceremony and vast expense. I’m reminded of an incident at mass (where we can still get preoccupied by ceremonial and etiquette). A eucharistic minister had spilt some of the precious blood while serving the chalice. Afterwards, she crept into the sacristy ashen-faced, ashamed and afraid. The priest reassured her, ‘If Our Lord deigned to be born in a stable, I am sure he can cope with a few drops!’ From the moment of his birth, Christ embraced vulnerability.
Secondly, if we think of the wise men as kings, then their pride was humbled. Kings do not pay homage to another unless they have been militarily conquered. Yet here we see them entering in on bended knee. They had come down from their thrones, as it were. Perhaps we see a glimpse here of the humble service when Jesus washed his disciples’ feet? Or, if the wise men were pagan priests, then they had certainly gone out of their comfort zone and were prepared to risk their traditions and their reputation for a greater light. Their religion, Zoroastrianism, looked forward to the coming of a great Teacher. But from the people of Israel? ‘But that’s foreign!’ you can hear people say. Kings or pagan priests, they were migrants from a distant land who came unexpectedly and were not turned away. They opened their gifts, and in doing so, they showed something of their own hearts. They opened themselves to the Christ in vulnerability.
Thirdly, what of Bethlehem itself? Tragically, just after the magi departed, Herod murdered the infants, and the Holy Family fled. This left a broken place, a broken humanity, and many broken parents. Jesus was born into a world where evil operates all too readily, and the escaped infant would one day be taken to the cross by such darkness. Let us not ignore the darker parts of biblical narratives or we coat the rest in sugar and tinsel. Even today, the city is filled with tensions and suspicions between races and faiths.
Finally, what about today? We can all fail and lose our way, but sometimes people can go into very dark places, perhaps through bereavement, trauma, or some other cause of depression. The story of the Epiphany is relevant for anyone who feels like this, and at some point, we may all suffer in this way. Jesus is not high and mighty, far away, unmoved by the suffering of mere mortals. He was in the straw and just as he knew a touch of love from strangers, so he can give a touch of love to the wounded spirit. He knows where we walk. If we are ashamed to be so frail and depressed, he is not ashamed of us. What can we give, for we have no gold, frankincense, or myrrh? We are ill, unable to do much, if anything. People seem impatient, not understanding, pushing us to the margins and out of sight. We can only offer ourselves, even if weak, broken, feeling unloved. Yet, exposed, honest rawness is worth more than any gold or expensive incense and spices to the Christ. It is priceless.


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