Sermon by the Rev. Lisa Smith Fry
The Feast of the Epiphany
Sunday, January 7, 2018
Researchers at Cardiff University in Wales who have been studying the medical uses of frankincense, postulate that the Magi gave frankincense to Jesus to save him from arthritis. You can’t make this stuff up.
The Magi gave Mary and the child gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Now, on the face of it, these were gifts that had practical purpose. Gold is always helpful to a young family, struggling to eke out an existence.
Frankincense gives fragrance to a home, but more importantly, it is also used in worship, during ritual fragrant sacrifice.
Myrrh was a spice used in embalming. Death was a part of every family’s life, and the care of recently deceased family members was the family’s responsibility. Myrrh was the spice that was used when wrapping the body after death.
So as Money and Fragrance offering and Embalming fluid, these gifts had an immediate practical purpose. But their full meaning was only evident later.
When Mary took the gifts, she may have sensed that they were rich gifts, fit for a king, but couldn’t yet see the final symbolic meaning behind them.
It isn’t until a story is completed, that the hidden symbolism is fully known.
So– if you were to write a story of your own birth narrative–what would your birth gifts show about how you lived your life as a child of God– in hindsight, if you looked back on your life?
An interesting question, so —-I looked back into my own baby book.
It’s full of Baby’s ‘firsts’: baby’s first tooth (6 months), first drink from a cup (4 months) first step—well… I think you get this… So, imagine my surprise when I saw Baby’s first gifts…it really was right there.
Want to know what MY first gifts were? And there were 3, coincidently.
A dress. A ball. A lollipop. And I received them from the 3 wisest people I knew at the time: my parents, my neighbor, and my sister.
So—I thought I’d play a little game: if I were looking at these gifts and giving them symbolic meaning that would speak about me and my life so far— what might they symbolize?
A dress: to remind me that it isn’t so much what clothes me on the outside that matters—what’s important is what clothes me on the inside. (I’m sure you can think of others, but that’s the one I came up with.)
A Ball: a tough toy to break, its resilience lies in its ability to roll, and in its ability to be thrown but not broken. Not bad…..
A lollipop. take time for sweetness—take time to savor that which is sweet in life.
But back to the story. This story seems to have been written for our benefit. It has a dual purpose—it reminds of the gifts given to Christ—and how he ultimately used them, AND it reminds us of what has been given to us and challenges us to use our gifts.
But the Magi, the gifts –this whole story is a story only found in one Gospel: Matthew. Paul’s letters, our earliest existing Christian writing, seem to contain no knowledge of this amazing narrative.
This leads many scholars to believe that the story is a very late addition—post crucifixion. This story is full of symbolism that was only evident well after Christ’s death.
Perhaps they are correct that it’s an apocryphal story. Apocryphal stories come into being because people know they contain great truth. Apocryphal stories are told and retold precisely because they are so important.
The King Arthur story, for example, has permeated our culture. Whether it happened or not—in history—is almost less important than the truth we see in the itself.
- We have a story of a great king— not a normal, ordinary king, but one who ruled a kingdom where peace reigned in a time of violence.
- During his reign they searched for spiritual objects thought to have great value.
- Arthur didn’t rule from a high throne, but from one of the seats at a Round Table, which allowed no distinctions of power, wealth or rank.
This story still resonates with us as an ideal. It is still a story of truth.
I would say the magi story—like the Arthurian legend– is important precisely because it is a story of truth.
It was a story that gave us the Truth of who this child was—a child born in poor circumstances who became a king, a prophet, and a sacrifice.
That’s the power of this story.
This story is about how wise people from the far reaches of the world heard about this child – this being who was God with us. God was never to be known as something “out there” ever again.
Too often ‘religion has been about defining where God is and where God isn’t, picking and choosing who and what has God’s image and who and what doesn’t,’ as Richard Rohr writes.
But this story blows that notion to bits. This story shows us that God is with us—all of us—not just the Christians or the Jews or any specific religion—but all of us. The magi—people from another place, another religion– show us that.
This story states loudly and clearly that the coming of Jesus was to save all of us, everywhere.
We are given gifts— sometimes tangible ones like a dress, a ball and a lollipop, as well as intangible ones.
Our gifts may not be what we would have wished for or what we might have asked for, but they are the gifts that we have been given.
This feast of the Epiphany–instead if just thinking about the gifts given to the Christ child, let’s also remember the gifts God has given to us.
Only God knows fully why they were given to us, but I guess it’s up to us to discover why we have the gifts we do. That baby, Jesus, had no idea when his parents welcomed the magi into their home what those gifts might mean—but he found out—as we, too, will find out what we can do with the gifts we’ve been given.
And when we do, we will become Magi, ready to bring our gifts to Christ.