SERMON: The Strangers from the East

SERMON: The Strangers from the East


Last Sunday was a day of joy in our family because our grandson Rupert James was baptised in his home parish in Surrey. He was baptised as I poured water over his head three times with a silver shell which came from Santiago de Compostela in North West Spain – the city named after James, whose head is on the shell. After the service several of us discussed what the shell signified, or symbolised. Each us had a different perspective: a protective cover for an organism representing the protection of God, or a series of lines converging on Santiago, just as pilgrims do, or a representation of parts of human anatomy liked with fertility, and so on. Others saw less of a symbolic meaning in a shell: for them it is a practical scoop for water or food rations given to pilgrims on their journey to Santiago de Compostela.

Today is a day with rich symbolism, especially in our gospel text. Before looking at this text, it is worth remembering that the Greek verb from which symbolism comes means throwing together. For us it is about something that throws together two different kinds of reality: the divine and the human. It can be a powerful force in which any or all of the senses may be involved. We are fortunate to wrship in a building with such symbolic richness.

As we reflect on symbolism we may ponder several points. Can there be any real encounter in one thing standing for another? Are we drawn to God more by the absence of symbols in some protestant buildings and liturgy, than by processions of the reserved sacrament, with many symbols, in the more catholic traditions? Opinions vary greatly on how we interpret the apparent endorsement of symbols in Biblical texts. Does the speaking of the height of heaven represent in a meaningful way something about divine transcendence? Some see the contrast between symbolic and discursive modes of thought as separate but equally important ways of knowing. Wittgenstein reminded us that symbols do not act alone: the language of music only makes sense when we hear the piece as a whole. Some people find it much easier than others to see either several meanings in a symbol, or the apparent contradictions of related symbols: for example Christ as a lamb or a rock. And we should remember that inculturation may shift how symbols may be chosen and understood: some have suggested that beer should be used instead of wine at the Eucharist. We may also note that white rather than red wine is used in Calvinist churches to counter particular views of Eucharistic presence in red wine. And for most of Christian history the water of baptism has been seen as symbolic of washing away sin, but the decline in emphasis on original sin has led to stress on the still more primal symbolism of water as the fount of life.

At Epiphany we are led, like the magi, by a symbol, a star. We place a prominent star on top of our trees as a symbol. Now, in the time of the magi, everyone believed in astrology: they believed that stars would enable them to foretell the future, and that a person’s destiny would be settled by the star under which a person is born. Of course many still have similar beliefs. In New Testament times the stars were seen as unvarying, showing the order of the universe. So the appearance of an unusually bright star looked as if God was announcing a special event, changing the basic course of life. Whatever the star was, the people of that time were desirous of, and indeed expecting God to break in. They were waiting for a king. They had discovered that they could not build the golden age without God. And so Jesus came to a waiting world. The star pointed people from the ends of the earth to gather at his cradle. And as we see here, this has happened ever since.

Poetry and legend abound in the accounts of how the star pointed to those gathered at Jesus’ birth at Bethlehem. Thus we now imagine Melchior as grey haired and bearded, bringing the gift of gold. Young, ruddy, beardless Caspar brings incense, while swarthy Balthazar, newly bearded, brings myrrh. But it is in the royal symbolism of the gifts brought by the magi that we find deeper meaning, for each tells us about Jesus and his coming ministry. Down the millennia gold has been seen as the gift for a king or queen. Jesus was seen to be born to be king, in a reign marked not by force, but by love poured into peoples’ hearts, and eventually from a cross rather than a throne.

Incense has traditionally been understood as a gift for a priest, for use in temple worship, to give people a sense of the presence of God. The function of a priest is to open people’s hearts and minds to God. The Latin word for priest, pontifex, means bridge-builder. That is what Jesus’ ministry was about.

Myrrh was traditionally used for embalming the bodies of the dead. Jesus came into the world aware of the fundamental significance of his premature death.

The joyful arrival of the magi was a time when prophecy and symbolism came together. Matthew makes it clear that the magi were guided by God to Bethlehem, through a star and a text from Micah. Their arrival as non-Jews is seen as part of a centuries-old plan, expounded by the prophecy of Isaiah as well as Micah, for all people to come and worship the infant Messiah. In a sense the magi pave the way for the command of the risen Christ given to the eleven at the end of Matthew’s narrative: make disciples of all the nations.

In today’s gospel Jesus does nothing but he is the chief protagonist. Matthew shows that he is already the King of Israel. The reference to Micah introduces more symbolism when we hear him saying that this is a ruler to shepherd his people. The Greek word translated as shepherding means tending, protecting, guiding, nurturing, the actions of a good shepherd. But the same chief priests and scribes, who uncover the text from Micah, will eventually bring this king, who rules with compassionate love, to his death.

Today’s gospel about the Magi’s visit to Bethlehem and their worship of the King of the Jews is a pivotal step in the larger story of God’s redemptive work for the whole human race. Our understanding of this is enriched by the use of symbolism. Through the power of symbolism we have been pointed towards heaven, or we have glimpsed the reality of heaven through earthly realities. Of course symbolism isn’t about exact similarities but it frees the mind to wonder imaginatively and creatively about the nature of the divine.

Today Matthew shows us that salvation comes through Jesus the Jew and the fulfilment of prophetic dreams. But that salvation reaches far beyond the strangers from the east, to a Canaanite woman and to a Roman centurion. It reaches out to every corner of the earth. We are joyful recipients of this. Now we are called to take our part in revealing God’s epiphany, in part by throwing together things earthly and heavenly. Amen.