St Frideswide’s Church,  Osney

Eucharist on Sunday January  8th  2017 [Epiphany]

Revd. Professor Martin Henig

Isaiah  60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.    [Matthew 2: 11]

+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The tableau of  the three Magi (who from the 6th century were often portrayed as three kings who came to be named Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar) , visiting  the Christ child is very familiar to us not only from modest cribs and nativity plays in churches but from great works of art, amongst them the wonderful frescoes painted by Benozzo Gozzoli in the Palazzo Medici Riccardi in Florence for Cosimo the Elder. Here the kings and their entourage represent contemporary figures, the Medici princes, of course, and in the person of Balthazar, the Byzantine emperor John VII Palaeologus, because the cycle celebrates the, as it turned out ultimately abortive, union of the Eastern and Western Churches at the Council of Florence in 1439. These paintings at the very least remind us that the event recounted by Matthew had enduring political resonances and indeed some of these may rightly remind us of current events and controversies.

These would have been there from the beginning. Matthew in recounting the visit  of foreign emissaries from the South and East is recalling the prophecies in Psalm 72 and in Isaiah concerning gentiles from Tarshish (Tartessos)  in Southern Spain, far to the West,[1]  and from Midian, Ephah and Sheba in the South and East,[2] coming with their tribute to a Jerusalem restored after the Babylonian captivity. Gold was a fitting royal gift. It might have seemed unlikely that anyone would bring tribute to an unimportant, conquered state in the 6th century B.C. and it would have been just as incongruous for ambassadors or indeed rulers to present gold to a lowly baby rather than to the still powerful client king Herod the Great. Incense- frankincense-,the fragrant gum of a tree, came from South Arabia , that is Seba or Sheba, or across the gulf from the Horn of Africa.[3] It was burnt in the Temple and indeed in temples throughout the ancient world as an appropriate offering to the divine. You will remember that Luke’s gospel begins with Zacharias as a priest burning incense in the Temple and then being confronted by an angel. Myrrh was another exotic spice from the same region which was especially connected with burial rites.

What was the nature of the event and in what way was it an epiphany, a manifestation or showing of the divine. A mosaic in the House of Aion at Nea Paphos in Cyprus depicts the god Hermes holding the infant god Dionysos before Silenus, the nymphs and  other figures.[4] Given its early 4th century date, it is not unlikely that there was Christian influence here, in what looks so like our familiar nativity scenes but nevertheless human encounter with the divine was widely celebrated in Graeco-Roman religion.[5] Again and again we find shrines and altars being erected to one deity or another as the result of a dream or vision: ‘ex visu’ in Latin. We may recall how Paul was identified with Hermes and Barnabas as Zeus in the Acts of the Apostles.[6]

The event we celebrate does have features in common with the Graeco-Roman myths. Zeus, Apollo and Dionysos were all in danger as babies, Zeus was hidden away from his father Cronos who would have devoured him, Apollo was concealed from the jealousy of Hera, Dionysos had to be rescued from the ashes of his mother Semele. These however were all stories centred in a  remote and unreal Antiquity, a dreamtime which had no basis in reality. The Christ-child, by contrast, was in imminent danger from a very real tyrant. King Herod and those of you who heard my sermon last week or have read it on the website, will have remembered that the aftermath was the Massacre of the Innocents which we celebrate almost immediately after Christmas and more than a week before Epiphany.

In the Graeco-Roman myths all will be well with the child, and Zeus and the other gods were preserved to rule the Universe. In our Epiphany death is already present. As a king Jesus neither possesses, nor can be offer us material wealth; as a man he will be betrayed, suffer and die painfully with torture as so many have died and are dying in today’s world, but as God he possesses and gives us far more than gold, as god he was resurrected from the dead and offers us salvation and eternal life.

Bishop Lancelot Andrewes mused on the event in a sermon preached in 1620 at Whitehall before King James I. He recalled  the long journey of the Magi in winter, in unseasonable weather, led only by a star. If they could come over hill and dale from a Pagan world cannot we who have no distance to travel commit ourselves? T.S. Eliot in his famous poem The Journey of the Magi which takes Andrewes’s sermon as its  starting point, ends with a reflection by  the Magi after they had returned to their homes:

…were we led all that way for

Birth or Death? There was a Birth certainly,

We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,

But had thought they were different: this Birth was

Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,

But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,

With an alien people clutching their gods,

I should be glad of another death.[7]

The poem in particular emphasises the strangeness, which lies at the heart of the ambivalence I have always felt about Christmas. Yes, we celebrate the birth of the Saviour but of a saviour who was born to suffer. We celebrate Christmas in a season when our calendar celebrates martyrdoms as early as the martyrdoms of  the Holy Innocents and of St Stephen.

I am aware in today’s world of horrific suffering and of death, not least in Syria and Iraq, of refugees and of nations turning their backs on them including our own nation, of the homeless sleeping in the cold streets of Oxford and other cities, and with a mission that embraces all of Creation I am horrified by the suffering of animals and cannot see it as right to celebrate the birth of the prince of peace with the mass slaughter of poultry and other creatures, many of them reared in factory farms. I am afraid it would be both dishonest and fatuous for me to give a totally happy Christmas sermon in our world as it is.

I have to say that I am  no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, either, and by the ‘old dispensation’ I mean our blighted world. As Christians, I maintain, we can never be at ease with it until we are living in a world totally ruled by love, and how far, how very, very far, we are from that. Epiphany provides us with a chance to see Our Lord as he is, a vulnerable child, born to die and yet God of all that there is. Like St Francis we are called to radical action, to rebuild his Church in a spirit of gentleness, inclusiveness and a love that embraces all that there is. Epiphany, the manifestation of our God on earth calls us to pledge ourselves once more to become one with Christ, to live with Christ, and ultimately to die with Christ .

+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.




[1] R.J.Harrison, Spain at the dawn of history (London 1988),53-59

[2] St,John Simpson (ed), Queen of Sheba. Treasures from Ancient Yemen (British Museum 2002)

[3] Simpson (ed), Queen of Sheba),93-4

[4] K. M.D.Dunbabin, Mosaics in the Greek and Roman World(Cambridge 1999),230 and  pl.35

[5] V.Platt, Facing the Gods. Epiphany and Representation in Graeco-Roman art, literature and religion,  (Cambridge 2011)

[6] Acts 14:1-18 See G.Soffe,’Christians, Jews and Pagans in the Acts of the Apostles’, pp.239-256 in M.Henig  and A.King, Pagan gods and shrines of the Roman Empire(Oxford University Committee for Archaeology 1986)pp.249-50

[7] Cf Celebrating the Saints, pp.18-22 for both the relevant part of the sermon and the poem.