A number of years ago when my aunt came to visit she gave us each felt glasses cases with another piece of felt in the shape of a pair of glasses sewn on, presumably so that we’d remember what to put in the case. The last time she came she gave us a pair of felt egg cosies with pieces of felt in the shape of chickens sewn on, but we haven’t been able to find chickens small enough to wear them yet. Then this year she heard that I had a new phone and send me a felt phone case. She does like to make her presents felt!
Now I rarely start my sermons with a joke and having heard that one, you’re probably relieved about that, but it does help to make a point however you’ll have to wait for that point to emerge.
Matthew’s account of the visit of the wise men is fairly brief, with very little detail. Almost all that we think that we know about Epiphany comes from hymns and poems and other creative writing, all of which have added layers of meaning and detail to the tradition surrounding it.
Our opening hymn: ‘As with gladness men of old’ is a pretty pared back account, not even mentioning the Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh (which may themselves have been Matthew’s embellishment). In contrast our final hymn: ‘We three kings’ has a great deal of embellishment. The tradition has even given the wise men, now promoted to kings, names and places of origin – Melchior from Persia, Gaspar (also called “Caspar” or “Jaspar”) from India, and Balthazar from Arabia. Their gifts have been given special symbolic meanings as well: gold signifying Jesus’ status as ‘King of the Jews‘; frankincense representing the infant’s divinity and identity as the ‘Son of God‘; and myrrh touching on Jesus’ mortality.
It’s so easy to get carried away with all these details.
Suppose that I was to tell you that in defiance of Scottish Government Guidance we’d invited three people over for a party at New Year (we didn’t by the way). There are a number of ways that I could tell that story, which give very different impressions.
Maud arrived first from Tain and she gave us a wonderful scented candle. The next to arrive was John from Dornoch who brought a lovely bottle of red wine and finally there was Daphne from Lairg with a yummy box of chocolates. We had a bit of a blether and shared food and drink until the bells. It’s about who, where they’re from and their gifts.
On the other had I could tell you that three long-standing friends came over to see the New Year in with us and we really enjoyed spending a little while together catching up on all that has happened during the pandemic and what our families are up to.That’s much more about the purpose.
When I took my first wedding, I was particularly struck by a piece at the bottom of the invitation that said:
“Please no presents. Your travelling from near and far to celebrate with us is the greatest gift of all”
The gift of the company of their friends and relatives and the memory of celebrating together, that’s what this couple wanted from their guests.
For me, that’s the most important part of the Epiphany story some strangers from afar who weren’t connected with the Jewish Tradition undertook long journeys to honour an extraordinary happening, God had become incarnate as a tiny baby. This was God being revealed to the wider world – to all.
Woody Allen is reputed to have said that 80% of life is just showing up and I think that’s the most important aspect of this story, spiritual presence rather than worldly details.
This Epiphany let us reflect on the essence of the story rather than a whole load of fictional embroidery and through that see the call to reveal God’s presence in the world to everyone – to the grumpy, the depressed, the selfish, the worried, the suffering, the disadvantaged and everyone else that we meet.