O. Henry’s famous story, The Gift of the Magi, concerns Della and Jim, a young couple who fall on hard times and cannot afford to buy each other Christmas presents. Eventually Della sells her beautiful long hair to buy Jim a fob chain for his prized watch, only to discover that he has sold his watch to buy a set of tortoiseshell combs for her vanished hair!
When she opens the combs, Della’s grand sacrifice seems pointless. When she gives him the watch chain, likewise Jim’s sacrifice seems pointless. The story ends with O. Henry talking about the magi, who invented the act of giving Christmas presents and gave sacrificially to Jesus, but gave what could be regarded as pointless gifts for a baby. A blanket or a cot might have been better than gold, frankincense, or myrrh. Henry suggests that Della and Jim, who foolishly sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures they possessed, are actually the wisest of all, for, like the magi, they gave their love.
It is interesting that in Matthew’s Gospel the first human beings to speak are the magi, who were probably Gentiles, practising a different religion. Because of their interest in astrology and the stars, the magi are thought to have been Zoroastrians, yet astral cults are condemned in the Old Testament. Nonetheless, God calls the magi to seek for the new king through the medium of following a star. The Jewish priests must have seen the same star but failed to recognise God’s promptings.
The magi did not come to Jesus through liturgy, sacrament or a social outreach programme, they came through science, by studying the night skies for many years. We do not know whether they then converted to Judaism or whether they continued to follow their own religion, but we do know that, according to Matthew, these foreigners were the first to recognise the infant Christ.
The magi may have been kings, linking them with Isaiah 60:3-6, and there may have been three of them as three gifts are mentioned, but there may have been many more. The gifts are thought to represent three different aspects of Jesus: gold for a king, frankincense for a priest, and myrrh to indicate suffering and death. All three were expensive gifts, but there is no further mention of them in the pages of the New Testament. Perhaps they were used to finance the flight to Egypt. We do not know.
The magi visited King Herod first to ask for news of the birth. Since the same Greek word for “king” is used to describe both Herod and Jesus, perhaps it is not surprising that Herod was terrified at this perceived threat to his power and status. But Matthew goes further, implicating “all Jerusalem” in Herod’s fear that the birth of the Messiah is imminent. The religious authorities tell Herod that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem, so Herod sends the magi on their way after discovering from them the exact time the star was first spotted, so that he can work out the probable date of the birth. Later, he uses this knowledge to exterminate all the baby boys.
When the magi find the baby – in a house rather than a stable, according to Matthew – they are filled with joy. After they offer their gifts God speaks to them again, this time in a dream, warning them to avoid Herod. They return to their own country by another route, and we never hear of them again.
God called scientists from another religion to travel thousands of miles over a long period of time just to see a baby. Many would have considered them to be the wrong people to receive God’s call and that journey to be without purpose, yet it gave a very important message to humanity. Those scientists proclaimed the Christ, showing that Jesus is the Messiah not just for the Jews but for the whole world, and welcomes those of any religion or none.
As long as we are sufficiently open to recognise God’s promptings, any of us may be called by God to give sacrificially of our time, talents, wealth and love, just as the magi gave. Like the magi, we may not be able to see the ultimate purpose of our calling, but if we step out on our particular journey in faith, we will find that all is held firmly in God’s hands.
First Sunday after Christmas 28 December 2014 Evening
Friends of ours were expecting their first baby, when I asked the most obvious question, 'have you thought of any names yet', I was rather taken aback when the husband laughed and then picked up a piece of paper and crumpled it in his hand. He asked, “Can you see what is written on this paper?" 'Well no' was my rather bewildered reply; "and neither can I see what is written in the life of my child", my friend said, "I will name my child when I see him or her and not before. It is only when my baby is born that I will recognise the name and the promise.”
Many parents plan their baby’s name throughout the pregnancy and then change their minds when they see the little one for the first time. The name has significance and a meaning that will last a lifetime, especially if it is a “family name” of someone who is dearly loved. Giving a name to a new baby is a family event, a decision that is not made in isolation. It is an important way of recognising that the new arrival is an essential part of the family and will be for ever. When parents give their baby a name, it is a sign that the infant belongs to the family. It is truly a promise of “all for one and one for all”. Family members are there for each other.
When Jesus was eight days old, Mary and Joseph gave him the name that God had chosen, a name that means “Saviour”. A few weeks later, they took him to the Temple, in accordance with the Jewish law, to present him to the Lord. Simeon and Anna were holy people who had dedicated their lives to the service of God and God’s chosen people. They knew the promise of the Messiah but did not know his identity or when he would come. Simeon had long prayed that he would not die before he saw the Messiah for himself. Although the Gospel does not say so, Anna probably did likewise.
Nothing external distinguished the Holy Family from any other young couple and their baby. Yet God touched the hearts of Simeon and Anna so that they recognised Jesus as more than “just” another infant. Jesus would be “the light of the Gentiles”. For Simeon, this was a prophetic moment. He perceived something of the suffering that would come to Mary simply because she was the faithful mother of Jesus. A “sword” of sorrow would pierce her heart. Mary, the new mother, found her joy turned to pain. Joseph, so faithful and loving towards Mary and Jesus, also found his world turned upside down. Yet Mary, Joseph, Simeon and Anna all shared the joy of knowing that this tiny baby was also the Messiah, the hope of the world, the one for whom generations of faithful people had waited.
No one who saw Jesus, Mary and Joseph would have known that they were witnessing the dawn of a new age. Simeon and Anna only recognised the Holy Family because God was active in the situation. It took faith to see beyond a newborn baby to the crucifixion and the resurrection. Simeon needed courage to warn Mary that her joy also heralded pain. Joseph would be presented with a responsibility he had never anticipated. According to tradition, Joseph died before Jesus began his adult ministry, so he was no longer around to support Mary when she was most in need of his quiet strength and fidelity.
Family life may not be a bed of roses. Every family will have problems to face. Every family will know troubles and sorrows. Sometimes families break apart because the problems become too many, or the challenges of living together become too great. At such times they may be in special need of our loving concern and support. But there can be an unbreakable bond, a unique friendship and an unflinching strength that carries a family through good times and bad. Every family has moments of great joy as well as times that are difficult, when it is only the love between them that gives them the courage they need as they face things they had never expected and would never have wanted. Mary and Joseph gave Jesus the foundation that prepared him for Calvary – and also for Easter Sunday. May their example and their prayers bring our families courage in the bad times, and joy in the good.
Holy Innocents 28 December 2014
“To understand a man,” runs a Native American proverb, “you must walk for a day in his moccasins.” To make sense of today’s Gospel we need to stand alongside Matthew as he writes.
Though we are busy celebrating the birth of Jesus, Matthew writes in the light of Jesus’ resurrection. It is both evidence that we are living in the “latter days” and a witness to the sovereignty of God and his Messiah.
The early Church believed that in the Jewish scriptures God was foretelling what he would accomplish in the latter days. These are the latter days, and the idea that “this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet” becomes Matthew’s trademark. John Fenton comments that, “Matthew’s work was to match event to prophecy…the fulfilment of the Old Testament is a first century method of bearing witness to Jesus as the one who is to be believed and obeyed.”
The sovereignty of God begins with the birth of Jesus, not with the resurrection. From the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel there is confrontation between the sovereignty of God and his Messiah, and the kingdoms and rulers of the world. Today’s Gospel is an instance of this confrontation.
The magi have come and gone. Tricked, an enraged Herod wreaks his revenge upon the children of Bethlehem, the Holy Innocents, whom we remember today. Matthew uses Jeremiah’s words about the departed exiles as evidence of prophecy’s fulfilment.
Between the visit of the magi and its repercussions, God is at work. He warns Joseph in a dream of the danger to the child’s life – an obedient Joseph flees to Egypt with the child and his mother, remaining there until Herod’s death. Hosea’s words (11:1) about God calling his son, Israel, out of Egypt are used by Matthew as a prophecy about Jesus.
With the story of the magi, today’s Gospel is part of the introduction to Matthew’s Gospel. Perhaps the themes of Jewish opposition and Gentile worship, and the ongoing conflict between the ways of the messianic kingdom and the way of the world, reflect the concerns of Matthew’s church. But the main emphasis is on God at work, warning Joseph to flee to Egypt and protecting the family in their stay there.
Perhaps the story of the Holy Innocents should not be taken at face value. We should also see it as a story that says something fundamental about the relationship between God and Jesus. From before his birth, God is watching over Jesus, protecting him so that he may fulfil his messianic ministry. An awareness of his call to ministry may only be clear to Jesus at his baptism, but Matthew shows us that it has been in the mind and purposes of God from the beginning.
As the French would say: Plus ça change, The more thingschange, the more they stay the same.. The story of the Holy Innocents is horribly topical and the heirs of Herod – “mad, bad and dangerous to know” – abound.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the needs of a suffering world, by the needs of all God’s children, and the daily barrage of appeals for our money does not help. But they suggest that we can make a difference, however humble our circumstances. “God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” and the way we live our lives under God therefore matters. With a new year just around the corner, might the Holy Innocents encourage us to sharpen up our resolutions?
Individually, we can: recognise that the measure of a Christian society is the way in which children, the vulnerable and the marginalised are cared for, rather than the way in which the rich get richer, and vote accordingly; understand that we cannot solve everyone’s problems, but can do more by concentrating our giving to a smaller number of charities; take fair trade seriously, consuming and wasting less; boycott firms supplied by exploitative sweatshops, at home or abroad.
As congregations we need to ask: “Are we truly open to and supportive of children, the vulnerable and the needy, or are we just a cosy club created in our own image?” – and act on what we learn. Is God's sovereignty really at work in us?
Today's feast, The Holy Innocents, “draws our attention to the plight of children in a world where the implications of the birth of the Christ-child are not yet manifest”. WE know the truth and we must seek to proclaim ever more strongly the truth, we must not allow ourselves to be battered down by secularists or others but rather we should stand proudly, speaking up for the poor the marginalised and those without voices - but that speaking must not simply be with words but with actions also. One of the hopes for 2015 as a church. along with other churches in our deanery is to set up a way of supporting the needs that exist in Uckfield. Can you make a New Year resolution to, in whatever you can, financially or practically to get involved as the opportunities present themselves - or will you allow those in need to go the way of the Holy Innocents?