What is the strangest birthday gift you have ever received?
What if someone gave you the gift of a tombstone for your birthday? How about a coffin?
As I said in a sermon on the 4th floor this past Sunday, if one is in their 20’s, with decades of life in front of them, they might interpret such a gift as a bizarre joke. But if you are in your 70’s or 80’s, with only a few more years of this life to look forward to, then such a present would surely provoke distress and offense.
As Fr. David hinted from the Christ Church pulpit this last Sunday, the gift of myrrh—gifted by the three Magi to the baby Jesus on that day long ago—is a strange gift indeed. A spice or ointment used for embalming the dead, it points directly to the death of this Baby. Here in the presence of the Mother of God, it foreshadows the cross of Christ, the arrow which will pierce her own heart (Luke 2:35).
There is so much going on in Matthew’s presentation of these exotic Magician-Kings from the East. In addition to the foreshadowing of the cross, this story also startles us into the realization that Christ came to form a new global community, a new international family, composed not just of Jews and Gentiles, but also of “civilized” and “barbarian.” For not only were these three strange pilgrims not religious authorities; not only where they not rank-and-file Jewish worshippers; they weren’t even Roman citizens. They were literally from the edges of the earth, from way outside “the grid.” And yet in Matthew’s story they are the first to bow down and worship the Jewish Messiah.
These are just a couple of reasons why, for me, the Epiphany is my favorite feast of the Church. A couple of reasons why, too, we named our new community within Christ Church “the Epiphany Community.”
As we observe the final Epiphany (January 6) before launching Christ Church South, I am full of awe and excitement. Awe that God has been faithful; excitement for the coming season of mission and ministry.
I am mindful that the mission of Gospel love in the world is unstoppable. As we continue to commend the love of Christ to all kinds of folks in Tyler and East Texas, God will bless our efforts, even though the results will not look like what we expect. It will be an astonishing surprise.
Here, too, we find a clue from Matthew’s story in chapter 2 of his Gospel. Imagine what was going on in Mary and Joseph’s hearts and minds that night. They have finally found a place to lay their weary bodies. A firm bed from which to enter into the travail of childbirth. At this point Mary and Joseph have literally had their world turned upside down, and their heads are spinning. They don’t “know which way is up.” Neither would I, had I experienced all of that: the visitations from the angels, the unexplainable pregnancy, the near divorce, the forced migration. Surely they were on the brink of a nervous breakdown or worse.
And then, after the crying newborn has been safely delivered, as Mary’s pain and discomfort finally recedes, they look up, and what do they see? An astonishing surprise. A multitude of shepherds surrounding three strange Kings from the East, bowing down to worship their child, bearing lavish gifts of grace and abundance.
At that moment, their struggling trust was vindicated, and they knew that God powerfully at work in their lives. It was wild. It was crazy. It was uncontrollable. But it was from the Lord.
As it was for them on that first Epiphany, so may it be for us in ours.
Happy New Year!