SOME traditions say that they took 12 days to get to Bethlehem; others, that they took more than a year. Either way, the mysterious visitors “from the East” mentioned in St Matthew’s Gospel come from some distance to pose questions for the practice of Christianity in a pandemic.
These magi (I have been unable to call them “wise men” since I realised that going to Herod and promising to let him know where the challenge to his authority lay wasn’t very wise at all) were star-gazers: magicians, maybe — perhaps of royal lineage, but at least able to hire an entourage. And, despite preachers’ tending to focus on the symbolic meaning of the gifts over their everyday use, St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) thought that the gifts were thoroughly practical: gold to alleviate the poverty of the Holy Family; frankincense to fumigate the smelly outhouse; and myrrh to drive away vermin, such as worms, from the crib.
SYMBOLIC or practical, epiphanies are important. Just as there was one then, so we are arguably living through one now.
At Epiphany 2021, we see that Covid-19 has not raised any new theological questions, but has ruthlessly exposed truths about our society and Church which were half-known by some, ignored by most, and suffered by many: systemic racism, overcrowded housing, lack of public green space in cities, under-investment in social care, over-reliance on “just-in-time” supply chains, an epidemic of domestic violence, a disconnection with the natural world, and a debilitating instinct for centralisation enabled by a culture that lionises what is perceived as strong leadership.
In these ways, Covid-19 has itself had a truly epiphanic effect, and affirms that we are living through an apocalyptic moment. Both “epiphany” and “apocalypse” mean “uncovering” or “revealing”, and the season of Epiphany offers a liturgical lens through which to ask ourselves what is being revealed about the Church, and about the society that we serve.
IN A year that has shown us how to redefine an open church — not just the buildings, but in digital space — we have a chance to be as humble and confident as the magi as we, diffidently sometimes but, none the less, determinedly, unpack the treasures we have to offer a society in which the vast majority of people live their lives without reference to organised religion.
In offering a gift, there is always risk: at best, of misunderstanding and, at worst, of offence or rejection. Perhaps — especially, this year, online — we have wondered whether the recipients will like it, understand why we brought it, why we’re getting it out, or putting it on display. The clue for us as a Church is in the magi’s approach. They didn’t arrive with fanfares and proclamations, instantly claiming the right to define what was happening or how it should go. But they were persistent and courageous. They were willing to travel towards a mysterious divine presence that, they suspected, would not leave them unchanged themselves. This sort of missionary stance is thrilling, exploratory, committed to generosity rather than any attempt at coercion, and carries an expectation that we will be required to return home by an unfamiliar way.
The magi travelled across cultural assumptions, exhibited cultural curiosity, and didn’t allow difference to prevent their seeking generous connection. At a time when the Black Lives Matter conversation must not only continue, but intensify and lead to change, it will take magi-like determination from the whole Church, at every level, energetically to pursue the star of teachers such as Martin Luther King, Jr, and be guided by the light of justice ahead, wherever it leads, however it goes.
AS FOR the gifts themselves, the symbolism is potent. The magi offered incorruptible gold, which has retained its value across centuries because of this quality. The Church can offer the gift of community living — even in coronavirus isolation — through its conviction that this corruptible body is, as St Paul suggests, invited to become incorruptible. Like a golden thread running through scripture is the irreducible principle of human dignity, embedded in the doctrine of Creation, that discipleship requires us to hold to, no matter what.
The magi offered frankincense, a provocative scent, that — like all enticing fragrances — evokes memory and dissolves the years. The Church can offer the gift of honest, collective remembrance of the past, combined with a hopeful vision of a new future, repeating in its sacramental spiritual practice the revelation that the sweat of earth is infused with the fragrance of heaven.
The magi offered myrrh for a suffering Saviour. In a wounded world, the Church can offer healing solidarity: a body of people who practise kindness and compassion, knowing that following Christ means that worshippers are more, not less, aware of their own fragility, their capacity to hurt and be hurt. Carrying this knowledge, in the context of the promise of forgiveness, is in itself a sort of healing.
THE symbols of epiphany remain powerful for a world disfigured by pandemic, war, exploitation, and inequality. But, to return to the preoccupations of St Bernard, what about the practical gifts themselves?
This year, there is meaning to be found here, too: in the frankincense from Yemen; in the myrrh from the forests of Kenya; and in the mined gold from Russia, Peru, China, or South Africa. In the light of Covid-19, and at the beginning of the year of COP 26 in Glasgow, we are learning once again to be humble in acknowledging our interdependence with the natural world.
Our final gift, then, at Epiphany 2021 could be to pledge to leave more resins and minerals in the earth, where Christ is eternally found — newly born, at the heart of Creation itself, there to be visited and adored.
The Revd Lucy Winkett is Rector of St James’s, Piccadilly, in London.