4 January 2015 – Epiphany Sunday
1 Kings 10:1-13, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2: 1-12
The Queen of Sheba brings gold and precious stones to Solomon. The Magi bring Jesus gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Paul brings “news of the boundless riches of Christ” to the Ephesians. Having paid my property taxes and given my granddaughter pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters, half-dollars, and dollars in equal amounts for each of her two piggy banks, I may not have much left to give you today. Certainly nothing like the Queen of Sheba brought to Solomon or the Magi brought to Jesus. And I don’t have Paul’s gift for words either. But I should give you something because Epiphany, not Christmas, is a traditional feast in many countries where gifts are given as they are in today’s Scriptures. This makes as much sense in those societies as Christmas does in ours because the word epiphany means “a revelatory manifestation of a divine being.” Gifts honor such a being.
So I am going to take a shot at bringing you what Paul called “the news of the boundless riches of Christ.” But unlike Paul I haven’t been blessed with a revelation in the spectacular way that he was on the road to Damascus, even though I have been knocked off my bicycle, awakened in a hospital, and told “You’re too old to do these things.” But I think that my taxes, my presents, and my hospital stay don’t leave me completely broke because I can steal from some of the unguarded riches of poets and scriptural scholars who have dwelt on the Epiphany.
Paul tells the Ephesians that God is now manifest as Christ Jesus and that the Gentiles have become God’s co-heirs with the “holy apostles and prophets”: “members of the same body, and sharers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” In Matthew’s gospel both Jew and Gentile appear and so does God in the child in Bethlehem. The Gentiles in the persons of the Magi “saw the child with Mary his mother, and they knelt down and paid him homage.” These royal visitors from foreign lands tell Herod “we . . . have come to pay him homage.” They seek to be with “the king of the Jews”; he seeks to kill a rival to his throne. Today’s gospel exposes a deadly spiritual sloath that infects Herod and a quickening spiritual vision that enlightens the Magi. The Magi say “we . . . are come”—the Latin word for which is venimus. It’s a word that shows what Isaiah predicted: “Nations shall come to your light, and royalty to the brightness of your dawn” (Isaiah 60:3).
The Anglican devine, Lancelot Andrewes, on 25 December 1622, preached to King James I at Whitehall on Matthew 2:1-2: “Behold there came wise men from the East to Jerusalem, saying, where is the king of the Jews that is born? For we have seen His star in the East, and are come to worship Him.” At one point in his sermon, Bishop Andrewes chose to dwell on the Latin word venimus and concluded his consideration saying, “All considered, there is more in venimus than shows at first sight.”
Even when the story of the Magi is considered as interpretation of Scripture rather than as historical fact, its message concerns God’s plan for the Gentiles’ salvation. Magi or wise men through their natural science discover by faith in the light of the star what Herod and the religious leaders of Judaism miss, despite their possession of the Scriptures. Consequently, whether we view the passage as historical or not, either way it represents a coming to Christ.
So for Lancelot Andrewes, early in the 17th century, the striking thing was that the Magi came—venimus: We are come . . . in spite of all the hardships that such a journey entails.
‘A cold coming we had of it
Just the worst time of the year
For such a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
. . . .
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
. . . .
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
. . . .
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
That is no longer Lancelot Andrewes. It is T. S. Eliot interpreting Andrewes in his poem “Journey of the Magi” in which the Magi’s coming becomes an archetype of the journey of any person of wisdom to Christ. As the Nobel Prize poet and one-time Poet Laureate of the United States, the Russian exile become American citizen, the late Joseph Brodsky, so pertinently wrote: “When it’s Christmas, we’re all of us magi” (“December 24, 1971”). Both Eliot and Brodsky echo the voice of Andrewes, restating in their own words what he said before them: “there is more in venimus than shews at first sight.” And Eliot has one of his Magi speak for all three, saying: “I would do it again.”
At the heart of Andrewes’s venimus and of Eliot’s journey and of Brodsky’s Christmas transformation is the paradox of dying into life. For Jesus told us that the seed must die before the plant can live. So there is life lurking in certain kinds of death, and it is for such life that one must endure such a death. Those who are wise realize that there is more to life than more sex, more food, and more money; that is, more than another terrace, another silken girl, or another sherbet. Would that that wisdom made its way to Herod’s look-alikes in various state and national capitals today. That certainly would not remove all the individual obstacles that each of us faces in seeking to be like the Magi who would “do it again.” But that might help to make it more nearly possible for us to agree with Bishop Andrewes: “Venimus is soon said, but a short word; but many a wide and weary step they made before they could come to any Venimus, Lo, here ‘we are come’; come, and at our journey’s end.”