Strange Gifts

Sunday 8th January 2017
Year A, The Epiphany
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Matthew 2.1-12

There is no flake of gold, no matter how small, no matter how pale, that does not have a drop of blood in it, a price worth paying, its owners invariably believe, for a commodity that is as near as any earthly thing to heaven, not simply because of its beauty nor because it is the adornment of angels but because it is physically incorruptible being in itself, therefore, precisely the reverse of its effect in that there is nothing more corrupting; from the pirate to the miser, from the starving prospector to the sumptuous emperor, gold is the god of all earthly gods.

But, unlike the smile or the word, the wrinkle or the bloom, gold is impersonally promiscuous; the smile and the precise delivery of the word, the wrinkle and the bloom of skin, are forgotten in time but gold passes from hand to hand. We picture misers counting it right until their dying breath but when they are gone, it survives, so often what has been hoarded is prodigally scattered. Other than buying life as long as itself, gold can do anything.

But the blood! The blood is in the mine and the blood is in the mill, the blood is traded on the bourse and the blood is stored in the bank vault while the bloodless sleep in doorways and cringe in the refuge.

A strange gift, then, for the child who possesses immortality beyond price, beyond the longest life ever recorded of a flake of gold.

And then there is, even more oddly, myrrh for the man who will barely grace the tomb before rising, escaping from the shadow that hangs over us so heavily that no amount of gold can lighten it away no matter how hard we work and play, no matter how intensely we strive and love, no matter how reckless we are in the chase or prudent in Mon Repos, whether we drink wine to enliven or to induce oblivion, from the time we know ourselves we know that we will die.

And so the man who could have everything and will never die is given gold and myrrh; but what of Frankincense? This, surely, is more fitting for the priest who will, in a hitherto unknown recursion, offer himself, acting both as priest and as victim, the shepherd who in turn becomes the slaughtered lamb.

It was common practice until the 16th Century Reformation to read the Bible allegorically, as if every object and action not only has its surface meaning but also a symbolic meaning which is what I have just done but another approach is to see how we might apply the account of the gifts today.

It is all too easy to caricature the possession of gold as either miserly or plutocratic, separating the obsessed and the super rich from ourselves as if they were races apart, exonerating our modest lives by contrast. But in spite of the ups and downs of the economy, our generation is the most prosperous there has ever been and, it may be, the most prosperous there will be for some time to come as our extravagant lifestyle is based on the reckless accumulation of public and private debt which our children and grandchildren will have to pay off. Our relationship with gold is easy-going and even casual; we hardly think about it. Even people in our society who live solely on a state pension are much better off than my parents were when both were in full time work in the 1960s. It's easy to moralise about selfishness and generosity, so I won't. Instead, I simply urge us all to think before we spend.

If we are casual about gold we are self deluding about myrrh; death is the new taboo. As a member of the choir I attend many funerals and, increasingly, one of the readings is a poem by Henry Scott-Hollan, Death Is Nothing at All, taken from one of his sermons, which says that the person recently departed isn't really dead but only in the next room; and, while in one sense this is true, if we move our lives as near as we can to heaven, no amount of subterfuge, nor even gold, can hide the fact of death. We have swung from the black Victorian hearse to funerals as celebrations but the reality is still the same. Again, it is too easy to say that the whole of our lives should lean towards death but all I say is that we need to establish a better balance between the existential and the eternal.

Just as Frankincense occupied the centre of our symbolic triptych earlier on, it occupies the central position on our contemporary reading of the significance of the gifts. As Christians we are familiar with the idea of worship, originally acted out in Temple sacrifice but now acted out primarily in our Eucharistic liturgy; but how much of our worship is, so to speak, prostrate, and how much of it is simply perfunctory or culturally and communally pleasant? Interestingly, in liturgical terms, as our knowledge of the natural world, developed through scientific investigation, has increased, so has our self assurance, always in danger of morphing into pride. Unlike the people of the Middle Ages who crept to the Cross on Good Friday, we are not a prostrating people. When I first arrived in Hurstpierpoint we continued the Medieval tradition as a gesture of thankfulness to our Saviour and our sorrow that he should be so put to shame but now we satisfy ourselves with more measured gestures, thinking prostration to be altogether too emotional, and even superstitious. This is not so much a matter of outward appearance as it is of inner reality: our besetting sin is not the carelessness with which we dispense gold nor the shallow gaiety which spurns the message of the myrrh but the pride which reduces frankincense to social and cultural ritual instead of raising it to the humility of creatureliness.

At the end of a long journey, the Wise Men prostrated themselves before an infant; knowing what we know, that they did not, the least we can do is to prostrate ourselves before Our Saviour.