Gifts for Today

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

I wonder whether you, or your children or grandchildren, received inappropriate gifts this Christmas. By this I don't mean soap with a scent we don't like or a pair of hopelessly garish socks; no, what I mean is: a hyperactive boy being given a toy gun; a young girl being given make-up we might not even think fit for a woman; a diabetic being given a box of chocolates; or a new member of Alcoholics Anonymous being given a bottle of whiskey!

So, here are these supposedly wise men, bringing the infant Jesus: gold, the quintessential product of cruelty and greed; frankincense, representing the Temple sacrificial rituals which Jesus will transform; and myrrh for the man who will only barely grace the tomb and who will never die. Whatever the literal translation of the Greek, these men look more like kings to me than wise men.

There is a line in Virgil's poem, the Aeneid, which has become popular, which warns us to beware Greeks bearing gifts but delete the Greeks. Outside giving within and between families the popular phrase which springs to mind is that there is no such thing as a free lunch: from the special offer to the exclusive entry, from the political promise to the holiday brochure, caution is definitely in order.

Except from one source, the originator of all gifts: the gift of creation, the gift of salvation and the gift of inspiration, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, whose gifts we are apt to wrap in rather obscure language as a kind of tribute to their importance, as if ordinary language will not quite suffice; but it is the very use of this language which, if we are not careful, makes what we prize appear to be exclusive, even though we claim that it is our objective, above all else, to share the knowledge of these gifts.

From which my first conclusion, on this day of gifts, is that we should be careful to avoid sacred jargon.

Perhaps, on this score, if wise people were to come to Hurstpierpoint today, seeing the star over Holy Trinity - and, why should they not as the Christ Child is among us? - one might bring simplicity, a directness of speech which acknowledges its own inadequacy rather than resorting to obscurantism. "Yes," we might say, "In the true sense we have nothing to give and nothing to take, we simply share God's gifts which are ours neither to give nor to take." And we might further, bearing in mind the simplicity of the wise person, go on to say that we are telling, as  simply as we know how, what we have come to believe in the power of the Holy Spirit; we are telling, not giving or withholding, we are paying tribute to God The Creator.

From which point we might imagine a second wise person, following the first, who says that the refusal to give or withhold but simply to tell involves restraint, the refusal to judge, the refusal to say that this person is deserving of God's gifts and that person is not, as if we were the arbiters of who should receive and who should not. This second wise person might echo Saint Paul in saying that the objective of free speech is for mutual building up and that speech should never be a weapon that belittles or excludes. This is the essence of God the Saviour who came to save us all out of the divine love of the Father, not to belittle us nor to make fine distinctions, the God who took our human flesh - just as we are created in God's image - and who fed thousands of people without, as far as we know from the Gospels, imposing any doctrinal or moral test, both in Palestine and then outside it in the Pagan Decapolis, the man who, far from seeking to acquire power over people, continually challenged the power over people exercised by the religious authorities. This is the God who mended the brokenness which condemned all humankind to death and promised eternal life to all humankind so that we might live with God in 'His' kingdom. This is the Good News which we are charged to tell, not redacting it with all kinds of our own notions about how or to whom this good news applies, a matter over which we will all,  inevitably, puzzle but which does not admit of conclusions which give us the right to limit and exclude. We are God's journalists; and no more. To simplicity, then, we have added restraint.

The third, and last, wise person might observe that, far from being the virtues of the passive and self-contented, simplicity and restraint require courage which is born of attention to the prompting of the Holy Spirit. The power of embroidering the simple and the power of judging those we think less worthy than ourselves are easy powers to exercise but the power of speaking simply, without self indulgence, is difficult to marshal. We are all, naturally, too apt to be brave over the easy things and cowardly over the difficult things. When we think about it, it really should not require courage to report good news but, trapped in our worldly language, we are strangely reticent.

These three gifts of the Spirit, then, simplicity, restraint and courage, will all be necessary if we are to fulfil our purpose of spreading the good news but they have, if you like, a collateral purpose because these gifts which we exercise in our spiritual lives are precisely the same gifts which are needed in the public forum. During the forthcoming year, when we are likely to be subjected to torrents of meaningless jargon hiding the complexity of our situation, when we will stand in the cross fire between opposing armies using words to kill each other - and, incidentally, kill language itself - and when the volume of words is so great and their impact so fierce that we will be inclined to seek refuge in a quiet, private place, we must have the courage to speak out but to do so simply and constructively.

Whatever the world does to try to bury the message of Salvation, the Holy Spirit will ensure that the message is kept alive; but we are the Spirit's means. In the words of Saint Theresa of Avila: "God has no body now but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours; yours are the eyes with which he sees, yours are the feet with which he walks, yours are the hands with which he blesses all the world".