The Feast of the Epiphany 2011

Malachi 1:11 “From the rising of the sun to its setting my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering.”

When the Wise Men went to visit the newborn King, they obeyed that most important rule of vistors’ etiquette: “Never go anywhere with your hands hanging”. If we ever went to tea at my aunt’s house, it was essential to bring at least a cake with us, even though we knew quite well that Auntie had laid in plenty of goodies for the table. But still, duty required that we should bring a present.

 

We have just finished the season of gift-giving. Why do we give presents? Sometimes to express affection; to say thank you; to say sorry. Sometimes perhaps as a kind of bribe. Last time we were in the butcher’s, he gave us a calendar as a gift. Why? well, partly so that everytime we look to see what date it is we will be reminded of him, and might even try out some of the recipes on the calendar. But most of all the gift represents a relationship that hopefully will continue: he is our butcher and we are his customers. My mother often laments the old days, when “your little dairy” gave you a candle and a cake at Christmas; “now you get nothing”; and I think she is really missing the more personal touch of long ago, when you knew all your regular shop-keepers and they knew you. Gifts create, express, and nurture relationships. So when Mother’s Day comes around, you give little Johnny the money to buy his mother a present; partly to teach him about saying thank you and being generous, but chiefly because this is part of nurturing the relationship. The gift in itself is usually much less important than its meaning and function with regard to the relationship.

 Something similar applies in the religious sphere. The Bible also says, “You shall not appear before the Lord empty-handed.” (Deut 16:16) “Every one shall give as he is able”. But what do you give the one who has everything? Does God need our offering? No; and anyway, all we have is rightly his: “All things come from thee, and of thine own have we given thee”. But God requires his people to offer gifts, in order to express and nurture the relationship, the covenant. Like a father with his children, he gives us what we need to offer, so that we may show ourselves to be his children, thankful for his goodness.

We have gathered here tonight to keep the Feast of the Epiphany, and we are doing so by celebrating the Eucharist together. Why not Evening Prayer? Well, Morning and Evening Prayer are excellent acts of worship, but they are somewhat secondary, complementary, to the Church’s central act of worship. “In every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering”: those words of the prophet Malachi were understood by the early Fathers to refer to the Eucharist, the Christian offering. The Fathers recognised that this is the sacrifice which the Church has been given to offer; the memorial of “the one complete and all-sufficient sacrifice” which is the self-offering of Jesus to the Father. The Son is revealed in the flesh in order to restore the relationship between mankind and God: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself”: the Eucharist is the offering we make to express, to realise, to nurture, to appropriate, that restored relationship, that “New Covenant”. That relationship which God has made for us is the whole point of what our faith is about. Every aspect of the story of Jesus that we celebrate throughout the Church’s year leads up to this central reality: I will be their God, they will be my people. 

In today’s Gospel, the Gentiles, all the nations of the earth, find themselves welcomed into this relationship, and in token of this they offer gifts. They have thought carefully about what to bring: they have tried to express who it is they have come to worship – precious gold for their King, sweet frankincense for their Priest and God, pungent myrrh for the One who will suffer. Yet the gift that God gives them – his Incarnate Word, Jesus his Son – far surpasses their offerings. What gift could be so precious, what prayer so pure, what suffering so full of healing power? On the Cross Jesus is revealed as gold, frankincense, and myrrh; King of love, perfect priest and victim, source of all life and healing. So tonight, as Christians have done over and over from the very beginning, we will offer the gift and sacrifice that our Father has given us, the life and death of his beloved Son, to show ourselves thankful, to appropriate for ourselves the blessings he gives, and to express, nurture and celebrate the relationship he has established.

“From the rising of the sun to its setting my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering.”

 

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