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Seeing ourselves in the face of the travellers

January 6, 2018

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Preached by Canon Sue Wallace using Matthew 2.1-12 at Sung Eucharists on Saturday 6th January 2018, The Epiphany.

If you ever visit the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem you will discover many wonderful things: the cave beneath the church with a little star set into the floor, underneath the altar, marking the spot where Jesus was reputedly born. You will then see on the right another marble monument, marking the place where the manger was supposed to have stood where Mary placed Jesus, wrapped in swaddling clothes. The cave’s walls are covered with leather hangings so that you can hardly see that this crypt chapel is a cave-stable which was once the basement of a house, but if you walk further away from the manger to the back of the crypt you begin to see the curved walls, and experience the cozy domestic nature of this place.  Then it really does feel like a cave, and the years peel away. I sat there in that spot a few years ago on this very day, and hardly anyone was around as it was near the end of the intifada and tensions were still rather high. Sitting there upon the floor (there were no chairs) was like being in a time machine, and the reality and physicality of the birth of Jesus hit me in a new way. This is a place which is tangible, where Christians have marked the birth of Jesus since the first century, and it is a reminder that the stories aren’t just stories. They concerned real people.

It is one of the oldest churches in the world and one of the sites which was marked by Hadrian who, it is said, tried to have the memory of this moment wiped out by placing a temple to Adonis, the Greek god of beauty and desire, on the spot. Yet the irony of this temple is that it marked the site as being one of spiritual significance for some reason and thus pointing it out for Christian pilgrims. The church has suffered many times in its history and looks a bit battered in places. Yet one story that fascinates me is the story of how the magi saved this church.

In the year 614 the Persians invaded the holy land, destroying many churches. They were about to destroy this one too, but their commander Shahrbaraz was so moved by the mosaic in the church of the three Magi that he commanded that the building be spared.

The Magi, these mysterious travellers from the East. Why would a mere picture of these people move a Persian commander to spare a church when he was destroying everything else? Well, it  was because in the mosaic these Magi were dressed as Persian astrologers with their distinctive rounded hats, and, although this mosaic no longer exists a similar one can be found in Ravenna in Italy.  These early Magi weren’t dressed as kings. They were dressed as scholars, in exotic leopardskin leggings that wouldn’t be out of place in the high street today, and brightly coloured cloaks and tunics. The Persian commander took one look at these images, and he saw himself and his people in them, gazing at this child and his mother, worshipping and presenting their gifts. He spared the church and thus peace and goodwill was restored to Bethlehem for a  time.

And perhaps that is what we too are supposed to do when reading Matthew’s account. I think we are supposed to see ourselves in the faces of these travelers.  There is no reference to kings in Matthews text. The gifts are three but the number of travelers may have been greater and a mixed group,as women were Magi too. The later images of kings come from the prophesies of Isaiah and the psalms but on this day, just for a while let’s go back to Matthew’s account and see the Magoi from the East, these seekers of truth, watching out for  the signs of the times and asking questions of those they met. “Where is the child?” Perhaps we too can ask “Where is Jesus? Tell me how to find him.” And the answer, as they discovered, was firstly to look in the scriptures to find wisdom and prophesy, but then also to search and not to be afraid of asking questions of the fellow travelers on the journey.  Then finally, to stop, and to let the joy of the moment of encounter overwhelm. ‘When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.”

It was then that they gave him gifts and I believe that these gifts have significance not just for them, but for us too. The gold was tribute to a king, acknowledging Christ’s authority, and ability to rule, to make decisions about us and our lives.  We too give Christ this gift when seeking his guidance in the important decisions in life.  This could also include decisions about our own charitable giving.

Frankincense is the gift for a priest, and in worship an offering of prayer. It is offered to one who is divine. We are simply called to offer him our hearts’ worship.

Finally the magi offered myrrh: A gift which for many speaks of the tomb, but it also speaks of healing. It was present in many medicine chests in ancient times, and is still used in healing today, including some throat sweets. Myrrh oil is meant to be good for indigestion, ulcers, and, notably as an antiseptic for healing wounds, which of course makes us think of the one who healed but who was also wounded for us. Jesus Christ is the one who both offers us healing and yet who also calls us to stretch out our hands to help and heal others. As Sister Monica Joan put it so beautifully in Call the Midwife this Christmas. “The hands of the Almighty are so often found at the ends of our own arms.”

So as we ponder these amazing, mysterious travelers from the East, let us put ourselves in their Persian slippers and let us gaze in wonder and worship at the One who is born to be our King, our High Priest and our Great Healer. Amen.