Third Sunday before Lent: Everybody Wants to Rule in God’s World …

Damian Thwaites, Bishop Robert Innes’ Attaché to the European Institutions and Diocesan Communications Director, examines curses, woes and blessings in this week’s Lectionary readings from Jeremiah 17.5-10, Luke 6.17-26 and 1 Corinthians 15.12-20.    

In March 1985 the band Tears for Fears released the song, ‘Everybody Wants to Rule The World’.  I remember listening to it on the school bus … I admit it’s still a favourite among my collection of 80s classics …   It was a popular hit, reaching No 2 in the UK charts.  At the time, there were East-West power struggles for global domination (Mikhail Gorbachev was only just coming to prominence in the Soviet Union).   The lyrics are not just a sharp criticism of leaders’ desire to hold power, and how this can have damaging consequences.  They’re also a plaintive cry about heads and hearts making decisions: ‘all for freedom and for pleasure’, ‘it’s my own desire, my own remorse, help me to decide’, ‘can’t stand this indecision, married with a lack of vision’.  We’re all tempted to run our own individual worlds.  This Septuagesima Sunday, 70 days from Easter, we learn about curses, woes and blessings in our Lectionary from Jeremiah, St Luke’s Gospel and 1 Corinthians.

I like the Book of Jeremiah.  I think it’s because his soul searching when called by God characterises the unexpected, at times deeply reluctant self-doubt when we’re confronted by some of biggest challenges life throws at us, and how our faith should guide us.  In this Jeremiah 17 passage, we learn three key things: man trusting in man alone is cursed (Jeremiah 17.5-6); trusting in Yahweh (God) is blessed (Jeremiah 17.7-8); and the human heart is truly deceitful, and God searches it out and examines the mind (Jeremiah 17.9-10).  And there’s an important link here to Psalm 1 for this Sunday.  We learn in very similar words to Jeremiah 17.8 that those who will trust in our Lord will ‘be like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season; and whose leaf does not wither – whatever they do prospers.’ (Ps 1.3).

It’s also in Jeremiah (31.31-34) that we find God’s promise of a New Covenant for his people. He delivered them from slavery in Egypt, but they departed from his ways, repented, but reverted to backsliding mode repeatedly.  But for all this, God promises to ‘forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more’ (Jeremiah 31.34). We can read this in connection with Hebrews (8.6-13), where we see it is written that ‘Jesus has obtained a superior ministry, since the covenant that he mediates is also better and is enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second.’

Luke’s Gospel account (in Luke 6.17-22) of Jesus’ teaching is one of the two Gospel passages including the Beatitudes; the other is Matthew (5.3-12). Whereas Matthew references nine blessings, Luke recounts four blessings, and four woes.  Jesus is addressing people in economic and social need on the impoverished margins of society.  They have come to hear, be healed, be blessed, and to be inspired.  St Luke’s account goes beyond St Matthew’s to state Christ’s divinely-determined, new order will reverse the fortunes of the rich in favour of the poor.

1 Corinthians affirms the Gospel of Christ’s Resurrection in which St Paul is admonishing those in the early church at Corinth who are expressing doubts about Jesus’ Resurrection. ‘There had been no justification, or salvation, if Christ had not risen. And must not faith in Christ be vain, and of no use, if he is still among the dead?’ (1 Corinthians 15.12). In the context of old and new order, it is clear that the supreme blessing for us can only come through the Resurrection, because it brings with it ‘the first fruits’ promising the ‘newness of life’ which we recite in our Anglican liturgy. The first step in understanding Christ’s eternal Kingdom is to start building it on earth today, transforming it in the likeness of his teachings.

I read in these passages a challenging message here for Europe’s current leadership as an old order; and I hope, emboldening inspiration for its younger generation of future leaders in a renewed one.  In the Brexit context, it takes on those who would make claims about allowing people to ‘take back control’ of their country. They promise a wispy aspiration of a better tomorrow, but do not acknowledge honestly the impact now of a ‘no deal’, above all for the lives of the poor and most vulnerable.  The same message challenges how the people of Greece were allowed to languish in protracted, desperate economic and social poverty, that caused some to question what values of the EU as a cohesive community really are.  And it tackles head on those who play on people’s fears of migration with populistic narratives that ‘other’, marginalise or oppress those fleeing conflict.  None of these approaches blesses others in time of uncertainty and/or adversity across Europe.

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The time is surely ripe to revive genuinely democratic, inclusive, participatory Christian social unity in Europe, as we look ahead to elections to the European Parliament in May, and onwards in 2020 to the 70th anniversary of the Schuman Plan. This would be a true manifestation marking a Christ-inspired and centred ‘new deal’ for Europe; and it has to be right that those who know the leaders of the past only from their history books get to write this new chapter for our continent.  Christians should not want to rule the world, because God does, and wills us to steward it justly.  Therefore, our Gospel mission is to change the inadequacies and injustices that we ourselves create – social, economic and political – and to do so guided by him.

Fourth Sunday before Lent: Do not be afraid

Rev Canon Dr Jack McDonald, chaplain in Leuven, offers us the challenge, ‘Do not be afraid’, drawing on Luke 5.1-11, the lectionary Gospel for this week.

When I was a child of 13 on a family holiday in Cornwall, I went swimming in the sea with my younger brother Ben, on the grounds that our parents had not specifically forbidden it. Momentarily I got into trouble and I had to fight hard to resurface and swim safely to the beach. All was well, but the memory of being somehow held fast under the surface by a natural force of incredible and unanswerable power was a sobering one. Ben and I agreed never to tell our parents and we never have! – maybe they will read this blog and fret!

Familiarity with this gospel passage makes us deaf to the ways it would have struck its first audience in the 1st century. Yes, it is the occasion in Luke’s Gospel when Simon (listen) is first called Peter (rock); yes, it is the first occasion in Luke’s Gospel when Jesus’ ministry causes real commitment and enthusiasm. But for me the key to understanding the passage is to reflect on the Jews’ understanding of the sea.

The living water of river or sea held three interlocking meanings: it represented birth (think of the first verses of Genesis, when God creates light out of the deep, or of the baby Moses, drawn out of the Nile by Pharaoh’s daughter in Exodus 2); it represented cleansing (think of the healing of Naaman in 2 Kings 5); and anticipating the Cornish swell, it represented danger and death (think of the Flood in Genesis 7). These three meanings are often blended together – think of the Exodus itself, where crossing the Red Sea is healing for the Hebrews, the birth of a new nation, and danger and death for the Egyptians –  think too of how we might describe Christian baptism – a new creation in Christ, sin forgiven, a passage through the death of Good Friday to the new life of Easter.

Our sanitised christening sermons often omit the metaphor for death which the waters of baptism represent. But water is a good image for death because it can be terrifying. One of the very few advantages of living in the UK as compared to the EU is that the new sterling banknotes are prettier than our euros. From next year, the new £20 will bear the portrait of JMW Turner, and his paintings of the force and power of the sea are memorable. Try these two: Stormy Sea with Blazing Wreck (1835) and Rough Sea with Wreckage (1840). To look at these pictures is a timely reminder to naughty boys that the sea is a place of risk and danger.

turner picturner stormy seas

The notion that the sea is not just for swimming in and play but also risky and dangerous helps us read this passage better. Jesus uses a boat as a pulpit: so he sits on top of the very waters to teach, on top of the unknown deep waters. He tells Simon to put out into the deep and let down his nets there, and it is from the deep that the huge catch comes. Here we are being propelled away from safety, away from comfort, and towards a ministry of risk and adventure. It is to the place of risk that Jesus Christ sends us. It is at the place of risk that Jesus Christ gives us not just a measly but a superabundant catch.

And just when our natural reaction is to shy away, Christ gives us the same message which has already been given three times in Luke’s Gospel – by the angel to Zechariah, to Mary and to the shepherds – ‘Do not be afraid.’ It is this reassurance which Luke will fill out in chapter 8, when he describes Jesus calming a storm on the same Sea of Galilee.

The sea can be terrifying and dangerous. It is to the place of risk and danger that Jesus sends us. But Jesus is lord and master of the sea and of danger. In Jesus Christ, the sea is as flat and calm as Raphael depicts it in his 1515 painting of the miraculous catch. Wherever we are sent and whatever the risks, Christ says Do not be afraid.

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Raphael: The Miraculous Catch of Fish

 

Candlemas: the meeting of the young and the old

Revd Deacon Frances Hiller, chaplain to the Suffragan Bishop in Europe, draws our attention to some of the exquisite insights gleaned from Luke 2.22-40, the Gospel reading for Candlemas.

This week in the Diocesan Office my colleague Bron will take down the crib and pack away Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus for another year, as we leave Christmas behind us and we turn towards the beginning of Lent – the start of the journey to the Cross. Candlemas, also known as the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, or the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is celebrated this week. In some churches candles will be blessed and lit, and there will be processions.

Candlemas comes midway between the joy of the Christmas Festival and the suffering and darkness of Passiontide. It is a bit like a hinge in the Church’s year – a time for looking both backwards and forwards. We have been for some weeks in the season of Epiphany, celebrating the appearance of God, the manifestation of his presence among us. Some have been blind, others, like Herod, have felt threatened. It has been those at the edges, or on the outside, who have been open to the extraordinary signs of God.

Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the Temple to present him to God, for every first-born boy belongs to God. They bring with them a sacrifice, two pigeons, because they are poor. Mary comes also to be purified. After the birth of her child she was ritually unclean according to the Law. If you have read Leviticus chapter 12 you will know that if Jesus had been a girl, we would not be celebrating this feast until 14 March.

The story of Simeon’s revelation, when he realises that his long wait has not been in vain is surely one of the most beautiful epiphany moments in the New Testament. As he holds in his arms this living, breathing bundle, he knows that he has been set free. God has kept his promise, and Simeon has seen with his own eyes the Light of the World, a light to reveal God to the nations. He can now let go. But a chill must have gone through Mary’s heart when she heard his words ‘This child is destined … to be a sign that will be opposed… and a sword shall pierce your own soul too.’ (Luke 2.35)

Simeon was not the only old person present. The prophet Anna was more or less a permanent fixture around the Temple, worshipping daily with fasting and prayer. Through all the long years she had never lost hope that her prayers would be answered. And when she saw Jesus she knew that that moment had come.

God is revealed to these two old people in the Temple, to Simeon, waiting patiently to die, and to Anna, one of the first to tell people about Jesus. She began ‘to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.’ (Luke 2.38) Candlemas is a festival of aging well. Simeon and Anna waited patiently all those years for God’s fulfillment. They would not see the completion of this work, but they were full of hope for God’s future.

St Ephrem the Syrian, a fourth century hymn writer (who was also a deacon) wrote this about Anna:

Blessed are you, old woman, treasure of perception, for this ancient Infant met you. By your old age, he assigned youth its place. He polished a mirror and set it up for children to learn dignity.

No-one is too old to be a sign of hope and faith to the younger generation. The age profile of some of our congregations might be on the high side, but don’t be too dismayed! For how would we manage without the many Simeons and Annas serving across the Diocese with such faithfulness, giving with generosity their time, energy and experience?

As Mary presented Christ in the Temple, we are called to present Christ to the world, to reflect his light through the way we choose to live our lives.

As Simeon looked for the Christ and found him in the tiny baby, we are called to seek and to serve Christ in others.

And like Anna, the first witness to Jesus, we are called to witness through our lives, our words and our worship to the love of God in Christ Jesus.

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A Sonnet for Candlemas

They came, as called, according to the Law.

Though they were poor and had to keep things simple,

They moved in grace, in quietness, in awe,

For God was coming with them to His temple.

Amidst the outer court’s commercial bustle

They’d waited hours, enduring shouts and shoves,

Buyers and sellers, sensing one more hustle,

Had made a killing on the two young doves.

They come at last with us to Candlemas

And keep the day the prophecies came true

We glimpse with them, amidst our busyness,

The peace that Simeon and Anna knew.

For Candlemas still keeps His kindled light,

Against the dark our Saviour’s face is bright.

(Malcolm Guite)

Epiphany 4: A manifesto for ‘Today’

Michael Torne offers this week’s reflection, drawing attention to the urgency voiced by this week’s lectionary Gospel, Luke 4.14-21.

Epiphany is the season of revelation, that light bulb moment when we feel we see something clearer than ever before. So far the Epiphany scriptures have revealed God incarnate in Jesus, his identity as God’s son, and his glory through the miracle at Cana. This week God’s manifesto to the world is revealed, a manifesto that Jesus will deliver.aquitaine 6

We have heard many manifestos, including Britain’s Brexit manifesto. Like that manifesto much is promised that in the complex detail cannot be delivered. Here in Luke we have a manifesto to top all manifestos – clear, breath taking and unambiguous. That manifesto declares God’s wants us to be free! Free from feeling oppressed, feeling crushed by political decisions we have no sway over, economic decisions that seem to leave us worse off and more. By comparison Britain’s Brexit freedom is insignificant compared to God’s freedom.

We live in an evermore-polarised society, a black and white society that is exclusive, that seems closed to forbearance, tolerance and co-operation. Insiders and outsiders are at the core of Luke’s Gospel. The season of Epiphany reveals God as the God of all, a God who through Jesus Christ points the way for us; a way revealed to us in the coming season of Lent – the costly way of the cross .

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Those who listened that day to Jesus believed themselves to be God’s chosen people or insiders. We declare ourselves to be God’s children but like them we often forget or don’t understand all men are his children. In that oversight we claim exclusive grace. But it is grace available to all. That was part of the shock to listeners that day. The revelation in God’s manifesto is the coming of justice and mercy, the disappointment is that it is for both insiders and outsiders.

We pray in our churches for justice and mercy but often fall short in taking action in our wider communities. When we talk of homelessness, refugees, re-distribution of wealth our attitude changes like those in the synagogue. We may sign up to these things in principle but find it hard to put into action.

Jesus says He is the anointed and the word is fulfilled. We as the body of Christ, as St Paul puts it, live in Christ and in living in Christ become the anointed ones. God is for us, with us and in us through Jesus Christ, we are anointed to carry on the work of bringing the manifesto to where we are, and to the world.

How can we do it?

By rooting ourselves in Scripture we allow Christ to be seen and act through us in our lives. Bringing the manifesto to the people we meet in our communities may seem an impossible task, a task we may want to shrink from. But the small things we can do as individuals when joined by our brothers and sisters rooted in Christ in our individual churches and echoed by the whole Christian community we can bring the joy of God’s manifesto. There will always be those who do not want to listen, those who want to ridicule. Most of us may look like unlikely messengers of God. Just as those sitting in the synagogue with Jesus found it difficult to see the local carpenter’s son as the fulfilment of the prophecies.

We will have to live with the shortcomings of the Brexit manifesto. But today if we accept that by living in Christ we are his anointed we are able to aid in bringing God’s manifesto into the reality of society, breaking down the barriers of our polarised society. There is an apocryphal story of a church where worshippers turned up for their service to be confronted with a closed church door. Pinned to it, it had a notice reading ‘You have been coming here long enough, now just go and do it!’. God is revolutionary, and he wants us to be revolutionary too. In a world full of injustice, intolerance and lack of compassion, God wants to turn it upside down – and he expects us to help!

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 Michael Torne is a Reader in the Anglican chaplaincy in Aquitaine, France. Michael was licensed as a Reader in ministry in Aquitaine in 2017. During his professional working life he worked as a director of an multidisciplinary design company based in UK but on international projects. He has two grown up children, both of whose lives are potentially heavily affected by Brexit. The photos illustrate the life and ministry of the Anglican church in Aquitaine – and Michael’s licensing two years ago.

 

Epiphany 3: The generosity of God

In this reflection, Archdeacon Colin Williams, Archdeacon of Germany and northern Europe and Archdeacon of the Eastern Archdeaconry, draws links between this Sunday’s Gospel reading, John 2.1-11, and the contemporary life of Europe.

‘Now standing there were six stone water-jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons.’ (John 2.6)

That is a key sentence of the Gospel passage set this year for the Third Sunday of Epiphany.  The wedding feast at Cana in Galilee would have operated within the same context as any other wedding feast of Jesus’ day.  No tame affair of a few hours.  It would last for days.  The host’s reputation would stand or fall on the degree of lavishness he poured out upon his guests. At this wedding, though, the wine was about to run out. The host’s reputation was about to take a nosedive.  Jesus saves the day.  And how!  The figures speak for themselves.  From a shortage of wine, the host suddenly finds himself with 120-180 gallons on his hands.  Enough to float a battleship, had there been such a thing in the Palestine of Jesus’ day.  Unreasonably, extravagantly, unashamedly generous.

John has a characteristic word for this as for other acts of Jesus. ‘Jesus did this’, John tells us, as ‘the first of his signs…, and revealed his glory.’

water into wine armenian

Depiction of the changing of water into wine on a tile in St James’ Armenian Cathedral Jerusalem: replica by Armenian potters in Jerusalem.

In this act at a wedding feast In Cana of Galilee, Jesus points away from himself and towards the Father.  He demonstrates that unreasonable, extravagant, unashamed generosity is key to a full understanding of the divine life.  We worship a God who from no motive other than generosity created our world and our universe and all that is in them and saw that they were good. We worship a God who in Jesus Christ generously gave of himself to come and live and walk among us in human form.  We worship a God who generously pours out his love and his sustaining power on his Church.  A God who in Jesus Christ gives of himself as we reach out our hands to receive all that he has to give of himself in bread and in wine.

Our calling as followers of Jesus Christ on our continent of Europe is to bring in God’s Kingdom. To work with him and each other so as to mould Europe in such a way that more and more it becomes a god-shaped continent.  That means many things. It does though mean in particular that we are called to make of our continent a space which is characterised precisely by generosity.

In our better moments in these last decades the peoples of Europe have dared to be generous. Though our post-WWII willingness to reach out and be reconciled to those whom for   too long we had called   enemies.  Through the Schengen Agreement and the breaking down of physical barriers between nations. In the particular case of Germany in 2015, through the outrageously generous reception of over one million refugees from Syria and other war-torn lands in the Middle East.

A key task in the Europe of the second decade of the twenty-first century is to foster such generosity still.  In a Europe in which individuals outside the UK Parliament are harangued for holding views which the haranguers find uncongenial.  In a Europe in which a leading member of the German Bundestag is viciously attacked and hospitalised on the streets of a German city because of the views which he holds.   In a Europe in which the popular and open Mayor of the Polish city of Gdansk is murdered on the street by reason of decisions which in good conscience he had taken.  In such a Europe, there is an urgent need for us to rediscover generosity and openness towards each other.

In Cana of Galilee, Jesus shows the way.  Generosity can take us from anxiety and fear to joy and  rejoicing. Through our generosity, mirroring his generosity, God can act, God can make a difference.  In our churches,  in our communities, in our nations, in our dealings one with another, let our first instinct again  be to show unreasonable, extravagant  generosity towards each other.  For in our doing that, God’s Kingdom will draw near.

The Baptism of Christ – Plunging deep into faith

 

A reflection on the three readings which the lectionary selects for this Sunday (Isaiah 43.1-7; Acts 8.14-17; Luke 3.15-17, 21-22) is offered by the Rev David Waller, the Anglican Chaplain for Mallorca based in Palma. David also acts as Area Dean for part of the Archdeaconry of Gibraltar.

I relish the idea that Christmas is one of the shortest liturgical seasons in the Church’s calendar. This is not because I’m a Scrooge at heart but because it allows Epiphany to sound the starting pistol for the life of faith and for the mission of the Church. There is a real sense of taking the anticipation, delight and awe of Christmas and then it’s as if God saying to us ‘well don’t just stand there, do something!’

There is an inherent undercurrent of effervescent excitement to Epiphany, if I can put it that way! These readings all tell us of the energy that is released as the people of God grasp at the astounding thought that they are called by God, who then equips them for what is to come.

So Second Isaiah tells of the restoration of God’s people. Following the destruction of the Temple in 587 BC by the Babylonians and subsequent exile, the people of Judah are now encouraged to return to their home. God works through the good offices of Cyrus the Persian king who has overcome the Babylonians and who offers this restoration to God’s people. Among the many themes of the Isaiah reading for this Sunday we might focus on verses 1 and 2a where the collective calling of God’s people is reaffirmed through allusion to water; the Exodus at the waters of the Red Sea and perhaps the entry into the promised land through the waters of the Jordan. In all of this God’s chosen people belong to God – ‘you are mine’ – and even though they pass through waters, (often a sign of chaos and uncertainty in the Bible) they shall not be ‘overwhelmed’. All of this, to jump to the last verse, is because God has made us for himself and our destiny and creation is interwoven with our giving glory to God, in how we live a full human life.

In the reading from Acts it is worth recalling the animosity that existed between inhabitants of Judaea and those living in Samaria – that the Samaritans were not quite ‘proper’ somehow. Hence the radical story of the Good Samaritan that Jesus tells to show the boundary crossing nature of God’s love. Here Peter and John travel to Samaria where someone else has already told the people there of Jesus Christ and baptised them. If I can speculate a little here, it’s as if the Samaritans knew the name of Jesus, maybe having been told of the account of his life and actions, but had not yet received his spirit. Peter and John show them that in receiving Jesus Christ it is a matter of more than just knowledge or understanding, it’s about nothing less than life transformed! I realise that I say this from a twenty-first century viewpoint where the mission of the church is to call people to depth of understanding in faith rather than settling for a slightly objective understanding of Christ as simply one more consumer choice! Faith in Christ calls on the whole person, within the context of their community, to be transformed.

In Luke’s Gospel we hear the passage where John the Baptist rightly points us to Jesus to be the recipient of our expectations. In doing this John also exemplifies the self-emptying ministry of serving others that Jesus will reveal fully in his life and on the cross. This is the life that in God’s good time we are all called to emulate as followers of The Way, the way of Jesus Christ. baptism site

Traditional site of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan: photo taken by Ben O’Neill on recent pilgrimage to the Holy Land by those participating in the diocesan CEMES programme.

I resonate very much with that question of John in the Gospels about who should be baptising whom on this occasion! I guess we all feel that it is Jesus himself who gives us his gifts of his spirit in order to live out the Christian life. But here Jesus is baptised by John. The gift we receive here is the understanding that God shows us what to do. That if Jesus himself is subject to this ritual showing that he is changed, and turned towards God, then that is the path for us to follow too. It is the essence of a suggestion that if we turn to Christ; if we repent of our sins; if we reject evil, then we too may hear those words whispered in our ear, in our minds, our soul – ‘you are my child, my beloved, with you I am well pleased.’ How could we then not respond? Epiphany!

Epiphany: The boundless limits of the love of God

Drawing on all three lectionary readings set for the Feast of the Epiphany (Isaiah 60.1-6; Ephesians 3.1-12; Matthew 2.1-12) Bishop David Hamid, Suffragan Bishop of the Diocese in Europe, draws on his experience to reflect on the history and meaning of the Feast, and the varied ways that it is celebrated in the countries of our diocese.

Epiphany (Greek epiphaneia – manifestation, appearance, or showing forth) is possibly the oldest festival in the Christian calendar, after Easter. The Ancient Eastern Church celebrated the baptism of our Lord on this day when a voice from heaven declared, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’, thus showing to the world who this man Jesus was. To this was added a focus on the wedding at Cana and Christ’s first miracle, showing his divine nature. In the Western Church the Feast of the Nativity was celebrated, perhaps to displace the pagan feast of Sol Invictus, the Invincible Sun. Around the 4th century scholars think there was an ‘an exchange of feasts’, with the West additionally adopting Epiphany and the East also taking on Christmas.

The Magi are central to the Gospel of the day – possibly Babylonian astrologers or religious wise men from ancient Persia (modern day Iran, which borders with our Diocese in Europe). The Old Testament was widely known in the ancient lands of Babylonia and Persia. There was a presence of Jews in exile there in the 6th century BC and some of the deportees’ descendants never returned to Judea. Wise men in those lands would know of the sacred texts of the Jews who lived among them. Isaiah, with its themes of light and darkness, (Arise, shine; for your light has come…for darkness shall cover the earth …nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn) may have had a particular resonance for eastern sages especially if they were adherents of the ancient Zoroastrian religion, which has cosmic dualistic leanings: day and night, good and evil.

Christians have read St Matthew’s story of the Magi in conjunction with Psalm 72 where in verse 10 we read ‘The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall pay tribute; the kings of Sheba and Seba shall bring gifts’[1] and with Isaiah 60.1-6, which speaks of gold and frankincense. Fr Nicholas King SJ (who was our Bible Scholar at the last Diocesan Readers’ Conference) points out in his translation of the Bible that not only should the reference to gold and frankincense immediately alert us to the gifts brought by the Magi, but also Isaiah speaks of camels, which is why we think that the Wise Men came on camels, for this mode of transport is not mentioned by Matthew at all![2]

magi gifts cologne

According to tradition the relics of the Magi lie in the great Cathedral of the city where our Diocesan Synod meets, Cologne.

Throughout the countries of our Diocese can be found a richness of Epiphany traditions. The Armenian Church continues to celebrate both the birth and the baptism of Jesus Christ on the same day, the 6th day of January. It is a lively festival in Spain, el Día de los Reyes Magos, the Feast of the Three Kings, perhaps most important for children for on this day (not Christmas) they receive their presents. The French enjoy an almond cake called Galette des Rois, the King’s cake, which usually has a toy crown or a figurine of the baby Jesus inside, and is topped with a gold paper crown. In Russia (although the Church there observes the Julian calendar, 13 days behind the Gregorian) Epiphany is marked by cutting holes in the ice of lakes and rivers, often in the shape of the cross, to bathe in the freezing water! In German speaking lands, from the reference in the Gospel to the Magi “entering the house” where Mary, Joseph and the child Jesus was, people bless their houses after the Epiphany mass by marking over the entrance door with chalk: 20+C+M+B+19 (for this year). The initials either stand for Christus mansionem benedicat (Christ bless this house) or for the traditional names of the three kings: Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar.

These names date from the 9th century but became symbolic of the three human groups from the then known three continents of Asia, Africa and Europe, to point to Jesus’s manifestation to the Gentiles, the nations of the world, signified in the persons of the Magi. In later years the three kings were also associated with the phases of human life – youth, maturity and old age. This tradition underlines a truth basic to Christian teaching: God’s salvation is not offered just to one exclusive group. St Paul speaks to this truth in the second reading,

In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit; that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel(Ephesians 3.5-6).

These days in Europe there is pressure on governments to exclude people from other countries. In some places foreigners are becoming suspect. But Epiphany tells us that there is no exclusivity with Christ; there is no one outside the boundaries of God’s love. Epiphany challenges us to expand our tents to welcome everyone. Even pagan astrologers were among the first to worship him and were blessed by his presence.

The celebration of the arrival of wise men from the East represent a new beginning for humanity. They represent the entire human race’s longing for the light of God’s grace and truth. They symbolise the procession of all of God’s children from every part of the world, who are on the way, seeking Christ, and who on finding him offer gifts and worship. Christ our God is for all the peoples of the earth. This is the thrilling message of Epiphany.

From a pure virgin by divine command appeared the light that lighteneth man’s days.

A brilliant star proclaimed the glad event in the far heaven shone its ardent blaze.

The Persian magi saw the effulgent star, illumining the sky like solar rays.

Towards Bethlehem with joyful steps they sped to offer him their precious gift and praise.

(Translation of words by the modern Persian poet, Hamidi, in the Church of St Simon the Zealot, Shiraz, Iran)

st simon zelotes church iran

The Anglican Church of St Simon the Zealot, Shiraz, Iran

[1] Common Worship translation

[2] The Bible: A study Bible freshly translated by Nicholas King, Kevin Mayhew, 2013