Take the three gifts for example: gold frankincense and myrrh. Now, of course, they have very powerful symbolic meanings, deeply connected to biblical themes of divine kingship, priesthood and sacrifice prefiguring and fulfilled in Jesus Christ. I could speak on those things today, as I have many times in the past. However, I suspect that we still would not do full justice to the surprising, subversive, nature of our Gospel story today. We are often just too used to being dazzled by the apparent lavishness of myrrh, frankincense, and, especially, gold. I wonder then whether we might re-imagine those gifts in new ways to bring the story alive once more. This is part of what Don’s funeral, and the spirit of St Francis, points me to.
So, my question for today is this: if we were contemporary Magi – and in a powerful sense we actually are - what would we bring to reflect our understanding of Jesus Christ? What would we choose to offer as symbols of God’s salvation for us and others? What would our surprising and revealing gifts be? To start the ball rolling, let me offer three which emerge from my encounter with the Franciscan spirit this week: three gifts, reflecting three key words beginning with ‘h’ which our church and world need so badly today…
Firstly, in the spirit of Don Gibson and St Francis, I would bring soil, representing my first ‘h’ word: humility. Now, that is a long way from gold, isn’t it? Or is it? Certainly, unlike gold, both soil and humility aren’t regarded with much value today. Yet, for that very reason, perhaps they are an epiphanal gift to remind us of what we really need, and what is represented in Christ’s kingship. After all, we are, literally, and metaphorically, grounded by returning to honouring soil, whilst humility is not at all the same as humiliation and shame. The Church we may say has rightly been humiliated, brought low, by the shame and violence of abuse recently fully revealed by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse. So will we re-plant ourselves in good soil in the way we Christians relate to one another and others? Or will we keep resorting to shoring up our false gold of pride and privilege, as we see in some quarters on some issues today? Sadly, there is still a good deal of entitlement about, in church and the wider world, rather than a spirit of true humility, embodied so powerfully in the birth of Jesus. In so many places in our world we see arrogance and self-righteousness where some take things out of proportion, or are not properly grounded. In contrast, soil, rather than gold, is a reminder where true wealth lies. Don’t you love it that the very word ‘humility’ comes from the word ‘humus’ which means soil, or earth? That was part of St Francis’ vocation: returning us to such Christ-centred grounding. That was part of Don Gibson’s gift too. He saw himself as a gardener, which of course is another title for Jesus Christ, and perhaps a better title than king for our times. How lovely then that we have this wonderful St Francis College site as a potential garden for us all, on all kinds of levels: a place in which we can learn and practice humility: admitting that we have dirty hands from the impurities of our life, yet willing to get ourselves more deeply into the soil of new life in new ways. Wouldn’t that be a lovely epiphany?
Secondly, as contemporary Magi, I would suggest bringing a broken pot, representing my second ‘h’ word: honesty. Does that seem a less worthy gift of praise than frankincense? Less spectacular perhaps, but perhaps less easily concealing of truth. For the Magi in our story may have been unclean foreigners, people of other culture and religion, and maybe even fond of strange rituals and incantations. Yet they were, above all, truth seekers, following the star of love and revelatory light, wherever it might take them. Are we like that? There is some absurd falsity about, isn’t there? There is absurd falsity in much Christian life: about vital things like the Bible, faith and God. There is absurd falsity in our wider world too: ‘fake’ news, like fake gospel ‘good news’, obscuring and damaging us all. For we need to be honest if we are truly to grow. We need each other’s truths, not silos of self-deception and mutual recrimination. For the truth is that we are all broken pots. We are, to coin a phrase, not God’s gift to the church or world to make either ‘great again’. Look around you, and still more look within yourself: we are all broken and imperfect - as Leonard Cohen put it beautifully, ‘none of us deserving the cruelty or the grace’. In other words, much like St Francis, we aren’t really all that much use until we honestly admit our needs and longing for genuine truth and love. Then however, like Francis – and like the imperfect pots of bible and tradition and reason – then, together, we can places which God’s soil can fill. So can we put our imperfections together and be made into something even more beautiful? Our true offering is our loved and loving brokenness. Isn’t that the true fragrance of praise?
For, thirdly, like later Magi such as St Francis and Don Gibson, I would suggest bringing seeds to plant, representing my third ‘h’ word: hope. Now I don't want to dismiss myrrh in this. Part of its significance as an epiphanal gift is pointing us to the importance of Christ’s death and new life in the spices which the women brought at the resurrection. Yet perhaps seeds are a more helpful contemporary expression of this and the hope it symbolises: a hope beyond ordinary hope, through a God beyond past expectations of God. Our world is struggling for such a hope, isn’t it? Without humility and honesty and fresh embodied signs of such hope it cannot hear however. Like myrrh today, our churches are often weird symbols of revelation which need much uncoding. Yet if we sow – and still more, become - greater seeds of life and love, what an epiphany that could be for others? Our world seeks fullness of life and many new year’s resolutions will be made about that. Fullness of life however comes, as Jesus taught, and Don Gibson reminded me in his funeral this week, when we embrace what St Francis called ‘sister death’. For, as Jesus said, a seed has to die for new life. What then might be the seeds we have which are sometimes hidden or disregarded? Can we find and plant our seeds of life and love for one another and others? – thereby becoming channels of peace which can blossom in God’s good soil and in our broken vessels. So I have brought sunflowers seeds today, for I loved it that mourners laid laying sunflowers on Don’s coffin this week: as harbingers of a new creation, fill of humility, honesty and hope.
Will we too be Magi, like Don and St Francis? What will we bring? How will we respond and reveal the surprising, liberating, love of God, the gardener of new creation? In Jesus’ name, Amen.
by Jo Inkpin, for the Feast of the Epiphany, Sunday 30 December 2017