We start this new year of 2021 in a Tier 4 lockdown, with our movements and our freedom to associate severely curtailed by law. Government control of people, their movements and whereabouts, is, however, nothing new. Mary and Joseph were forced to travel about 90 miles from their home in Nazareth up to Bethlehem in order to comply with the census regulations. It was a hard journey, at the end of which Mary gave birth in what were far from ideal circumstances as the guest houses were full. One cannot help but compare with those being treated in hospital corridors as there are no beds available.
Some time later the Holy Family receive some unexpected visitors. The wise men travelled over 500 miles because they observed a celestial phenomenon, a star, which they interpreted as signifying a royal birth in Israel. They travel to Jerusalem, the capital city, and see the king, and explain why they have come. Their news, rather than being a cause for joyous celebration, is interpreted by the Jewish king as a threat. So, Herod consults the religious experts who explain, following the prophecy of Micah, that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem. Herod sends the wise men off to do some reconnaissance, before reporting back to him, claiming that he wishes to come and worship the child. However, the wise men are warned not to return to Herod, but to take a different route back home.
Matthew’s Gospel presents a story characterised by fear, rather than celebration. King Herod is worried that he will be removed from power. Fear is everywhere: fear of the Roman overlords, of threats to the ruling dynasty, or of popular uprising. It is a tense world, far removed from familiar domesticated images of Christmas and Epiphany, and yet such is God’s coming into our world. God comes into a world of fear to bring hope and love to people who long for healing and reconciliation.
The wise men bring Jesus presents. Indeed, it is because of them that we give each other gifts at this time. We follow their example, and try to manifest something of the love and generosity which characterises this season. Unlike the wise men, we have not been able to travel this year, and we may have presents which we have not been able to deliver or send. It doesn’t matter. The wise men were not concerned about when they would arrive with their gifts. What mattered was that would see the King of the Jews, worship Him as God, and give Him treasures. They offer Jesus gold, a sign of His Kingship. They give incense, because Jesus is God become man, to whom worship is due. And they offer myrrh, used to anoint the dead. Even at Christ’s birth it is recognised that He will die for us, reconciling God and humanity. At the beginning of Jesus’ earthly life we see signs of how it will end: in Jerusalem, on a Cross, with a crown of thorns and a mocking inscription which proclaims the truth of God’s love for humanity.
God comes into a world of fear to bring hope, and joy, and love. In taking our flesh, Jesus shares our experience of human life and all that that entails. God can not only empathise but also sympathise. God, in Christ, experiences our fears and frailties. This wonderful news is declared to the world at the Epiphany, Our Lord’s Manifestation to the whole world. Epiphany fulfils the prophecies of Scripture: our first reading this morning from Isaiah Chapter 60 is full of details which are picked up in the account of the visit of the Magi. This is important in that it shows us that Jesus is the one who fulfils prophecy, He is the Messiah, the King of the Jews, God with us, Emmanuel. The fact that His birth is recognised by both local shepherds and wise men from outside the Jewish world shows that God’s salvation is for all, for everyone who turns to Him. This is Good News. God loves us and makes this manifest to the whole world in the birth of Jesus.
To a world filled with fear we can proclaim a message of hope, and joy, the good news that salvation has come to humanity in Jesus, born in Bethlehem, recognised and worshipped by the wise men because He is God. We can rejoice with them because we share their joy and wonder that God is born to save us. We can trust His promises, and know that whatever difficulties we face, whatever fears assail us, that God is with us, with a message of salvation for all people.
So let us be filled with hope and peace, may we live lives of joy, and love, and service of God and one another, which proclaim in word and deed the love of God to the world. May the whole of creation resound with the praise of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.