Church of England Diocese in Europe

Sermon in Ankara for the Feast of the Epiphany (3rd January 2021) - The Revd Patrick Irwin

Today we are celebrating in advance the feast of the Epiphany, two days before the Twelfth Night of Christmas. We have heard the beautiful reading from the Gospel according to Matthew, which has captured the imagination of Christians and led to many colourful legends and traditions springing up. The magi or astrologers in Matthew’s account, scholars from Iran, have become kings, the number of gifts has led to the supposition that there were three of them, and they have acquired the names Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. Since the late 15th century the third king has usually appeared in western art as an African. 

Roman Catholic German lands enjoy the tradition of the Star Singers (Sternsinger). Groups of children gather around trios dressed up as the Three Kings, in the past with one blacked up as an African, and make their way around their neighbourhood singing seasonal songs and raising money for charity. On coming to a house the letters “C M B”, the initials of the Three Kings, will be inscribed with chalk on the lintel with the addition of the year. 

As a student in the German city of Trier I set off one Epiphany to walk through the town with an African priest from Tanzania. We met a party of Star Singers as we went along and the encounter was dramatic. The little boy dressed up as an African king looked in horror at my Tanzanian companion and, to the priest’s great amusement, exclaimed at the top of his voice “Sie sind zu schwarz! (You are too black!)” Sometimes it can be difficult to cope with reality!

Our story told in our Gospel reading seems so familiar to us that it may be useful to take a look at what it actually says. Matthew’s story is indeed about kings and wise men, but these figures are people other than the magi. The kings in Matthew chapter 2 are Herod and Jesus. Herod exemplifies the sort of king whom Jesus will later denounce, a tyrant who lords it over those he rules rather than serving them. He is not a ruler who shepherds God’s people. By contrast the infant King Jesus is helpless and vulnerable, a ruler whose power is hidden in humility. The wise men in the story are the chief priests and scribes who act as King Herod’s advisors. Learned in the Scriptures, they possess academic knowledge that both King Herod and the magi lack. Yet what good does it do them? It does not lead them to the Messiah whom they await but causes them to become involved in a plot to kill him.

In the gospel according to Matthew kings are contrasted with servants (20.25-28) and wise men are contrasted with infants (11.25). The magi are depicted as men who do as they are instructed, who seek no honour for themselves, and who gladly humble themselves kneeling before a woman and a child. In this they fit the image of servants better than that of kings. They also embody the two traits ascribed to infants by Matthew. They are people to whom God reveals what is hidden, and from whom God derives worship or praise. So we may contrast Jesus Christ as a literal infant with Herod the King, and the magi as metaphorical infants with the wise men of Israel who are King Herod’s advisors.

In all three of our readings today we have heard how God is manifested to people outside the traditional religious community. Isaiah reminds his compatriots in the austere days that followed the Exile that God has transformed the world. The prophet tells his people that God has called them to be a light to the nations. Other nations will turn to them but this is not to be for the glory of Israel, but for the glory of God. Isaiah pictures Jew and Gentile alike coming together to proclaim the glory of the Lord and to praise his name. 

Similarly, Paul in Ephesians suggests that the ultimate purpose of God is to unite humanity in one community in which the distinction between Jew and Gentile will have vanished. No longer will there be insiders and outsiders but all will belong together. Paul speaks of God’s purpose as a mystery, and the mystery is that he has chosen, as it were, to add new beneficiaries to his will. The Gentiles also are to be fellow-heirs with the Chosen People, and to be members of the same body. 

Matthew shows that the division between Jew and Gentile, between insider and outsider, has begun to erode with the coming of Christ. He has been revealed to some apparent outsiders, the magi, while some apparent insiders, the chief priests and scribes in Jerusalem, have failed to come and worship him. Today’s readings remind us that God’s glory may be manifested where we least expect it. Sometimes, it would appear, God’s people become a light for others; on other occasions God’s people seem to be blind to the light that others can see, or, if they do see the light, they fail to react appropriately. 

Whether or not we see the light ourselves, it has most certainly arrived. The light is here, as God has entered our world. It is for us to follow the example of the astrologers from afar, the magi, rather than the King in Jerusalem and his coterie of wise men, as we come to worship the heavenly child born into our world. In this bleak midwinter it is for us to give him our hearts.