When I was 10 I received a completely unexpected gift for Christmas. My parents did not have much money. We lived in a council house, and my mother also fostered two Nigerian children, Foluka and Olaitan, as well as trying to raise me and my brother Peter. My sisters had lived with us for three years by then, so they were family too. My unexpected gift was from an aunt and it was a pair of binoculars. I had recently got a taste for ornithology and, on that very Christmas day, I got the chance to see some of my favourite birds up close and I have never forgotten it.
Neither have I ever forgotten my sisters. If the word gift means anything they were a gift too. They brought something precious into the life of our family. And they shared my life for a large part of my childhood.
We are celebrating Epiphany today. A time of gifts. When the wise men bring strange gifts to the infant Christ: gold, frankincense and myrrh.
I have to pause for a digression here and answer the usual question. What is myrrh? It was, just like frankincense, a gum from a tree, which was added to the incense burned in the Temple in Jerusalem, but was also named after its taste – ‘bitter’ – and was used as a pain killer and healing ointment.
And we are celebrating two baptisms – of Ethan and Ottilie.
In the wedding service, one of the blessings of marriage is ‘the gift of children.’
Any good gift, I would suggest, whether we are thinking of an object or a person, makes a difference, changes our way of seeing, perhaps, or brings a delight which far transcends any financial cost and opens up our life and expands our horizons.
One of the great themes of Epiphany is that God’s supreme gift is the gift of Christ. Although today our attention is drawn to the questing Magi, the whole period from Christmas to Candlemas is an introduction to the impact of Christ. All those of you who have ever been here for every Sunday between Christmas Day and Candlemas when the Christmas season comes to an end at the beginning of February will be used to the way the stories we hear on Sundays this time of the year dart backwards and forwards. The flight to Egypt, then Jesus’ baptism and the wedding feast of Cana; then back to Jesus’ Nazareth home today with those very peculiar and unexpected gift bearers; then concluding with Mary and Joseph watching with wonder as Saint Simeon takes their infant child in his arms and give thanks to God saying:
‘My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all the peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for the glory of your people Israel.’
That God’s light is present in every child and available to us every step of our lives is at the heart of every baptism.
When the water is sanctified, I say a prayer which is not just for the children but for all of us trying to live our lives in response to the love and forgiveness of God, revealed through Christ.
‘Renewed in your image, may they walk in the light of faith and continue for ever in the risen life of Jesus Christ our Lord.’
And it is worth listening out for how many times the word gift appears in this service — Christ the light-bearer being the ultimate gift.
But there is another note to a baptism and the story of the Magi, which sometimes gets lost – a note of struggle and conflict. In the baptism service we explicitly commit to repenting of our sins and renouncing evil.
I will pray that Otillie and Ethan will be able to fight valiantly against the powers of darkness.
Maybe in today’s world of invasions, climate change and a cost of living crisis, the importance of these elements might rise to the surface. And, if we look back at some of the art that has been inspired by the gift bearing strangers, that awareness has always been there.
In one famous painting, by Pieter Bruegel, as the ‘kings’ (as the travellers are depicted in that sixteenth-century version) offer their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, the Christ child seems to be trying to hide himself. And no wonder. Behind him a man is whispering into his father Joseph’s ear about Herod’s murderous intentions. There is a platoon of spear-carrying soldiers in the background, and just beside the black ‘king’ who carries a beautiful frankincense container is a man whose face hasn’t got a look of wonder or adoration but of avaricious desire for its golden treasure.
Our gifts, whether people or things, need to be received in the right way: with gratitude, responsibility, reverence and love.