Epiphany marks the end of Christmas, in one way, and the further extension of its mystery and meaning, in another way. The word, epiphany, means manifestation. It signals the idea of what is made known to us. In the Christian understanding, Epiphany celebrates the making known of the essential divinity of Christ. It is made known through the humanity of Christ.
It is difficult to know which is harder to understand: the things of God or the things of our humanity? The Christian view is that both are bound up in each other; we cannot know God apart from our relation to one another and the world, and we cannot know ourselves, our world, and one another apart from God. Epiphany, meaning the feast which culminates the festival of Christmas, and the doctrine and season which it inaugurates, illuminates the dialectic of the human and the divine but with a focus on the divine attributes of Christ as made known through his humanity.
The Magi are the magoi, the wise ones from Anatolia, from the East as Matthew tells us. It is a strong reminder to the West of how much is owed to the East. As such, something universal is opened to view. Classically speaking, Epiphany proclaims that Christ’s holy birth is omni populo, for all people, a point made, to be sure, in the Christmas readings but here more than amply and strongly emphasized in the coming and going of the wise men. The Magi, after all, are the proverbial ‘come-from-aways’ and in our rather disturbed times which manifests a certain amount of allophobia (fear of the other) and or xenophobia (fear of the stranger), a kind of misanthropy, their coming is a welcome antidote to our preoccupations and concerns about ourselves in relation to the omicron variant of COVID-19. How? Because Epiphany makes manifest what is for all regardless of times and places, regardless of circumstances and events, and despite our fears and anxieties about ‘others’. It opens us out to a deeper insight into human dignity and purpose universally considered.
It is found in worship of which the gifts of the Magi are themselves the stellar expression. Here are “sacred gifts of mystic meaning”, gifts which teach and signify the meaning of Christ as King, as God, and as, well, what else? That is the question about the gift of myrrh. Gold and frankincense are foretold and forementioned by Isaiah, but myrrh? What are we to make of that?
It is the ancient burying spice and as such signifies the sacrifice and death of Christ. To put it another way, the gift of myrrh is about the realities of suffering and of the possibilities of redemption through suffering, a theme which is by no means uniquely Christian and yet here has a kind of clarity and emphasis. Learning through suffering is an ancient Greek concept exemplified, for instance, in Homer’s Odyssey. Here learning through suffering takes on a different prophetic and symbolic meaning, namely, learning through sacrifice, the defining feature of Christian life and one which has a long, long legacy, even one which speaks to our age, a world which, as Cardinal John Henry Newman memorably put it in 1873, is “simply irreligious”. Perhaps. Though it may simply be the ‘religion of secularity’, the worship of ourselves in our own inventions, social constructs, and self-obsessions.
That is a far remove from the way of sacrifice and service which is incomprehensible without the idea of a transcendent principle. We are more though not less than the events of our times which, paradoxically, are at once the consequence of human acts, at least in part, and belong to the limits of human experience and understanding. We confront ourselves. Will it be as the fearful other or as neighbour?
The Magi “depart unto their own country another way”, Matthew tells us. T.S. Eliot expands upon this in ways which capture the ambiguities and confusions of our times. “We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,/ But no longer at ease”, he has the Magi say. Something has changed. Why? Because of the encounter with the mystery of life and death in the birth of the child-Christ. “I had seen birth and death, /But had thought they were different; this Birth was/ Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death”. They are transformed by what they have been given to see. In a way, the greater journey of the Magi is not to Bethlehem but from Bethlehem, a journey of the understanding into the mystery of what they have come to see. Such a journey speaks to the journey of education in the idea of being changed by what we have been given to see. Ideas are set before you, to be sure, but the greater journey is about those ideas becoming alive in you.
The gift of myrrh, it seems to me, has a deep and profoundly symbolic effect. It portends and signifies the very meaning of the sign given unto the shepherds, “the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger”, who is “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of very God”, as the Creed states. Nothing affirms more strongly the essential goodness of creation and the idea of creation redeemed and restored; and nothing signals more wonderfully the union of God and man even in the extremis of suffering, of birth and death. Myrrh is the testament to our embodied existence which in Christ’s Incarnation is not repudiated nor ignored but redeemed. Myrrh is the gift which signals Christ as sacrifice, but even more it symbolises the greater power of the divine goodness which gathers to itself all the fragments of our broken lives and accomplishes our redemption.
The gifts of the Magi are given to Christ; they are themselves the response to the gift of God which has been given to us in Christ.
We return to the School in all of the uncertainties and confusions of our times. The struggle will be to find ways to press on with the journey of the understanding which bestows dignity and respect upon our humanity. The gift of myrrh is the gift of sacrificial love which strengthens and guides us. It is the great gift for our uncertain times.
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, Head of English & ToK Teacher
Chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy