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January 2019

from Rev Anne Futcher

January 6th, known as Twelfth Night, is the official end of Christmas.  Time to recycle the tree, take down the cards and the Christmas decorations.  Let’s pause, though, before we pack away the crib, with its figures of the three wise men.  For this is their time.   In the Church calendar, January 6th marks the Epiphany; the festival of those mysterious strangers who, gliding across the desert on camels, follow the star all the way to Bethlehem. 

Back in November, I visited Abu Dhabi for a few days. One afternoon, I was lucky enough to be taken to a rather plush hotel to taste their ‘camelccino’ – camel milk cappuccino!  I could choose my topping: an outline of a camel either in chocolate or in gold leaf. Gold, I was told, was actually very good for me. But I played safe and opted for the chocolate.

It set me thinking about the gifts brought to the baby Jesus by the wise men; the gold, frankincense and myrrh.  Traditionally, these are thought to be the tributes of three great kings to one who is even greater: gold, a pure and precious metal, to symbolise his majesty; frankincense, burnt in temples to deities, his divinity; myrrh, used for embalming, his death.

Another interpretation considers how in ancient times gold was placed on open wounds to aid healing; frankincense to inhibit inflammation; myrrh to help digestion.  It suggests that the wise men might have been presenting the Holy Family not with tributes, but with gifts of healing. 

Others have understood both the visitors and their gifts rather differently. They believe the men were magicians who dealt in alchemy – changing base substances into gold. Canon Angela Tilby, for example, suggests that their surrender of the gifts meant the admission of fraud; the giving up of powers based on deception or magic.* She sees it as a sign that the birth of Jesus was ushering in a new order, one in which the powers of sorcery and enchantment have no value. 

Today enchantments of different kinds surround us still: the enticement of wealth; the power of charisma; the cheapening of life. Perhaps, as Angela Tilby suggests, the laying down of gold might signify our refusal to be driven by the love, or fear, or worship of money?  Perhaps the laying down of frankincense could mean our refusal to be swayed by the cult of charisma, or the culture ofcelebrity?  Perhaps the offering of myrrh could represent our refusal to be complicit with those institutions and practices that fail to honour and value human life?  Such an understanding could herald in a year inwhich we reflect more deeply on how we act as consumers and as citizens. 

However we might interpret the offering of those gifts to the baby Jesus, overall they signify a greater sense of wellbeing – spiritually, physically, ethically.  That’s a pretty good way to start the NewYear.  Happy Epiphany! 

* BBC Radio 4 Thought for the Day – 06/01/2015

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