As if we need to demonstrate that the church is out of touch with the world around us, here we are to celebrate three wise men bringing gold, frankincense and myrrh. With the possible exception of the gold, what could be more passé than this little tableau? What could be more obsolete?
It has long since been a trope of Epiphany sermons that these men are probably not kings, that the scriptures nowhere tell us that there were three of them, and that their journey (if it ever actually happened at all: questionable) was not likely to have brought them to a Bethlehem stable 12 days after Christmas. So I repeat: what could be more obsolete than the wise men? Even their clothes are out of fashion, unless you consider what I am wearing tonight “in fashion.”
But it gets worse, for there is an old-fashioned, but important word at the center of the story of the Epiphany – used three times in the short section of Matthew’s gospel that tells us the story. And this word is what makes the story really out of date. The word is “homage.”
The wise men tell Herod that they are looking for the child-king of the Jews so that they may “pay him homage.” Herod disingenuously asks to be informed of the child’s location so that he too may “pay him homage.” And when the wise men finally do arrive at the house in Bethlehem, they kneel down and “pay him homage,” as they had intended to all along.
Homage. In feudal terms it is a “formal and public acknowledgement of allegiance, wherein a tenant or vassal declared himself the man of the king… and bound himself to his service.”
Or, it is “a render or money payment made as an acknowledgement of vassalage.”
Or it is “acknowledgment of superiority in respect of rank, worth, beauty, etc.; reverence, dutiful respect, or honour shown.”[i]
And all these, I submit are woefully out of date ideas. All fine and well for a Christmas pageant, but meaningless as a way of life any more, at least in 21st century America. No one in our day and age, in our hemisphere (that I can tell) pays anyone homage anymore. No one makes formal, public statements of vassalage. No one outside of the military makes acknowledgement of superior rank, worth, or beauty, etc. And no one pays money for the privilege of declaring himself “the king’s man,” or anyone else’s man, woman, or child.
So if we come to church on the Feast of the Epiphany and go on and on about how we like the wise men we should be, about what a model they are for the Christian life or faith, then I contend that we are being disingenuous – and that means the character in the story with which we probably have the most in common is wicked old king Herod. By this way of looking at things, Herod is the very model of the modern mainline Christian. He knows what to say, but he hardly means it at all; or if he does, his intentions are quite other than they appear to be. “Oh do please let me know about Jesus when you find him. I do so mean to come and pay him homage with you in church.”
Lest you think I am referring only to people who are not here in church tonight, or to those church-goers who will not get around to this Gospel story till Sunday, when it falls more conveniently on the time they were going to go to church anyway, let me assure that I include you and me in this assessment. We do what we want. If we bend low to bow to Jesus it is because we want to, not because we are required to. It satisfies some desire of ours to make a gesture of costliness that actually costs us nothing. And if we give some small contribution to the church, it is because we want to, or at least because we have not been sufficiently pissed off by the Rector… yet. It satisfies some desire in us to take a stab at giving, and chances are that it doesn’t really cost us too much.
And let me tell you that I know whereof I speak, because I am speaking to myself.
And what would we do if we got Jesus in our hands, if we had him in our clutches? Would we worship him? Or would we berate him with all the things that have gone wrong in the world and with the church, and in our families. It might be as hard for us not to strangle Jesus as it would have been for Herod, if Herod had gotten his hands on Jesus.
Looking at the Epiphany of our Lord this way doesn’t really lead us anywhere that’s good for us. That’s because we are looking at the wrong thing when we look at the Epiphany this way: we are looking at ourselves first, with the wise men as stand-ins for us. What we should be looking at is Jesus.
Another way of putting this is to say that what we really need at Epiphany is not a model for piety or for Christian stewardship. What we really need at the Epiphany is an epiphany: a manifestation of the divine, God showing himself to us so that we might be changed. And here, the wise men have it right. All indications before their arrival in Bethlehem are that they are willing to cooperate with Herod, that they have no objection to bringing word back to him about the whereabouts of Jesus. They are about to make a big mistake, but something changes their plans. Yes, they pay homage to the little Lord Jesus, but something else happens when they see him: they see more than they saw before, and they are able to make a better choice about what to do next, just by virtue of their encounter with Jesus… because God has made himself known to them in an immediate and personal way through the person of his Son.
What we need this Epiphany is an epiphany. Some of us are about to make mistakes. Some of us are about to go the wrong way in our lives. Some of us have done it before. Some have been in collusion with the wrong people. Some of us are willing to strangle Jesus, so to speak. And we don’t so much need to be told to bow low, or to up our pledge (although you should feel free to do both)! What we need is an epiphany: we need an encounter with the living God. We need to confront Jesus face to face, so in the encounter he can do the silent work of changing our path, steering us differently, leading us home by another way – because the way we were going was no good for us.
And God calls us here tonight not to instruct us in the etiquette of vassalage, but to show himself to us: to make himself known in an immediate and personal way through the person of his Son. It hardly matters to God that the days of paying homage are over: still he delights to make himself known to us! And this is a big deal to us, not because we remember that once a long time ago God manifested himself to a bunch of wise men who left nice gifts behind; no, it’s a big deal to us because we believe that God has continued to make himself known to us immediately and personally in the person of his Son, day after day after day.
Churches like ours were founded precisely to make this point: to teach you and me that we don’t have to just read about Jesus and do our best to remember what it might have been like way back then… rather we can know Jesus immediately and personally through the mystical encounter we have when ever we “do this in remembrance” of him.
We are a community formed by epiphanies – which is the work of God to show himself to us, regardless of what kind of responses we might have. God is busy making himself manifest in the person of Son – immediately and personally – in ways too numerous to count. But if we miss all those other ways, there is always this reliable mode of epiphany: “do this in remembrance of me,” for “where two or three are gathered together in my name, I will be in the midst of them,” and “I am with you always,” says the Lord Jesus.
And if we happen to put on some old clothes that are long out of fashion, as I have tonight, and if we happen to resonate with the details of the story that we hear tonight. It will do us no harm to be a little old fashioned, and to seek to pay homage to the Lord Jesus, who has called us here tonight so that he can make himself known to you and to me once more, as he seeks to do every day.
And if we should decide, quite out of step with the times, that we would like to publicly and formally acknowledge that we are the king’s men and women and children, then there is no better way, really, than to raise our voices in his praise; to enunciate our faith in the words of the Creed; and to kneel at his altar, stretch out our hands, open our mouths, and take his Body and his Blood, as he shows himself to us immediately and personally, and bids us be changed by his grace and his power, and to accept the gift of his epiphany this Epiphany, and to go home another way.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
The Feast of the Epiphany, 2016
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia
[i] Oxford English Dictionary