A Gift is a Gift is a Gift: An Epiphany Sermon

6 01 2013

The feast of the Epiphany reminds me of my time as chaplain of King’s College, Cambridge because a spectacular image of Epiphany dominates the sacred space and the high altar. Ruben’s ‘Adoration of the Magi’ was painted for a Belgian convent but later given to the College and in the late 1960s the east end of the Chapel was re-ordered around it.

King's College Chapel, Cambridge

King’s College Chapel, Cambridge (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Framed between two panels (which we closed with some ceremony and a sharp bang during the Stripping of the Altar on Maundy Thursday) this masterpiece creates an environment that’s both intimidating and inspiring.

Celebrating the Eucharist with it behind you is a particular, not to say peculiar, experience.  The sheer size of the painting, the scale of the virgin and the magi is intimidating.  And you know all the time that there is tension between the bread and wine on the altar –which are the intended focal point of any Eucharist, and the compelling figures just over your shoulder and above your head.

I used to like showing the picture to children. ‘Which one is God?’ I’d ask them, and they would invariably point to the king who looked most like Santa Claus.  They find it hard to imagine God as a baby.  We all do.

But for me the focal point of the picture is neither the bearded old man, nor the elegant and well-dressed young mother, nor yet the infant she is holding out for veneration. Rather it is the space between the old man’s eyes and those of the child. They are looking at each other. They are looking into each other.

This mutual beholding, this mutual gaze, this shared and deep attention, is at the heart of Ruben’s great picture. And it is this which is at the heart of what we call ‘Epiphany’.

The word means ‘manifestation’, ‘revelation’ or ‘discolsure’ but it is more than that, for the God who is revealed is remarkably like us in one important regard. The image of God here – the baby – is (and the point is obvious but needs to be made) of a human being with eyes.

Epiphany is not only about seeing God but about being seen by God. Indeed we can only ever be aware of a God who is aware of us. You can’t creep up behind God or expect to catch God napping. God is pure attentivity.  God is divine awareness. God is loving-alertness to us, whatever our state or condition.

This is the discovery of the prayerful soul or the spiritual pilgrim. Not that they go on a journey and find some image or symbol that sort of hints at the essence of God or summarises a high ethical principle. The true pilgrim’s destination is found only when they find themselves attending to God’s attentiveness and realising that it is a loving attention. And the pilgrimage becomes a deeper journey of faith when, having seen the seeing-one, they do all they can to live in such a way as begins to justice to this loving eye at the centre of all reality.


The second Epiphany theme that I want to explore is that of gifts and giving. The story suggests to me that when they set off on their journey, the magi were not necessarily on a gift-giving mission. It was in response to what they saw – what they felt and how they interpreted it all – that they opened their treasures, rummaged around a bit and found three things that were appropriate.

This is not the same sort of gift-giving as we have been practising – with more or less élan and success – over Christmas. The magi did not make a special purchase and then gift wrap it. Rather they carted all their choicest things along and gave something of their own, a treasured and symbolically significant item away.

While we are comparing and contrasting practices of giving, notice that Mary does not say, ‘now Joseph make a note of who gives what, because we will never remember when it comes to writing ‘thank-yous’ and sending them a gift next year.’

These gifts from the treasures are simply accepted.

A lot of theological ink has been spilt over the question of gifts and giving in recent years. And rightly so, it is a worthy subject for deep refection.  The anthropologists tell us that every gift that is given creates a debt and demands a reciprocal response. The story of the Epiphany does not follow this logic. Not so much as a ‘thank you’ transpires.

Of course these gifts from the treasures of the magi are not actually the primary gift here. They are a response to the primary gift which is the gift of the child. Nonetheless, I don’t think we see here that quid pro quo reciprocity of gift-giving in this passage, nor do I believe is it a Christian understanding of giving.

When Christians give, it creates no obligation in the recipient. We give not as part of closed process of give and take but because we are part of God’s gracious flow of giving.  The business is not circular but linear: like a river the flow of giving runs ever forward. We know that we have received more than we can make any adequate response to and yet this does not burden us with guilt or duty. Rather it liberates us to live with a similar gracious generosity.  All is gift in Christianity, and gift in the pure sense.  At the heart of Christian thinking is the idea that a gift is a gift is a gift.  You can never justify receiving it or respond adequately.  All you have to do is enjoy it – for ever.

I have offered a sermon in two halves this morning: the first about worship the second is about giving, but it is wrong to hold the two apart. The story of the Adoration of the Magi teaches us that the deeper the worship the more authentic, thoughtful and generous the giving.  It is the vision of God that is the inspiration of giving – not because we want or need to give anything back, but because we see that giving as such a delightful and divine activity.

Giving is the opposite of self-regard, it is the ultimate turning away from ourselves; it is the turning towards others and God. It is the surest way to obey the two great commandments – love God and neighbour. We love God by doing in our own way what God does and we love our neighbours by making available for them what we have, own and process.

By giving I do mean financial giving, but also the giving of ourselves in volunteering or even through paid work – for it is possible to work generously and wholeheartedly, obedient to the needs of your organisation but nonetheless pouring your energy your heart and soul into it. Indeed vocational living is all about giving away your best gifts in the service of God’s mission of love.  So yes, real giving is the giving of that which we own and treasure, material and spiritual, financial and in-kind. We feel the loss when we make a real gift, but nt imply loss, we know again and again that strange combination of delight and depletion which is the only reward of true giving.

Such giving is not an optional extra in the worship of the Christ-like God. It is intrinsic to it.  When we hear that the wise men opened their treasures we should indeed feel the call, the inspiration, to do the same. Not because it is a difficult duty or an attempt at reciprocating, but because it is the most graceful, wise and true response we can make to the glory and love of God.

God is pure gift. And we most profoundly bear God’s image, most accurately reflect God’s glory and most clearly reveal God’s grace when and as we give.

That was an affirmative. Epiphany also offers questions:  ‘what is your gold? What is your frankincense? What is your myrrh?’

And an imperative: ‘give them away!’