Epiphany 6 Jan 22
When J F Kennedy was inaugurated President of the United States of America in 1961 he finished his speech with some strong words after he’d outlined the battle for freedom with which the Western world was then engaged. These words he used: “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” Interestingly, by the way, President Kennedy was the first ever Roman Catholic President of the USA and Joe Biden is only the second.
Anyway, a lot of Christians in this country see the Church with the eyes of the consumer, going when they observe their own need, when they require a service. They may even be willing to pay for it, but that cannot be assumed. One of the task of the Church in her mission is to call back to the fold those who know baptisms, weddings and funerals should be in the House of God but are the rest of the time content to absent themselves from the fellowship of the faithful. It’s hard in a consumerist society which sees their actions as perfectly reasonable.
President Kennedy’s concluding statement is seeking to challenge the same set of assumptions. The individual of the modern world asks what he or she can get out of something, not what can, ought or may be needed to be given, to be offered. Today’s Feast of the Epiphany has at it’s heart the concept of offering, as we heard from St Matthew’s Gospel: “Then, opening their treasure, they offered Him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh.” These gifts have been used in modern times to tell us about the kings and we’ve wrongly assumed that there were three of them, which Scripture does not tell us. In ancient commentaries on the Bible, the gifts are seen as more importantly telling us about the child Jesus to whom they were offered. As Pope St Gregory the Great wrote: “Gold, as to a King; frankincense, as sacrifice to God; myrrh, as embalming the body of the dead.” All these three tell us about who this child is whose birth we have been celebrating since Christmas Eve.
Christina Rossetti in writing the beautiful hymn, In the bleak midwinter, came up with with amazing last verse: “What can I give Him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb. If I were a wise man I would do my part. But what I can I give Him, give Him my heart.” But perhaps she too falls in to the trap of thinking the offering, the gift should communicate something of the identity of the giver of the gift, rather than something of the One to whom we give it. Do we fall in to this trap too? Think about what we can give, amid all the other pressures of our life, without wondering if what we give to God is just a bit lousy and half-hearted?
Notice how St Matthew makes the observation that they offer the gifts “opening their treasure.” Only four chapters later in his Gospel, Matthew records these words of our Lord referring to treasure once again: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also,” (St Matthew 6:19-20). We are to treasure the life of Heaven and this is where we are to focus our heart’s desires. We open our heart to the Lord and He will see there what we really value and focus on, warts and all. One of the pre-Reformation prayers of the Anglican tradition begins: “Almighty God unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known and from whom no secrets are hidden, cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit that we may perfectly love thee.”
The heart as the place where there is perfect communication and union was seen also in the Gospel on Sunday. St John concludes his opening verses with the beautiful image of hope: “No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.” It’s a difficult phrase to translate without being almost overly biological and losing some of the beauty of the intimacy that St John is trying to indicate. Jesus rests on the heart of the Father. The hymn we’ll sing on Sunday reminds us that our Lord is “Of the Father’s heart begotten, ‘ere the worlds began to be.”
St John picks up the importance of the heart later in His Gospel at the Last Supper where Jesus gives a new commandment to love one another, and washes the feet of His disciples, leaving them an example. John records that this happens “during supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot … to betray Him,” (St John 13:2). The origin of the hatred, the fear, the chaotic desires is the heart, that from within (St Mark 7:15).
In contrast at this Last Supper, while Judas planned betrayal, the author of the Gospel, St John “leans on the bosom of the Son:” the same phrase as used to describe our Lord leaning on the Father at the start of the Gospel. As Jesus and the Father are one; so we, the Church, are to be one with the Lord, listening to His beating heart and letting our own beat with Him (St John 12). What greater treasure can there be in our heart, than that which is also to be found in the pierced and sacred heart of the Lord our God? We pray, then, that the love of the Lord Jesus will fill our hearts. That we may then offer to Him that which He has given us. I paraphrase “And so, my fellow Christians: ask not what your God can do for you — ask what you can do for your God.”