Unusually, the various lectionaries I consulted regarding the scripture readings for today all had different opinions. As I was reading through the various options, it seemed to me that several of the gospel choices suggested a larger story when taken together. So, rather than select one gospel reading to focus on, I will share some thoughts about three of them and the conversation I imagine them to be having amongst themselves.
The first passage is from Matthew’s Gospel (2:1-12), and is the story of the visit of the magi to the Holy Family which will be read on the Feast of Epiphany. There has been much speculation regarding the origins and identity of the magi, including that they might have been descended from similar figures in the story of the prophet Daniel, and so might have inherited ancient prophecies relating to the birth of the Jewish Messiah. These they perhaps combined with a knowledge of astrology and a certain amount of asking for directions (which has been taken as evidence that they weren’t all male) to find the One they were looking for.
One way or another, they found their way to a house in Bethlehem, paid homage to a very young boy with his mother, and handed over costly gifts which have been interpreted as gold for a king, frankincense for a priest, and myrrh for a prophet who was to die. We aren’t told anything about the reaction of Jesus nor his parents to this exotic visitation. I wonder what the child Jesus’ response was, and how these gifts might have contributed to shaping his future sense of identity. It has been suggested that the gifts could have financed the family for their time in Egypt, so perhaps they were of practical benefit too.
The second passage I want to consider is from Luke’s Gospel (2:41-52), the one we read together this morning. Jesus is now on the cusp of entry into what then would have been regarded as the beginnings of adulthood. He seems to have been somewhat precocious and to have acquired a more sophisticated understanding than was expected from one of his age and background. As amazed by this as his mother was, she was understandably more concerned about the emotional turmoil his unexpected absence from the travelling group had caused.
Had Jesus been inconsiderate in his behaviour? Perhaps, but it seems to me that he might have been so caught up in the invigorating conversation with the temple teachers that he just hadn’t thought to let anyone know that he was still there. He was still a child in many ways, after all. I think the story gives us a glimpse of Jesus beginning to explore a profound relationship with God as his heavenly Father, a relationship that overshadowed all other relationships in the shaping of Jesus’ identity, an identity recognized by the magi so many years before.
The third passage is from John’s Gospel (12:44-50). While the story from Luke has the first words of Jesus spoken in that Gospel, in the form of two questions for his parents, here in John we find the adult Jesus in full flow, having entered wholly into his identity and speaking confidently about his purpose. Jesus came to bring light and life from his heavenly Father into a benighted, dying world. He knew himself to be the one sent from God. He was not deterred by those who rejected him.
Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu was a man equally sure of his identity and purpose, to persuade as many as possible of the love of God for all people and therefore of the need for all people to be treated with equal dignity. He entered into his full identity gradually, under the influence of such significant figures as Bishop Trevor Huddleston of the Community of the Resurrection. Once he knew who he was and what he was about, Archbishop Tutu was far more concerned with increasing in wisdom and in divine favour than with courting human favour in all its fickleness.
What about the shaping of our identities in the living of our lives? The position of Saviour of the World has been filled, and Archbishop Tutu was by any measure an extraordinary man, but perhaps the trajectories of Jesus’ and the Arch’s lives can somehow inform our own more humble contributions?
We have all had people in our lives who have influenced our sense of who we are, some from very early on. By God’s grace, those influences can be used by God to draw us deeper into the loving embrace of God and so enable us to discern something of our true identity and value as found in God. I believe that when we live most authentically from that deepest truth, we are most freely available to be used by the Spirit of Jesus within us to bring more of his light and life into the world and into the lives of those around us.
As we face together into this new year, I know of no more fitting prayer for us to pray for one another than that which we read together from the Letter to the Ephesians this morning:
I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe. Amen.