‘If I were a wise man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give him – give my heart.’
So ends ‘In the bleak mid-winter’ by Christina Rossetti, written originally as a poem back in 1872 and loved by many as a carol sung to music by Gustav Holst.
In this season of Epiphany the church remembers the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus and his family.
After a long, difficult journey those wise men finally reached their destination and paid homage to the newborn King they found lying in a cattle trough.
In his Gospel, Matthew tells us that the chief priests and the scribes of the day knew from the prophet Micah that at some point the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, so you would have thought someone would be on the lookout; eager to spot the coming king? Or maybe the point is that they weren’t eager. Maybe they had given up hope and lost heart.
Is that why they had chosen instead to attempt to secure their own salvation through pacts and alliances with a savage and unpredictable man like Herod? Climbing into bed with the enemy to get power, status and wealth, unaware of what they were losing in the process. It’s an easy trap to fall into.
What Herod never understood, but what the Magi saw in the flesh, was that the love of God always rivals any quest for power, status and wealth with a reckless offering of service, humility and generosity. It was as counter-cultural then as it is now. Indeed, not long after Jesus’ birth – two years at most – Herod died and was buried about three miles south-east of Bethlehem in the fort he had had built specially in honour of what was most important in his life – himself – hence the name: Herodium.
The contrast between the events surrounding Herod’s burial and Jesus’s birth couldn’t be more marked.
One on a mountain made higher through forced labour as a reminder of power, importance and fame, with thousands of conscripted mourners weeping as they processed.
Put that alongside a young woman giving birth in a stable with no one useful on hand to help, and only the strangest people coming to acknowledge what has happened.
And yet the numbers who visit Herodium today compared with those who make a pilgrimage to the reputed site of Jesus’ birth tells a powerful story of its own about what is really admired.
For now ‘the wise men do their part’. I often wonder what Mary made of those strange gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh from those even stranger visitors from a land way out east. At least it wasn’t another lamb!
Well in the familiar words of the carol, Rossetti invites us to offer our own gift in response to what we have already received – to live life with everything we have got – not losing heart or forgetting hope, but rather working with God, in the world, sharing what we have been given, demonstrating all that we have received and reflecting all that we have discovered.
So at the start of 2019, with all that lies before us this year – known and unknown - my prayer is that we might be renewed by God’s grace and mercy, peace and truth, and so be strengthened to resist the attractive, seductive ways of power, status and wealth in order that we might pursue the narrower, but straighter paths of service, humility and generosity that lead to life and blessing for us and for all the world.
Surely that’s worth everything we’ve got?
The Reverend Canon Sam Corley is the Rector of Leeds