St Stephen Lewisham
3rd January 2010
‘All Wrapped-up’ Part One: The Epiphany
Have you ever stopped to ask yourself why people take the trouble to wrap up their Christmas presents before giving them to other people? It looks at first sight to be rather an odd thing to do.
After all, the important item is really the present itself, isn’t it? We give them to people to express our love or gratitude towards them; and yet we feel that it’s important that the valuable item – our present (costing pounds) – should be hidden in something which itself costs only pence: coloured paper and ribbon or string. If it’s a present for someone very special, we may even get it gift-wrapped, and gift-wrapping is an art-form which most of us have failed to master; but even so, gift-wrapped or not, the value of our present is likely to exceed the value of the wrapping by a factor of several hundred.
Yet most of us would feel that an unwrapped gift is somehow ‘incomplete’ and lacks a ‘certain something’. So what is it about wrapping our gifts up carefully that makes so much difference?
The answer is that being given a wrapped-up gift adds a whole new element of mystery and surprise to the business of giving and receiving. Until we tear the paper off, or open the box or envelope, we can have no idea what we’ve been given. Sometimes, of course, a disappointment awaits us, and whereas we say to the giver ‘oh, how lovely!’, we are silently thinking to ourselves, ‘that’s just what I didn’t want!’
But every gift, welcome or unwelcome, represents something valuable because it expresses the love and appreciation of the giver in a way that words, by themselves, cannot. What counts is neither the value of the gift itself, nor the wrapping that it comes in, nor whether the gift in itself is something we’d like to be given, but the giver’s love or appreciation for us which underlies it.
Now, let me suggest that the meaning of Christmas and Epiphany can be seen in the same way as the wrapping, giving and receiving and unwrapping of our Christmas presents.
For, on Christmas Day God gave this world the unique gift of His Son, Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. He came and lived among us. But at His Incarnation, God first appeared on Earth not as a fully-grown human man (as might have been expected) but as a baby, born of a woman as you and I were. God the Father, as it were, chose to ‘wrap-up’ God the Son in such a way that His Godhead would not be immediately recognizable: and his first visitors, the shepherds, found Him lying, not in a bed or a cradle or even a carry-cot in a palace, but in a stable-manger where their cattle got their food from.
In other words, the Incarnate Word of God was well and truly hidden away from human sight until the time came for His ‘epiphany’ or ‘revealing’ – which is just another way of saying ‘his unwrapping’.
God’s Christmas gift to His world, then, came ‘gift-wrapped’. We don’t know all the reasons why God chose to present His Son to us in this way, but we have a clue in the words of the Prophet Isaiah, who many centuries previously had said of our Him ‘Truly, you are God who hides Himself!’. And perhaps our experience of Christmas presents provides us with another clue – namely (as we have seen) because we find that the kind of presents which come to us wrapped, and therefore need unwrapping, are so much more interesting and exciting than those which do not. And God wanted mankind to be both interested in, and excited by, everything He was up to doing at the Incarnation.
For the big division in mankind lies, not between those who sincerely believe that God exists, and those who sincerely believe that He doesn’t. It lies between those who, react, when confronted by the mystery of the Incarnation, by thinking, ‘this looks exciting, let’s see what’s lies under the wrapping’; and those who, when faced with having to unwrap the parcelled-Mystery of the Incarnation, simply turn their backs on it in favour of some other unwrapped item that doesn’t need any trouble taking about unwrapping it.
God wraps up all His gifts – not because He doesn’t want us to discover or unwrap them – but because that’s precisely what He does want us to do. His secrets are open secrets, not closed ones.
Whether we’re simple people, like the shepherds, or learned ones, like the Wise Men, God wants to give Himself to us and us to give ourselves to Him. But He is also wise enough to know that the people who discover His love are more likely to be those who make the effort to untie the string and look under the wrapping-paper, rather than those intellectual lazy-bones who are looking for something less demanding!
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