Gold, frankincense, myrrh, a teapot, some broken crockery and some old cabbage - assembling reminders for Epiphany

In 1934 Stanley Spencer produced the first of what have been called his 'sex paintings' entitled "The Lovers" or "The Dustman." They have been called 'sex paintings', not because they portray the sexual act in any obvious way, but because in them we see Spencer using his sexual feelings to explore certain religious and spiritual themes.

At about the time he was producing these paintings Spencer had returned to live in his birth-place, the Berkshire village of Cookham, in an attempt to reconnect with some of his childhood experiences - epiphanies which he called his "Cookham-feelings".

Although Spencer's picture is one exploring the idea of the resurrection - the Dustman being the resurrected person returning to the joy of his wife, neighbours and colleagues - the fact that his friends and colleagues have come to him and his wife to "see this thing which has come to pass" and that, in so doing, they have brought three gifts of a teapot, an item of broken crockery and old cabbage (apparently taken out of the collected rubbish itself), seems to offer me a strong echo of the season of Epiphany. This English word derives from a Greek one (epiphainein) meaning "to manifest", or "to display" and the majority Christian tradition holds that what was being made manifest was Christ's status as the incarnation of God and this display was first seen by the Gentiles (i.e. the non-Jews) in the form of the Astrologer priests - the Magi, or three wise men - who brought with them gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Because of my role as a chaplain and teacher in a wide variety of theological circles I continue to find the story resonant and useful (it connects with my real life in some way) but what happens if the way you look or frame the world causes you to doubt, not only the historical veracity of this story, but also the theological?

(NB: it's worth remembering here that if it is clearly problematic to literalise the story and accept its veracity (and others) on this basis, it is also problematic to reject it on the same literal grounds).

Given this it can be easy for this story to become a free-spinning wheel that no longer connects 'behind the scenes' (so to speak) with any useful piece of the machinery of your actual life. At this time of year many of us spin this wheel simply because we have a folk memory (often hopelessly romanticised) that turning it used to do something very useful for us. Even though it hasn't worked for a while we continue to say to ourselves that maybe it might this time - as we say, hope springs eternal - and so we give it a spin - just in case, just in case.

But merely continuing to spin the wheel in this 'hopeful' fashion won't help at all because the complex Christian 'mechanism' that lay behind the still shiny and attractive casing is (in you, at least) either rusted solid or not working because there are so many broken connections. If you really want that wheel to do anything useful again you have to find ways to open up access panels here and there, crawl inside and undertake, not merely a little lubricating - for the situation is far worse than this will cure - but some serious rebuilding. I think Spencer's painting helps us unstick things and/or make a few initial, trial reconnections. I can't guarantee you will reconnect the wheel but you won't know if you don't try.

Excursus: ALL I am doing in what follows is placing beside the traditional Epiphany story (broken for many) an object of comparison. I AM NOT, please do realise this, I AM NOT seeking to replace one interpretation with another - that would be very much to engage in old style metaphysics which I think are wrong. The immediate aim is simply to help us see how we see the Epiphany story so we can better see it for what it is (a picture of the world) and then be free to use it appropriately without making the mistake of thinking that it is a literal representation of the world.

So assuming Spencer's picture does contain some echoes of the Christian Epiphany then it behoves us to look at the major differences that exist between the Biblical epiphany scene and Spencer's.

The first difference we can see is that we are in the Berkshire village of Cookham in front of a middle-class semi with a nice garden and some topiary; we are not in Bethlehem in a poor inn or stable.

The second is that the figures who seem to be standing in for Mary and Christ (Virgin and incarnation of God) have been transformed into an erotically intertwined and passionate married couple.

The third is that the various other assembled visitors - wise men and shepherds who have come to see this thing which has come to pass - have been transformed into an assorted bunch of other dustmen and women who bear gifts, not of gold, frankincense and myrrh but, instead, a teapot, an item of broken crockery and old cabbage.

So taking these three in order the first suggests to me the thought that to experience any kind of epiphany we are not required to picture some foreign, distant "holy land" and that they are available "now and in England". The past, present and future "holy land" can be thought of, not as another country, but always potentially our own.

The second - the "thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us" - suggests to me that here it is not the arrival on earth of a single Jesus-sized window onto a transcendent divine reality - but an ability to encounter divinity through intertwined and interpenetrating things - sexual pun is intended - in tangible, flesh and blood local situations.

The third, the fact that the traditional gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh offered up to "this thing which has come to pass" have been changed into a teapot, an item of broken crockery and old cabbage suggests to me to consider whether the symbolism of the new gifts that might be appropriate to our encounter of divinity through real intertwined and interpenetrating things might also have changed.

Just to remind you: gold was understood as a symbol of kingship on earth, frankincense (an incense) as a symbol of priesthood, and myrrh (an embalming oil) as a symbol of death or, alternatively, gold symbolizing virtue, frankincense symbolizing prayer, and myrrh symbolizing suffering).

What then do might our new gifts symbolise - new gifts, remember, that we have got from the bin? Might our act of pulling them out of the bin be speaking of the need to rescue and re-evaluate certain things we have thrown away.

Perhaps we may see the teapot as a symbol of the desire to restore the ritual of taking time to make a fresh pot of tea to share with the hard-working dustman and all men and women who give their lives in serving others? Is the rescuing of the broken crockery - in my mind a favourite mug - a symbol of the thought that we should offer ourselves up in this ritual tea-ceremony despite our own many flaws and fractures - acknowledging that we are limited, mortal beings? And the old cabbage? Well, it's not as difficult as you might imagine. In our increasingly ecologically aware age (I hope) perhaps it can symbolise our desire that, in our living, we waste nothing and, when something really is too far gone for continued human use, we seek to return it with love to the world - composting and recycling rather than throwing everything into land-fill sites which continue to pollute and damage the earth and water for generations.

I don't know - but then I don't need to - all I'm really drawing your attention to today is the vital need to check now and then whether the various religious wheels we turn in this church - such as Epiphany - do in fact continue to connect with our real lives and, if we find that they don't, to encourage us to see what re-connections we might choose make. But I don't think that this can be done by encouraging you merely to develop your own private languages concerning what these festivals mean. There are very good indications - which I won't rehearse here - that the very idea of a private language is, in fact, nonsense. No, if we are again usefully to celebrate festivals like Epiphany then we need to ensure that we do the repair work together and develop a collective interpretation of the story. Remember here that the repair work consists in holding up objects of comparison and NOT in merely replacing an old picture with a new. The aim is, not to get rid of our old picture, but to see that it is a picture - it is a way of seeing. And seeing that we cannot but see the world in these ways is a vitally important component of true human freedom.

So, all I've attempted today is to build a temporary working scale-model of an Epiphany in which, when we turn its little wheel on the outside of the box, we can see there is a connection with a desire to offer radical hospitality and service to an interprenetrating natural world (considered to be sufficient and divine in itself) and which is kept healthy by acting in it with love in the use and reuse of her natural resources.

It seems to me like a pretty good and useful little model. Try turning the handle - you might like it. But don't forget to then go on to compare it with the Christian story of the Epiphany and see if anything has worked loose and/or reconnects. The point is to help us to see our seeing of Epiphany and, by extension, all our other pictures and stories about the world.


In the service there is the opportunity to respond immediately to the address and one member of the congregation (Nathan) made this point. Because, in the Spencer painting, we have inherited no firm collective idea about how the gifts of a teapot, some broken crockery and a bit of old cabbage might connect to the dustman and his wife, we are forced to look and think about possible connections. However, when we look at the gifts being given in the traditional Epiphany pictures because we have been told, from the age of three, that they refer to kingship, priesthood and death, we just accept (or reject) this and ask no further questions. Spencer's odd gifts help us to look again at the traditional gifts and ask if there are other possible connections to be made. We are encouraged to look and see for ourselves what may be seen rather than merely accept the inherited picture.

This reminded me of a joke:

      A minister was talking to the children during a church service before they left for Sunday School. On this particular Sunday, he was using squirrels for a lesson on being industrious. He started out by saying, "I’m going to describe something, and I want you to raise your hand when you know what it is." The children nodded eagerly. "This thing lives in trees (pause) and eats nuts (pause) . . ." No hands went up. "And it is grey (pause) and has a long bushy tail (pause) . . .". The children were looking at each other, but still no hands were raised. "And it jumps from branch to branch (pause) and chatters and flips its tail when it’s excited (pause) . . .". Finally, one little boy tentatively raised his hand. The minister breathed a sigh of relief. "Well," said the boy, "I know the answer must be Jesus . . . but it sure sounds like a squirrel to me!"

Must the answer be kingship, priesthood and death . . .


(NB: it's worth remembering here that if it is clearly problematic to literalise the story and accept its veracity (and others) on this basis, it is also problematic to reject it on the same literal grounds).

That's a nonsense, surely: that, so long as you make something mythical, it becomes something difficult to reject. There are lots of myths that are harmful. That's a kind of pro-conservative logic that simply isn't so.
Yewtree said…
@Pluralist: No, it looks to me like a response to both fundamentalists and new atheists. Fundamentalists take things literally and believe them; new Atheists take things literally and disbelieve them.

I'm all for creating new shared symbolism from old stories (I'm still pleased with my Palm Sunday address from last year). I think we need to give stories new meanings & symbolism, otherwise they get "set in stone".