Gold, frankincense and myrrh or a teapot, an empty jam tin, and a cabbage leaf? A short, secular religious thought for Epiphany

“The Dustman” (1934) by Stanley Spencer (1891–1959) 

A short thought for the day” offered to the Cambridge Unitarian Church as part of the Sunday Service of Mindful Meditation 

(Click on this link to hear a recorded version of the following piece)


Last week saw the feast of the Epiphany, a name which derives from the Greek word (epiphainein) meaning “to manifest”, or “to display.” In the Western Christian tradition, it is a celebration of the belief that on this day some two millennia ago Jesus’ status as the incarnation of God was first made manifest to the Gentiles (i.e. those who were not Jews) in the form of the Persian, Zoroastrian astrologer priests, the Magi, who brought to Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 

These gifts have generally been understood in one of two ways. The first is as the kind of valuable offerings that might be brought to any king. The second was spiritually: gold as a symbol of kingship on earth, frankincense as a symbol of deity and/or priestly status, and myrrh as an embalming oil and, thus, a symbol of death.

Now, for good scientific, literary and historical-critical reasons, we know that the roles of Jesus as a king, God and priest, and the story about Jesus’ atoning death and subsequent resurrection are mythical constructs, symbolic back-projections made by certain early Christian communities some seventy to one-hundred or so years after Jesus’ death.

But, despite our own age’s general dismissal of these myths, the story of the Magi and their three gifts lives on, albeit rather Zombie-like. We can, of course, simply choose to ignore this fact and let it continue to function as a more or less empty and meaningless, pretty tale, or we can short-circuit it so it no longer functions smoothly and we are, therefore, forced to look at it again critically to see if there are some creative possibilities within it we might usefully make use of today.

One of the best short-circuitings of the story I know is found in “The Dustman” painted in 1934 by Stanley Spencer (1891-1959).

Although Spencer’s picture is, in part, exploring the idea of the resurrection — the dustman being the resurrected person returning to the joy of his wife — the fact that his friends and colleagues have come to “see this thing which has come to pass” and have brought with them three gifts — the painting connects well with the Epiphany theme.

And what are the three gifts? Well, they are a teapot, an empty jam tin, and a cabbage leaf, all of which apparently come from the collected rubbish which stands around them.

My question today — famed simply in a purely mythological fashion of course — is what might these gifts represent were they being brought to a present-day manifestation of the kind of New Being I talked with you about in my Christmas Day piece, in this case, in the form of a dustman rather than the Christ Child?

The teapot, for example, might be taken as a symbol of our willingness to share with friends and strangers an everyday, refreshing drink whilst engaging in convivial, intra-active conversation. The empty jam tin might be taken as a symbol of our willingness to recycle our rubbish. The cabbage leaf might be taken as a symbol of our willingness to move to a primarily plant-based diet that will not only do a huge amount to reduce animal suffering but also have a major impact on CO2 emissions and global warming. 

The New Being in the form of the dustman — standing, perhaps, as a symbol for nature’s endless, intra-active recycling of all matter/energy — would, I am sure, be delighted to receive such gifts from us.

And so, with that thought in mind, I simply wish you all a rubbish but, nevertheless, very happy, and very natural Epiphanytide.