Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh – December 31, 2017
Let us pray.
As with gladness men of old
did the guiding star behold;
as with joy they hailed its light,
leading onward, beaming bright;
so, most gracious God, may we
evermore be led to Thee.
What did you get for Christmas? What did you give for Christmas? It is difficult for a modern American to escape the month of December without giving or receiving at least one gift, and my guess is that most of us have given and received plenty more. We’ve made our large purchase for our partner or spouse; we’ve checked off our lists of nieces and nephews; we’ve found something worth $25 for the office gift exchange. Our communal commitment to giving each other gifts for the holidays requires an extensive amount of our time and attention at a particularly busy time of the year and drains us of a noticeable portion of our discretionary income. For a variety of reasons, gift-giving can be a fraught exercise: it leads to anxiety and frustration in those determined to find the perfect gift and evokes disappointment and resentment in those who receive something that doesn’t quite match their expectations. Alienation, exhaustion, and debt are all possible consequences of this intense annual gift-giving season. Yet gift-giving is also a delightful diversion that brings us together, a dependable ritual that children eagerly await, and a retail phenomenon that props up an entire segment of our national economy.
The first Christmas gifts were given over two thousand years ago by travelers from the East who visited Jesus in his birthplace in Bethlehem. The Gospel of Matthew is vague about who exactly they were—we don’t even know, for example, that there were definitely three of them. It is fairly clear, though, that they came from far away lands and that they were not Jewish. The word Magi—translated often as “wise men”—indicates that the men were educated and of high social and spiritual standing in their place of origin. The Gospel never says that the men were kings, but their story resonates deeply with several prophecies that mention kings in the Hebrew Bible, suggesting that the travelers were royal or royal-like or at least that the Gospel means for readers to perceive them in that way. Whoever these men were, they were exotic and they had money. They must have been marvels to behold.
The gifts the men gave the child Jesus were gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Christians have typically asserted that each of the Wise Men’s three specific gifts held special symbolic significance: gold, the standard interpretation goes, corresponded to Jesus’ identity as King; incense corresponded to Jesus’ identity as God; and myrrh anticipated Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross. This tradition still persists in some of the hymns we sing this morning. But even though the Wise Men knew enough about Jesus to call him “the King of Jews,” it seems unlikely that they knew enough about him to refer to him as God or to predict the tragedy of his death. It seems more likely that the Wise Men offered gifts that they had access to and yet were lavish enough to appropriately honor a person they believed should be honored.
The gifts the Wise Men gave did not bankrupt them. The Wise Men were clearly individuals of means who could afford to give gifts when they chose to. However, the gifts the Wise Men gave were substantial and costly; they were not given casually. And notably, the Wise Men expected nothing in return for the gifts they gave. While the Wise Men certainly became intertwined with a political conflict when they traveled to Judea, that political conflict was between King Herod and Jesus. In fact, Herod was so distressed about the birth of Jesus that he eventually ordered a mass murder of infants in an effort to retain his power. But the Wise Men were not the potential beneficiaries of this political struggle. They were not even possible collaborators with Jesus in a long-term fight for power. They simply gave Jesus his gifts and then they left, never to be heard from again. Their only objective was to worship Jesus for a time—nothing more, nothing less.
In Christian devotional poetry, it has become common over the centuries to internalize the Wise Men’s offering to Jesus. “What can I give him,” Christina Rossetti asks,
“poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd,
I would give a lamb.
If I were a Wise Man,
I would do my part.
Yet what I can I give him:
Give my heart.”
It’s an understandable rhetorical move that reduces the sweeping epic of the story of the Magi—with all its puzzles and mystery—into a convenient, digestible moral that comforts us at Christmastime. We too can make our lavish offerings to Jesus, the poets claim, merely by contemplating him piously and with sufficient sweetness. Reframing the story in this way is a little bit of a cop-out, if you ask me. Surely our hearts are not the only things we can give Jesus. We, most of us at least, are not that poor.
Our Jewish and pagan ancestors regularly offered concrete, tangible, material gifts to God, often in the form of animal sacrifices. In our liturgy every Sunday, we participate, perhaps unwittingly, in a similar offering. The offertory procession, in which members of the congregation bring to the altar gifts of bread, wine, money, and food for the hungry, has distant roots in the traditions of the early Church. Originally, the bread and wine used in the Eucharist were brought each day by worshippers from their homes—a custom we echo here at St. Paul’s through a group of breadbakers who alternate baking bread for our services each Sunday. Over time, most people stopped bringing their own bread and wine and their offerings became primarily financial in nature. More recently, some communities, like ours, have reintroduced the practice of presenting bread and wine from the congregation, added an offering of food for the hungry, and/or formalized all of these offerings into a ritual procession that takes place immediately before the altar is prepared for Holy Communion.
The offering we give Jesus every Sunday is not altogether different from the offering the Wise Men gave Jesus all those years ago. Like the Wise Men, we give Jesus gifts from our material resources, from what we can tend otherwise to hoard and protect, from what we feel like we own; like the Wise Men, we hope to honor Jesus by what we give; like the Wise Men, we expect nothing in return. In the Every Member Visitation drive that will shortly commence, we as individuals and as a parish will have the opportunity to consider thoughtfully and plan intentionally how through our money we can continue to honor the child Jesus and sustain this community we so love. There are sober realities that will inform this effort and the conversations we will have about it; we face serious financial challenges as a parish that I do not need to sugarcoat. But, ultimately, the giving of our money—whether to St. Paul’s or to some other worthy cause—should not be a tricky challenge that we anxiously dread or a grim punishment that we reluctantly grin and bear. In being generous people, in giving from what we have, we do not bankrupt ourselves. We share in the faithful devotion of the Magi, who upon reaching the house of Jesus were overwhelmed with joy, who knelt down, paid him homage, and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. They did not tally up the cost; they did not seek for power or praise in return; they were simply being generous people, giving from what they had, and showing, in the process, who was truly important to them and whom they really loved.