Then opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Matthew 2:11
Today we’re in Act 3 of the Christmas Pageant. In Act 1, Joseph and a very pregnant Mary arrived in town of Bethlehem where there were “No Vacancy” signs flashing everywhere. They finally find a place to rest, a stable behind an inn, and there the baby Jesus is born. In Act 2, an angel appears to shepherds in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night, and announces that a Savior has been born in Bethlehem. Then, a whole choir of angels sings with joy and the Shepherds go with Haste to see the newborn child. (Years ago, Pastor Christian McMullan told our children that Haste was the name of the Shepherd’s sheep dog – a unknown fact that I always remember every time I hear the Christmas Gospel.) Shepherds arrive at the stable, tell Mary and Joseph about the angels, take a peak at the newborn babe, and then with Haste head back to their sheep.
Before Act 3 begins there’s a long, long, long intermission. The early Church gave it 12 days, so while the babe was born on the 25th of December, it’s not until January 6th that the wise men finally arrive in Bethlehem. Thankfully, the Holy Family was still there. Maybe they decided it was best to wait a while before undertaking that 80-mile journey home to Nazareth so Mary and the baby could rest. Apparently, their accommodations had improved for instead of finding them in a stable, the Wise Men enter a house where they see the child with Mary his mother.
While tradition and pageants hold that there were three Wise Men, one for each gift, Matthew doesn’t tell us the exact number. In fact, another version of the story was discovered in the Vatican library from the 2nd or 3rd century which said that a much larger group came, at least a dozen and maybe as many as a small army, which means perhaps there was a place for the persistent drummer boy. This account suggests that instead of Persia, the wise men came all the way from China. However many and from wherever they hailed, they followed the star in search of something, something they didn’t have, something they longed for. In his brilliant poem, For the Time Being, William Auden proposes their reason was “to discover how to be human now.”
How to be human now…isn’t that why we are here? Why out of hope or habit we gather to worship the newborn king, to step outside of ourselves and sing his praises, to hear of his love, to eat at his table? And today, isn’t that why the family of Elisa Rose Snyder carries her to the font, to be washed in the waters of baptism, so that no matter what, whether in the terrible twos or the traumatic teens, she will always know she child of God, loved to the core of her being? She’s given an identity that can never be taken away.
Perhaps that why when the wise men finally arrive in Bethlehem, they give him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Gold represents kingship, long associated with the gods. Frankincense was and still is a costly incense that represents wisdom. Myrrh, a prized perfume is a sign of long life and healing. At both Wednesday Bible studies this week, the comment was made that three Wise women would have asked for directions, arrived on time, help deliver the baby and given practical gifts. After the laughter the question was asked, “What gift do you give the Christ child? Note, the question wasn’t what gift would you give, but what gift do you give?
Everyone was quiet and in deep thought – which the question deserves. For it demands we enter into a different kind of economy – not one of equal exchange, tit for tat – like when a neighbor puts an unexpected Christmas gift in your mailbox leaving you to scurry about to find something appropriate to give in return – but instead an economy of grace which begins knowing everything we are, everything we have is a gift from God. What do we do with such gifts? How does grace live and breathe into our lives?
I wonder if the Wise Men were wiser than the Wise Women give them credit for – for by their gifts they were shaping identity. Frankincense blesses the child with the spirit of wisdom. Myrrh will sooth and heal. Gold for one who will be king even though his crown will be made of thorns. Gifts for a newborn king. What gift do you bring to this King?
As each woman responded, their answers came from the core of who they were – one said “the gift of friendship” leading others to affirm that for they have received that precious gift from her. Another said, “the gift of healing” not just in her vocation as a nurse, but in everything she is and does. A third, ‘the gift of being a seeker of justice,” and the women nodded in agreement. As they responded I thought about how they spoke out of the core of the gift that God’s given them in their very selves. The giving and the receiving shapes a sacred circle of grace and love where together they continually re-discover how to be human now.
What gift do you give to this newborn king? It could be the gift of doubt, that keeps you questioning but also draws you deeper into mystery while faith is shaped one baby step at a time …or the gift of persistence, that shows up over and over again, to do what needs to be done and discovers purpose in the doing…or the gift of love and knows what is helpful and what is not… Each of us has our own answer, for each of us is indeed a gift to give. I invite you to write the gift you are on the back of our yellow communication card and place it in the offering plate and we’ll post them on Facebook and on a bulletin board. Even young Elisa gives gifts — of joy, of sleeping through the night, of a smile, a quiet snuggle in her parents’ arms who have, with the gift of her, become the gift of being a mother and father.
Such gift giving shapes us, creating who we are and what we shall be. This is absolutely essential for the world always has “Herods,” despots who live in fear. When the wise men came to Jerusalem to pay homage to the child born king of the Jews, there wasn’t a new baby in palace nursery. Herod tries to trick them in revealing where this new king, this threat could be found and disposed of. But wise men are not fools. Guided by a dream they go home to their own country by another road. Joseph also, is given a dream and flees with his family to Egypt becoming refugees, like thousands upon thousands have – as many of my ancestors did and perhaps many of yours too — sometimes because of violence, hunger, persecution, or the longing for freedom. Meanwhile the fear grows and grows in Herod – it takes over his life and clouds his judgment, so much so he fails to discover how to be human now. Fear is in charge as he orders his army to kill all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under – a king afraid of babies…afraid of the one who will be nailed to a cross with a sign over his head, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” The one who by his death and in his resurrection declares that God, not despots, always has the last word — a word of hope, of forgiveness, of love, of life, now and forever, all grace-filled words that enable us to discover how to be human now. Amen
W. H. Auden, For the Time Being, A Christmas Oratorio, http://www.uusm.org/to-discover-how-to-be-human-now-is-the-reason-we-follow-this-star