What is the most important gift of the Magi?
Erik was six years old and really excited about Christmas. His uncle, who is a good friend of my brother, said he couldn’t stop laughing at how Eric opened his Christmas presents. As he picked up each present, [hug unopened gift to my heart] Erik would shut his eyes, and in all sincerity pray very intently: “O GOD, PLEASE DON’T LET THIS BE CLOTHES!” As we grow older, we tend more to appreciate the value of clothes. Yet, I think there’s a bit of the Erik in each of us. We appreciate the practical more than we used to, but we still hope for a fun gift.
Perhaps [show unopened gift] this is a good symbol for us on a deeper level as well. We’ve begun a New Year and we wonder what it will hold? Will it be toys or clothes? Or in other words, will it be filled with excitement, fun and joy; or the stuff that we didn’t really want … stuff that is less fun, disappointing, maybe even painful?
I think that many people go through the year and never fully open it, [hold unopened gift high] because we are afraid of “clothes”. We don’t trust the goodness of the gifts we didn’t want, and so, never really live the year. It is such a temptation to just live on the surface, numbing our minds with any of the many options available: binge watching Netflix, drinking our Manhattans, staying busy, browsing Facebook – shutting our eyes to the fullness of life, and to the pain of the world. We deal with what we have to, and try not to get too much into our hearts, each other, or life. The problem, of course, is that if we try to shield ourselves from the “clothes”, we’ll never really open the great gifts this year will hold.
That I suppose is part of the charm and the challenge of the Magi – They did not settle. They set out on this incredibly difficult journey, staying true in both the easy days of travel and the driving rain. They stayed seeking in the times of fatigue, bad weather, and setbacks as well as the peaceful nights under starry skies. And had they not learned to persevere, to push through the hard times, when they met the treachery of Herod they would have stopped: We want no part in this intrigue, these politics, this messiness. They embraced ALL of it on the journey.
And when they found the Christ-child, they presented their gifts. But how interesting the gifts they brought. Talk about toys AND clothes! They offered Jesus gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Gold was a symbol of his kingship – that’s cool. Frankincense, a symbol of his priesthood – a bit more like clothes. But myrrh?!? Myrrh was basically embalming fluid. It was Matthew’s way of telling us that Jesus would die. If I were Jesus’ parents, I’d have been tempted to say: “Give him the first two but not the third”. But that is not how life is. Nor is it how Jesus lived. We are invited – like Jesus – to open it all, clothes and toys alike. Jesus was willing to risk living it all, knowing that he would laugh and cry; and suffer and know deep joy. As we sit at the beginning of this New Year, will we truly open it, or not?
I was all of one year and 9 days ordained, when I got a call from one of the families in my first parish, Epiphany of Our Lord. She was 8 ½ months pregnant with child number 3. On Christmas eve, they found out the baby in her womb had died. It would have been so easy to run, to shut up their stuff inside themselves, to celebrate that Christmas with their other kids as if nothing had happened: to not enter into the hard work of grief because it was so hard and so sad and who wants to be sad on Christmas day. But they did. They somehow ended up choosing to live the whole experience fully, to laugh, to cry, to truly enter into it all with one another. They opened up stuff in their hearts that hadn’t been said but which needed to be: the things they were sorry for; the hurts, the things they didn’t understand or know about each other, the things they needed to say “thanks” for … all of it. They opened the gift of that opportunity, both the toys and the clothes, and so were alive. And they gave me the grace to be there in the hospital the day after Christmas when they delivered their still born child “to help them pray their goodbyes.” In doing so, they helped me open a gift that I will thank God for until the day I die. The first year of priesthood is all about the fun. This was all about how to be a priest in the tough times.
Hopefully we will not know such tragedy this year. But what my couple and their family did, what the best gift the wise men gave – that example of perseverance – is ours to do as well. To live it all with eyes opened. To cherish the now; to dig in; to not live shallow lives … to do the work on relationship instead of just living on the surface. To be, like the Magi, seekers.
Be warned: If we open the days of this year, just as surely as there will be toys, there will be clothes. There will be – if we choose to enter into it – hellos and good-byes, hopes and sadness, tears and laughter. And there will be Christ.
Maybe like little Eric one of our first temptations as we face each day is to pray, “O God, PLEASE DON’T LET THIS BE CLOTHES”. But if we dig in, [show unopened gift] we find that every day, every life truly lived is both. And when we choose to open that gift, we discover that it is not us giving our gifts of Gold and Frankincense and Myrrh, but God himself, pouring his life and love into us.