I am quite sure you’ve heard the joke about imagining if, instead of three wise men, there’d have been three wise women in our reading today? They would, of course, have planned their journey well ahead, got directions to the stable instead of to King Herod’s gaff, turned up in time to actually see the child as a baby, rather than – as is currently assumed – roughly two years later, made a casserole, and brought useful gifts, like nappies, baby clothes and a Moses basket.
|Gold, frankincense & myrrh - the more traditional gifts of the magi...|
Things would have all gone that much smoother for the holy family in those early days if that were the case, wouldn’t they?
That’s not how the story goes, though.
No. Instead of that, we are told about the visit of the magi; mysterious astrologers from a pagan religion (probably Zoroastrianism), with their deeply symbolic gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
I’m not about to give you a sermon on the meanings of those gifts; for one thing, the carol ‘We Three Kings’ says it much better than I could. The verse sung by each king in that carol goes into the symbolism with such great poetry; gold for a king, incense for a deity, and myrrh for the dying – as the final verse proclaims, King, and God, and sacrifice. Nope; if you want that sermon, just read through the lyrics to the carol.
What I am going to talk about, though, is not what those gifts symbolised, but gifts. In and of themselves.
We’ve just had Christmas – I hope you were given the perfect present this year? Or perhaps you managed to think of, and find, the perfect thing to give somebody else? Or, if not this year, maybe you can remember a year when you were given, or did receive the perfect gift? It’s a great feeling, isn’t it, to receive a really well-thought-out present. As adults, we come to find out that it’s an even better feeling to give that perfect present to someone else, and see the joy on their face.
Oftentimes, what makes a gift good, is not what it cost, or how nicely it was wrapped, or even how rare it is, but the fact that there is a meaning behind the gift; that the giver has given time and thought into what would be a perfect present from that particular giver to that particular person.
Isaac’s perfect present this year was a small orange torch. His grandparents had seen how much he liked to examine and play with one at their house when he went over to stay, and so, they arranged for Father Christmas to leave one in his stocking. Don’t get me wrong, he loved his other presents, and gets a great deal of pleasure playing with them, but when he was asked which one was his best, it was the torch. It meant more to him than its value in pounds and pennies. It meant something because the giver had spent time and thought over it.
Now, I’m going to get a little bit meta. I’m going to talk about layers of meaning; the meaning of a meaning, if you like. It’s a bit complicated to explain, but I’ll try. When we look at the gifts that the magi brought, there’s an argument to say that these gifts do not necessarily mean anything because of what they symbolised, but, instead, their meaning could purely be down to the fact that they were a symbol. It doesn’t really matter whether gold symbolises kingship, or frankincense godhead, or myrrh sacrifice; what matters is that the magi felt that these gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh had meaning; that the magi had thought about what was the right gift to bring, and that act of thinking about the gift was what gave the gift worth. The creator of the universe has no need of gold, frankincense, or myrrh. The material worth of these goods means little to the one who forged them out of nothing in the first place. Equally, the symbolism of the gifts holds little sway for the one who knows all – He needs no reminding of his kingship, his deity, or his prophesied death. Instead, what does mean something to him, is the fact that people themselves value these things, and spent time in choosing a gift that spoke something of themselves, and of God. The worth to God is in the act and care taken over finding something meaningful.
Now, why am I getting so hung up over this? What’s the point in me trying to understand what makes a gift meaningful?
We’ve just had Christmas. It’s the start of a new year, when people traditionally make resolutions. I’m not going to embarrass anyone by asking who’s managed to break theirs already. I am, however, going to challenge you to start a new tradition this year. A new year’s epiphany tradition. I hope you’ll join me in it.
Following in the footsteps of the magi, I’d like to ask you to think about one thing today – what will your gift be?
What thing will you bring this year to the god born in a stable?
As I said earlier; the best gifts are not the most expensive, or those that are packaged perfectly, or even those that are rare and uncommon. The best gifts are those that we give thought to.
I’m not, then, asking you to give more money to the church (as disappointed as the PCC may be with that). I’m not asking you to come to more services here in this building. I’m not asking you to get yourself added to committee after committee and rota after rota. Perhaps you may decide that one of these things is what you want to bring to God this year, but I’d like to encourage you to think deeper. Not necessarily about what you’ll bring to St Michael’s, but what gift will you bring to God.
In another type of service at this point, I might encourage you to write your thoughts down on a small sheet of paper, and bring it up to the altar when we come to the time for communion. I’m not going to do that. But I do encourage you, once I’ve finished speaking, to take time to think of a gift that has meaning to you, and to your relationship with God – and to think about it as you approach the altar later. As I explained earlier, it is this time that we spending thinking about what gift to give that gives the gift its worth.
Perhaps you’ll bring an offering of a commitment to spend more time in prayer this year? To give more to charity in time or money? To spend some time learning more about God? To spend more time with those people you love whom God has placed in your life? To look for more opportunities to tell others about what God has done for you? Maybe, even, to spend some more time Just Being, with no distractions?
The poet Christina Rossetti asked herself the same question in her poem 'A Christmas Carol'. We know it now as the famous carol, 'In the Bleak Midwinter', with its final verse:
What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a Shepherd I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man I would do my part, —
Yet what I can I give Him, — Give my heart.
Me? This year, I’m going to bring a gift of attempting to be more creative in the ways I express my worship for God. Maybe this time next year, you can stop me to check how I’ve done.
What about you, this year, what gift will you bring?