Three Gifts, Three Kings
January 5, 2003
On this feast of the Epiphany we recall the visit of the three wise men, sometimes called the three Kings, to the Christ child. But if you listened very carefully to the gospel that was just proclaimed, you might have discovered something rather surprising. The gospel passage (which is the only one that recounts this incident from Jesus’ life) never tells us how many wise men there were. It simply says “wise men from the East arrived one day in Jerusalem.” So if the scriptures do not tell us how many wise men there were, why is it that we all are convinced that there were three? The answer to that question is not to be found in the scriptures, but rather in the Christian imagination. Because as subsequent believers reflected upon this passage from scripture, they tried to fill in the details not given in the text. They noticed that at the end of the gospel, the Christ child is presented with three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Consequently Christians drew the conclusion: if there were three gifts, there were three wise men.
Now this is not the only possible conclusion. One of the wise men could have brought all three of the gifts. Or there could have been six or ten wise men with some bringing no gift at all. But the Christian imagination was consistent and clear: three gifts meant three wise men. I think that conclusion was guided by the Holy Spirit. If we take it seriously, we can derive three lessons from today’s gospel.
The first lesson is this: Every one of us has a gift to offer. Christians could have imagined that there were ten wise men and many of them came without bringing any gift. But they refused to accept the possibility of an empty-handed wise man. This flowed from the faith conviction that God does not create giftless people. Every person that God has made is a gifted person. Every person has something to offer. So if you’re sitting here today and saying, “I can do this and that but I really have nothing that is worthy of offering to God”, you are wrong. This story invites you to think again. If you don’t know what your gift is, find it. It is there. If you exist, you are gifted. That is simply the way that God makes people. Find your gift and claim it.
The second lesson moves in the opposite direction: No one of us has all the gifts. Christians could have imagined that one wise man gave all three gifts to the Christ child. But they rejected that possibility, because Christians know that gifts are spread throughout the community. No one of us has them all. Therefore, we should not waste our time longing over other people’s gifts. How often we do that! How often do we say, “I wish that I could be as intelligent as that person, or have that person’s sense of humor, or that person’s success, or that person’s popularity”? This story tells us, “Don’t be jealous of other people’s gifts. Claim your own gift and be satisfied.” Accept the gift that was given to you. No one has all the gifts.
The third lesson is this: Every gift is necessary; every gift is important. The three gifts of the Wise Men were meant to describe the person of Christ. Gold indicated his kingship and authority as our Lord. Frankincense, his divinity as our God. Myrrh, his suffering as our Savior. If any one of those gifts were missing, an incomplete picture of Christ would result. Therefore, each of those gifts had a purpose, and each of those gifts was necessary. In the same way, any gift which God has given to us is necessary. Each person’s gift is something that is important. It is only when every gift is used that the fullness of God’s kingdom will emerge.
Three lessons from the three gifts of the three wise men: Each person has a gift to offer. No person has all the gifts. Each gift is necessary. To these three let me add a fourth: Once you know that you are gifted, once you have located your gift and seen its importance, don’t hide it. Do not keep it for yourself. Be like the three kings and offer your gift in God’s service. Be like the three wise men and give the gift that you have received to the One who is both Messiah and Lord.
The Gift of Myrrh
January 8, 2006
Why would anyone choose to give myrrh to a baby? This is very likely what was going through Mary’s mind as the magi presented their gifts to her son. Gold? Gold is always useful, especially if your economic situation was as dire as that of the holy family. Frankincense is less desirable, but at least it could add an aroma to the air around the house. But myrrh? Myrrh was a spice used to embalm a dead body—hardly a gift to present to a newborn child. What could this exotic man from the East have been thinking to offer such a gift? Obviously he could have benefited from a shopping consultant.
Yet, even as we appreciate Mary’s perplexity, from the viewpoint of two thousand years it is obvious to us that the gifts of the magi were more symbolic than practical. If this newborn child was truly human (and everything we celebrate in this Christmas seasons attests that he was) then the wise men knew that his life would be a mixture of the three things that their gifts represented: the gold of achievement and success, the frankincense of happiness and joy, and the myrrh of suffering and death. Every human life is a mixture of these three things: success, joy, and pain. By presenting these gifts to the Christ child, the wise men were testifying that he was truly human. They were celebrating the fact that God really became one of us.
But of course there is more. Through the incarnation, Christ not only took up our humanity, but he also redefined what it is to be human. Through his life, death and resurrection, we now have the opportunity of living these three aspects of our humanity in a different and deeper way. As his disciples we can approach the achievements with humility. We can approach our joys with thanksgiving. We can approach our suffering with strength.
But, like Mary, it is the myrrh that trips us up. With God’s grace we can usually learn to be humble in our achievements and thankful in our blessings. But trying to be strong in our pain and suffering is the real challenge of life. When an evil which we cannot avoid or change enters our life, when we have to deal with the death of someone that we love, with divorce, with cancer, with the betrayal of a friend, with addiction, with a terrible mistake that has hurt others, it is possible to respond in three ways. We can respond with denial, with despair, or with acceptance.
Those who choose to respond to pain with denial try to protect themselves from the suffering by rejecting what is real. Although this might soften the pain, it does so at the cost of separating those who choose denial from the real joys and the real relationships in their life. Those who choose the way of denial will in time have to live without love, because denial suffocates what is vital and valuable in living. Those who take the approach of despair go in a different direction. They wrap themselves in their own self-pity and give up on life. They emphasize only what is wrong in their life. They ignore every possibility of hope. They distance themselves from those who love them, isolating their lives in their suffering. But there is a way of dealing with pain that is neither denial nor despair. It is possible to accept the things that we cannot change. Those who take the approach of acceptance strive to emphasize the good things that are still present in their life, the people who still love them, and try to move forward attentive to every sign of hope. It is here where Christ is most important, because with Christ there is always hope. What we have learned from this newborn child is that our God will never abandon us, that God who moved his own son beyond the cross will move us beyond our suffering to new life. For those who have faith in Christ, it is possible to accept the things we cannot change with strength. It is possible to find hope even in the shadow of death.
So who would give myrrh to a baby? A wise man. A wise man who understood that this child would give new depth to our humanity. In this child we can be humble in our achievements, thankful in our blessings, and strong in our pain. As life presents us with these three aspects of our humanity, we are called to live them out as followers of Christ.
So if you wake up tomorrow morning and find some myrrh on your doorstep, do not deny it or let it lead you to despair. Instead accept the things you cannot change with the strength and the hope that comes from the newborn King of the Jews.
Following With or Without a Star
January 4, 2009
Everything we know about the Magi is contained in the few verses that we have just read from Matthew’s gospel. They really do not give us a great deal of information. The Magi came from the east, but we don’t what country they came from. They were seeking the newborn king of the Jews, but we don’t know why they were seeking him. We are not even sure how many Magi there were. They brought three gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh. But one of them could have brought two gifts, or a group of five or six chipped in for one. So this lack of information about the Magi has spurred a great deal of thought and theories about who they were and why they came.
There is even one theory that suggests that the Magi could have been women. There is nothing in the text that precludes this possibility. But some scholars insist that this cannot be correct. They argue that the Magi could not be women. They believe this because if they were women, they would have asked for directions and arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole, and brought useful gifts like diapers, instead of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Even though we know few things about the Magi, the story of the Magi is still very important. It is an example for our own lives. The story is a story of faith, and it tells us two things about faith: that we must trust that God is leading us, and that we must trust when it seems that God is not leading us.
The Magi trusted that God was leading them. They saw in the star a sign of God’s presence and God’s direction. Now we can be sure that there were many people in their own country (whatever country that was) who thought that they were foolish for doing this. They were certainly asked, “Why are you trusting that star? There’s a whole sky full of stars. What makes you think that this one would lead you in a good direction, that this star would not lead you astray?” All very reasonable questions. But none of those questions prevented the Magi from believing that God was working through this star, directing them and guiding them to God’s purposes.
In the same way, we need to trust that God uses signs in our own lives to guide and direct us. We might sense something about a particular person that indicates we should try to know that person better, deepen the relationship. There might be some feeling within us that moves us to think, “I need to reconsider my job, and what direction I want to give in my life.” There might be an event in our life that makes us think, “I need to be more generous, more hopeful. I need to trust more and believe more, perhaps forgive more.” God can use these and any other signs as a way of directing us. And when we sense that this is what God is doing, we, like the Magi, should choose to follow.
So the first thing that is important from the Magi story is that we trust that God is leading us. The second is perhaps even more important. We must trust when it seems that God is not leading us. The Magi followed the star to Jerusalem, and there it disappeared. They gave their lives to the direction of that star, and then suddenly it was not there any longer. The trail had run cold. Abandoned and without directions in a strange city, the Magi did not panic. They consulted with Herod, they followed his instruction, and they set off for Bethlehem. In time the star reappeared, but not until they had traveled a significant distance without it.
In our lives, too, there are times where we lose direction. We begin with confidence, but then somehow lose our way. We start with clarity, but then our life becomes confused. In those moments we, like the Magi, need to continue to trust that God is with us. God is not one who begins to lead us and then abandons us. The God who sent the star is capable of continuing to lead us even without the star.
On this feast of the Epiphany, the Magi give us an example of faith. We must trust that God is leading us, and trust when it seems that God is not leading us. Even when the trail runs cold, we believe that God is faithful. God will not begin to lead and then forget us. The Magi would have never reached their destination had they not continued to trust. We, like them, should trust that God is faithful, both when the star appears and when the star disappears, both when the way is clear and when the way is confused. God remains faithful, and God will lead us to our destination. There, like the Magi, we will find salvation.
January 8, 2012
Christians are fascinated by today’s Gospel because it includes the characters of the Magi, those exotic travelers from the East. We would like to know as much as we can about the Magi, but the Gospel gives us very little information. In fact, if you listen carefully to the Gospel, you will notice that the Bible does not tell us how many Magi there were or how the Magi travelled to Bethlehem.
Christian tradition worked quickly to fill in these details. Because there were three gifts, it concluded, there must have been three Magi. Because Isaiah talks about travelers from the East riding camels, it was concluded that the Magi came to Bethlehem on those very animals. In time the tradition gave the Magi names: Balthazar, Caspar, and Melchior. Over the centuries, legends were created that expanded the exploits of the Magi further. I would like to use one such expansion as a part of this homily. It is an old story. It was first reported by the Italian explorer Marco Polo in 1298. He was told the legend while he was travelling in Persia.
In this Persian legend the Magi are different ages. Balthazar is a teenager, Caspar is in his forties, and Melchior is an old man. As the three of them follow the star and arrive at the place where Jesus is (which in this legend is a cave), they decide to enter individually. Balthazar goes in first. He finds the cave empty, except for a young boy the same age as he is. As he exits, Caspar goes in. There is nothing in the cave except for a man in his forties like him. Finally Melchior enters. All that is there is an old man.
The three Magi are discouraged. They begin to wonder if their long journey was in vain. They discuss returning to their own country. Then Melchior says, “Let’s try this one more time. This time let’s go into the cave together.” So the three Magi walk into the cave together and find the child Jesus with his mother. They prostrate themselves and offer their gifts.
Most of this legend is not in the Bible. But it expresses the biblical message rather well. The message of Epiphany—the message of the Magi—is that God’s salvation is available to all people. God is revealed not only to Jews but to Greeks, not only to people from the West but people from the East. Therefore, there is a strong biblical basis to understand the story of the Magi as a challenge to recognize our connection with all people. The love of God spans all the differences that are present in humanity. The glory of Christ bridges all of our divisions of nationality, race, politics, and economic background. We are all one, united in the love of God that comes to us in Christ.
The Persian legend of the Magi helps us to focus on a particular set of divisions. It challenges us to realize our connectedness with people of different generations. It does this by giving the Magi different ages. How easy it is for someone in their forties to look at teenagers and say, “They’re spoiled. They’re too idealistic. They have no idea of what real life is about.” How easy it is for teenagers to look at the elderly and say, “Those people are out of it. They don’t know what’s going on. They can’t even tweet!” How easy it is for old people to complain about the younger generation, “Why can’t they think and act the way we did when we were young.”
Against all of these inclinations, the story of the Magi reminds us that God’s love is not limited to any one generation. God’s glory and God’s goodness can be perceived in the experiences of every age group. We need the energy of the young, the responsibility of the middle-aged, and the wisdom of the elderly. We need to be able to see and hear God speak to us in our grandchildren, in our parents, in our sons and daughters, in friendships and relationships that we establish with people in generations other than our own. It is only together that the fullness of God’s glory can be seen.
Now, of course, we could, like the Magi in the Persian story, attempt to see Christ by ourselves. But then we run the risk that the cave will be empty—except for someone just like us, someone who thinks and acts and believes just as we do. If, however, we are willing to listen and to learn from one another, to join ourselves with those from other generations, we can enter the cave together. Doing this will increase our chances that inside we will find Jesus and be able to offer our gifts.
Speaking to Jesus
January 4, 2015
Christians have always been fascinated by the story of the Magi who come to honor the Christ child. In fact, I do not know of any other passage in the New Testament that has generated more legends in an attempt to fill out the information not present in the biblical text. One of those legends begins by suggesting that the Magi were of different ages. Caspar was the youngest, a boy in his teens, still in school. (This is why it was fortunate for him that the journey to Bethlehem took place during Christmas break.) Balthazar was a middle-aged man, married with four children, and a successful businessman in the camel trade. (This allowed him to write off the trip as a business expense.) And Melchior was a senior citizen who had just lost his wife of forty-five years in death. (He, of course, had the most difficulty getting free for the journey, because we all know you are never so busy as when you decide to retire.)
The story continues that after the Magi visited King Herod and were led to the house of Joseph in Bethlehem, they made a decision of how to proceed. They decided that before they entered as a group, they would first enter individually to introduce themselves. Young Caspar was the first to go in. When he entered the house there was no one there except a boy his age working with some carpentry tools. He introduced himself and the boys connected immediately. They shared how they loved their parents, but how their parents so seldom understood. Caspar told the boy that he had a crush on a girl in school and was building up the courage to ask her out. Both boys shared what they wanted to do in life and how they hoped to make a difference.
When Caspar came out, Balthazar went in. What he saw was a businessman like himself at a desk preparing invoices for his customers. The two men began immediately to talk shop: complaining about the difficulty of finding good employees and meeting government regulations. When they turned to their families, each told the other about their children: who was the sassy one, and who had the deepest curiosity. Finally each man shared with the other a detailed description of the woman they had married, admitting that she often drove him crazy but he knew that she was God’s greatest gift.
When Balthazar left, Melchior went in, limping a little because of his bad hip. The room was empty, except for an elderly man asleep in the corner. When he woke up, the man explained that he found an afternoon nap gave him more energy. Immediately the two began to share tips about growing older. When Melchior found out that the man had also recently lost his wife, the conversation deepened. Each man understood that strange mixture of thankfulness and loneliness that the death of their spouse brought about. Each supported the other as he admitted his fear concerning his approaching death.
When Melchior left the house the three Magi picked up their gifts and entered together. Then, just as the scripture tells us: They found the child with Mary his mother, and they prostrated themselves and did him homage. It was only on their way home that they began to realize what had happened. Each of them had seen Jesus. But God became human so that God could be present to us and speak to us at every age of our lives and in every circumstance.
So on this Epiphany day the story of the Magi suggests that when you pray, when you speak to Jesus, do not picture him as a baby in a manger, or a Savior on the cross. Picture him as yourself, as someone who knows the circumstances of your life intimately. Know him as someone who understands your dreams and your joys, your doubts and your temptations, your accomplishments and your fears. God became human to love us personally and specifically. So talk to Jesus. He already knows your life better than you do. Speak to him as a brother and as a friend, because that after all is why he became one of us.
The Ring of the Kings
January 7, 2018
The stories in the bible have been the source of many Christian traditions and customs in countries throughout the world. That certainly is true of the story of the Magi we have just heard on the Feast of the Epiphany. Epiphany is a Greek word that means to make manifest, to make visible. What we celebrate today is how our God, by taking up a human nature, made his love visible to us in our human condition.
There is an Epiphany custom in Mexico that points us to the heart of this manifestation. On the Feast of the Epiphany, Mexican Christians bake a sweet bread that they call Rosca de Reyes which means “the ring of the Kings.” It is a bread that is baked in a circle to resemble the crowns that the Kings wore when they visited the Christ Child. On top of the bread they place candied fruits, cherries, and figs to represent the jewels of the crown. It is a beautiful bread that represents to us the glory of the Epiphany, the beauty of Christ becoming one of us to be our savior. But, there is another part to this bread. Baked inside of it is a small figurine of the child Jesus. This figurine is consciously hidden in the bread because Jesus had to hide from the plot of Herod who sought to destroy him. So, this Ring of the Kings points both to the glory of the Epiphany and to its danger. It reminds us that our human nature is a mixture of both beauty and grace together with struggle and pain—all of which Christ took up as he became one of us.
Now, when the Rosca de Reyes is eaten, the person who receives the piece that has the figurine within it is considered blessed, because he or she has found the Christ Child that has been hidden in the bread. Therefore, this custom invites us to ask, “Where is the Christ Child hidden in our world today?” Christ is certainly hidden in refugees and immigrants who are displaced from their homeland. We should not forget that there are more people in our world today displaced by war, poverty and persecution than in any other time in history. Listen to this amazing fact: One out of every 113 people on the earth is a displaced person. We are called to see Christ hidden within them. We should not to dismiss their plight, but finds ways to offer them safety and hope. We can to this by contributing to refugee organizations. But we can also to work politically to see that our immigration system is one that makes America a more welcoming place to those who flee persecution.
Christ is also hidden at places closer to home: in our families, among our friends. Who are those we know are hiding because they cannot believe that they are loved? Who is hiding because they are devastated by grief or afraid of the future? We are called to see Christ hidden in them and to reach out to them in support and love.
The Feast of the Epiphany points to the glory of our human nature and also its dangers. So, as we enjoy the magic of the Magi, who come to Jesus in royal robes and offer gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, we should also remember the Christ Child who is still hidden in our world. He is hidden in those who are persecuted, forgotten, and in need. It is when we find them and offer them our love and support, that the true glory of Christ’s light can shine in our world.
January 3, 2021
We all know that the Magi brought three gifts for the Christ Child: gold, frankincense and myrrh. But have you ever wondered how the parents of Jesus reacted to those gifts? Were they pleased to receive them? Were they confused by them? Or perhaps, were they a bit miffed that these were the gifts that were given? There was, of course, no question about the value of gold. Gold has a universal importance in all times and cultures. As to frankincense, it carried some value. It was an incense used to sweeten the air. Certainly the holy family could use it profitably for as long as they had to stay in that dirty stable. But myrrh? Myrrh was an ointment used to prepare bodies for burial. I can imagine that after the magi left, Mary turned to Joseph and said, “What are we going to do with this? Myrrh is no gift of a baby.” Indeed, when the gift of myrrh was presented it seemed to carry no purpose for the Holy Family. But that changed. Years later, as Mary watched the lifeless body of her son taken down from the cross, she realized that she needed some myrrh. It took years for the real purpose of myrrh to become clear.
The same is true for us. As we live our lives, God leads us to one place and to another. God gives us one experience after another. At the time, some of the experiences that we undergo seem without value. But every experience that God gives us has a purpose, and in time that purpose will emerge.
If you have to go through a rough patch in your marriage, with arguments and counseling and constant stress, it might seem that that experience is simply a useless burden. But years later as it becomes obvious that you will have care for a dying spouse or become a minister to a family member with a fatal disease, you might find yourself strengthened. This is because your commitment has been tested, your love has been refined, and your strength has been hardened to undertake what is necessary. As we continue to deal with coronavirus, it may seem that the only advantage of isolating and limiting our freedom is to keep ourselves safe. But years from now when you walk your daughter down the isle at her marriage or you hold your great grandchild, you may realize that you love them much more deeply. This is because the isolation demanded by the virus has shown us how valuable our relationships are. If you have to go through the heartbreak of walking with a child or a family member as they deal with drug addiction, if you have had to watch your heart be pulled this way and then that, your hope built up and then crashed down, it may seem that the whole experience was just needless pain. But years later when you retire and begin to look for something to keep yourself active, you might discover that you have a real contribution to make in volunteering in a drug rehabilitation program. This is because you know firsthand the devastation that comes from addiction.
None of God’s gifts are wasted. Even when something seems to us to be without value, with time its real purpose can mature. Therefore, today we should embrace all the good gifts that are obvious in our lives and be thankful for them. But we should not dismiss those things which make no sense. We should carefully set them aside, because they too may prove a blessing when God’s time is right.