Years ago, Billy, the eldest sibling in the comic strip “The Family Circus,” asked a question for the ages: “Why didn’t the three wise men bring baby Jesus toys?”
More recently, it’s been suggested that maybe they should have brought a couple of bales of diapers.
While most of the world gives and receives gifts on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, some traditions exchange gifts on January 5th, Twelfth Night ― the eve of the Epiphany — or on January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany, also known as Three Kings Day. As the name indicates, this is the day when tradition holds that the Magi arrived in Bethlehem with their gifts for the baby Jesus.
The best information tells us that the three kings weren’t so much kings themselves as they were teachers and instructors to the kings of Persia. They were men of holiness and wisdom, educated and skilled in philosophy, medicine and natural science, so they knew what they were doing when they placed their gifts before the son of Mary and Joseph.
“Our Finest Gifts We Bring”
First off, gold. Gold is a gift literally fit for a king. Gold was then and remains now a traditional symbol of wealth and power and value. Any time you hear someone talking about a solid gold telephone, bathroom fixtures, anything like that, you’re in the territory of the rich and famous and powerful. That one’s pretty obvious.
Frankincense is significant because it’s a gift for a priest. It’s a kind of incense — Episcopal, Catholic and some other churches still use it today to represent the prayers of the people rising to God.
So what gift could be more appropriate for the Messiah, the Son of God, who enables all creation to enter into the very presence of God?
Then there’s myrrh. The hymn ”We Three Kings” refers to one use for myrrh ― it is used to embalm the bodies of the dead. So this is a very appropriate gift for the Lamb who would offer Himself up for all the world.
But there’s more to it than that. Myrrh was used as a medicine among ancient healers — it was an antiseptic, and it eased pain of the gums and mouth. So this implies that the infant Jesus would become a healer.
And I have to add this in: Myrrh was a perfume.
Perfume is something nobody really needs, but it’s nice to have around.
Coco Chanel knew she wasn’t curing cancer or improving the efficiency of the internal combustion engine when she came up with Chanel No. 5. That wasn’t the point. Perfume just smells good and makes life a little bit better.
So it would be with Jesus. In lots of ways we really couldn’t even imagine, things were just going to be better.
Of course, the wise men weren’t the first ones to show up and worship the newborn King.
Luke says that on the night Jesus was born, the angels told the shepherds all of the information they would need to find the child: where to go, who would be there and even what the baby would be wearing.
But the wise men traveled a long way to bring their gifts to the infant Jesus. They traveled through hot days and cold nights. They were on a quest to find the Savior, guided only by the light of the star.
Where faith is concerned, the shepherds and the wise men are sort of a model of the universe. The shepherds were in the right place at the right time, and they ended up at the birthplace of the Messiah almost without even having to think about it. But the wise men had to work for it.
I don’t know about you, but I feel a lot more like one of the three kings than the shepherds. And it doesn’t have anything to do with wisdom, wealth, power or gifts. If I am going to find my place by the side of the newborn King, I am going to need help.
One thing I do know — I can’t do the business of God by myself. The Magi didn’t strike out seeking Christ’s birth star on their own — they had each other.
I need some fellow travellers to give me encouragement and help me to see the signs God has left. I need help in rejecting the false signs God has not left. I need help keeping on track to the goal God has set before us.
One for All and All for One — Kinda, Sorta, Maybe
But even though we are on a common journey, sharing a common task, the people of the Church Universal or any local congregation are not interchangeable. We are not like bees in a hive or ants in a hill. We work best together because whatever God wants from any one of us is very different from what God wants from all the rest of us.
As the Magi offered their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, it’s striking how much less valuable any one of those gifts would have been if it had been given by itself: three chests of gold, three casks of myrrh, three jars of frankincense.
That’s not inspiring. It’s just redundant.
But Jesus received them all, all at the same time, and because He did, His identity was foretold as a king, a priest, a healer, and the sacrificial lamb of God, the Messiah.
As we put away the finery of Christmas at the dawn of a new year, the Twelve Days of Christmas give us a special time to continue the celebration of the great gift of God in Christ.
For generations, centuries, even millenia, the people of God had waited for their Messiah. Now, two thousand years later, we continue to celebrate the Word become flesh in a Bethlehem manger.
Now, As Then
We recount the gracious deeds of the LORD,
the praiseworthy acts of the LORD,
because of all that the LORD has done for us.
and the great favor to the house of Israel
that he has shown us according to his mercy,
according to the abundance of his steadfast love.
For he said, “Surely they are my people,
children who will not deal falsely”;
and he became our savior
in all our distress.
It was no messenger or angel
but his presence that saves us;
in his love and in his pity he redeems us;
he lifts us up and carries us all the days of our lives.
On that first Christmas, the Magi had their gifts, and they had each other. Like them, we, too, are guided by the light of God in Christ, in the company of one another, to present our gifts before the King.
And our gifts, as were theirs, are so much better than just toys.
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