January 8, 2012

On the Twelfth Day of Christmas

"Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh." - Matthew 2:11b

Invariably my children, at a certain age, have asked, "Why do we give presents for Christmas?"  One answer is this text, which enshrines the gifts given by the "magi" to the baby Jesus. 

One of our favorite Christmas traditions is the annual reading of Barbara Robinson's The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.  In the story, the juvenille deliquent Herdman siblings who have taken over the church Christmas play (just read it -- trust me), decide that their charity Christmas ham makes a better gift than the traditional bottles of bath salts.

My daughter -- 15 years old and no slouch when it comes to understanding Biblical theology -- said she'd have made the baby Jesus a blanket.

We could talk about the deep symbolism of gold for kings, frankincense for priests, and myrrh for burying the dead, but that's not really what my kids -- or the Herdmans -- care about.  They know there is a baby and a mommy. 

We follow the star to the stable (if you want to get technical, in Matthew, where the magi turn up, there is no stable), and we expect to see a newborn baby and a young mother, and our hearts fill, and we want to give them something.  Not something symbolic.  Something that feels real.  Practical.

Maybe it's the world in which I mostly live, the world of women and children, that inspires canned hams and crocheted throws.  But that is the world of Mary and the infant Jesus, isn't it?  Whatever we might believe to be historically true of the birth of this child, he once was a baby just like the babies we know.  He needed a blanket.  His mother needed a warm meal.

Isn't the point of the infancy narratives in part that the birth of a seemingly ordinary baby is the kick-off of God's decisive move to reconcile creation?  Think of the babies you have known -- tiny, squalling, sleeping, nursing, wetting, pooping, helpless little creatures.  Lovable, but also trying, needy, oh-so needy.  Nothing much kingly or priestly.  Hold the gold and the frankincense.

But every last one is born to die.  It's a terrible thought.  We have to protect that baby.  Wrap him!  Cradle him!  His mother too!  Bring blankets.  And hams.

I don't want myrrh.  Not for my children or your children.

God doesn't want it either.  Not for my children or your children.  Not for you or for me. 

God the Son eats the bread of suffering, so we can eat the bread of life.  He hangs naked, exposed on the cross, so we can be wrapped in the white robes of salvation. 

He receives the gold and frankincense and myrrh, even when he might prefer a cozy blanket and a ham.

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