Gifts Not to Give a Baby

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Epiphany
January 6, 2024
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: Imagine Mary's postpartum experience in scripture, reading as though it were happening today. Bethlehem would be the site of a media storm unparalleled in its history: TV cameramen in the streets, talking heads giving interviews and every social media site lighting up like Christmas trees. Think now of the parents in this story: Total strangers -- priests of another religion -- are in their home giving their child gifts that are -- to say the least -- not age appropriate.

There's a popular meme that pointedly claims that if there had been "Three Wise Women" instead of "Three Wise Men," they would have asked for directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby and brought practical gifts -- Mary might have appreciated a month's supply of Huggies, for example. They would have cleaned the stable, made a casserole and there would be peace on earth.

It's an interesting thought, and leads us to consider, again, these wise -- if not, perhaps, impractical -- men who called on the Holy Child.

You have already listened to the reading of the Gospel, so you know the broad strokes of this report published only in Matthew's gospel. Read the entire chapter to uncover a riveting, Hollywood-worthy short story with several fascinating and provocative aspects.

For example, the wise men themselves. Probably Zoroastrian priests.

Then there's a celestial component, a nova which according to the wise men is "his star" and which was seen "rising." The star also "stopped" with such precision that the entourage was able to determine the exact location of the Holy Family's residence as though the star was a satellite transmitting GPS coordinates via Google Maps.

The antagonist, the villain of this story, is King Herod, who wanted to kill the child -- whoever he was. Not knowing for sure, Herod would order what became known as the "slaughter of the innocents."

Frequently overlooked in the criticism and reviews of this peculiar little story, however, are the parents of the child, who are on the receiving end of the "homage" being paid. In fact, the only mention of a parent is in verse 11, "On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother." No reference is made to Joseph. He might have just as well been in his woodshop making a set of kitchen chairs. Except that, of course, Mary was entertaining "wise men from the East," and it is unlikely that he'd leave her alone and unchaperoned in the company of a crowd of male foreigners.1

So, there they are, the wise men, Madonna and Child and Joseph.

Consider these parents. The wife is a teenage mom. The husband might be in his 20's, but this is by no means certain. For now, they have one precocious little boy about 2 years of age and already speaking in Aramaic, their mother tongue.

They are not well-off. Were they living today in Anytown, USA, they'd likely qualify for public assistance in the form of an EBT card.2 They'd be ideal candidates for a Habitat for Humanity house. The Bible says that the wise men entered a "house." The structure is not otherwise identified, but we can be sure that it wasn't anything fancy, and certainly did not surpass in any way the other homes in the neighborhood.

So how does a young couple react to three strangers coming into their home with a story about a star rising in the East, a nova presently posted above their own house and news that their kid is gifted and talented and will someday qualify for GATE3 and TAG4 programs?

This is a lot to take in. The parents, at this point, are like deer in the headlights. What is going on here? Who are these men? Why are they here?

And then, something even more incredible happens!

The men direct their servants to start opening the treasure chests. The contents are laid out on the floor before the feet of the dazed and confused parents. Mary hands the baby to Joseph and puts her hands to her mouth -- which has opened in astonishment. These strangers are pulling out items of unbelievable wealth from their Swissgear and Crossroads roller bags: "Gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh."

Are these gifts normal people would consider giving to a child on his first or second birthday?

Did you hear that? Gold! Most people know that there are some gifts you do not give to toddlers. You avoid presents that have a lot of moving parts (especially with small parts easily swallowed), that play annoying music or are loud and inherently dangerous to mom's sanity and nothing that involves paints and brushes. And you don't give them Bitcoins. You don't give them gold.

Frankincense? Why would you give a child incense? Are you suggesting that his room smells like a cattle pen? Oh, wait! The baby Jesus was born in a stable. And what if the boy is asthmatic and doesn't have an inhaler. And if you present the mother with a 12-can box of Febreze, might you not be suggesting to the mother that her house could benefit from a little freshening up?

As for myrrh, an ointment -- it's like giving the child Vaseline or Vicks Vapor Rub.

Honestly, these are strange gifts for these seers from the East to give as an expression of honor and respect.

Or are they?

What the wise men knew

The magi had a different point of view. They didn't see poor, impoverished parents who soon would be forced to leave the country and flee to the south to save the life of their child. They didn't see a couple who needed charity. They saw a determined mother who protected her child as though she were a Guardian of the Galaxy. In some ways, she was.

The magi didn't see a child who was like all other children, who played with Legos and sticks to entertain himself. They didn't see Jesus as a boy they needed to lift from poverty and who would benefit from their largesse.

On this day we call Epiphany, the twelfth day of Christmas, January 6, they had a revelation. They saw, as do we, something eternal and majestic in this child. They knew, as only Mary knew faintly, who he was and who he was to become. So they knelt before him, as we do often in our worship today. They offered gifts that were far from what we'd call "practical." They were expensive and symbolic gifts, gifts by which they communicated to Mary that they understood her, and her child.

They laid before the Holy Family gifts of gold. By this, they signified that this child was a king, and of royal lineage.

They opened their treasure chest and produced some frankincense, also expensive, which Mary and Joseph would recognize as a perfume and an ingredient in the spices and incense used in the anointing of priests and other sacred objects in temple worship. The wise men were saying to these parents that their son was to be holy, and would be a priest of the highest order.

They gave him myrrh, a healing ointment, but also used for embalming the dead. This they gave to the toddler Jesus, and it was offered to him again mixed with wine when he was dying on the cross to help with the pain.5 After he died, Nicodemus contributed a 100-pound bag of myrrh and aloes which he and Joseph of Arimathea used to prepare the body of Jesus for burial.6

What shall we give?

On this Epiphany Sunday, the 12th day of Christmas, what shall we bring? Surely, it cannot be gold, frankincense or myrrh. Nor is it likely to be 12 drummers drumming or a partridge in a pear tree.

Start by remembering that although these gifts were given in honor of the child; they were used and dispersed by third parties -- the parents. Perhaps Joseph used the gold to help them later escape to Egypt. No one knows.

The point is that when we give gifts to Jesus today, quite obviously, third parties are involved. We should therefore give to charities which are trustworthy and whose ministry goals are laudable.

Second, it is not enough to dismiss these gift-giving gestures by saying that we will give Jesus the gift of ourselves. This is a given. To describe ourselves as Christians means, ipso facto, that we have made a commitment to align ourselves with the person and work of Jesus.

Finally, we might take a page out of Mother Teresa's notebook and try to see the face of Jesus in the faces of a homeless family, remembering that the Holy Family was itself homeless for a time. We might see Jesus in the faces of at-risk children, alienated young people or the lonely and forgotten in nursing homes.

We then can give to Jesus in a quasi-literal way when we do what we can to lift these people up. This is our strategy, one that comes from a highly respected source: Jesus himself. After all, he said, "I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me."7

You don't want to give a child a gift that is age-inappropriate, in bad taste, noisy or dangerous.

This is also true when we honor Jesus. But when we are able to see Jesus in the faces of our neighbors and the misfortunate, and when we can intervene to save them or to in some way relieve their pain, we can be sure that our gifts are not given in vain.