Friday, January 04, 2019
January 6, Epiphany: What We See #1: Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh
Isaiah 60:1-6, 26, Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12
The twelve days of Christmas are the twelve days after Christmas, ending today. The word “Epiphany” comes from the Greek word for “manifestation”. Manifestation is one kind of revelation—not a voice, but an actual physical appearance, something visible to human eyes. And the gradual manifestations of Jesus to the world are reported in our gospel lessons during these Sundays after Epiphany. So my sermon series is entitled, “What We See.” The manifestations of Jesus are treated by the gospel writers as both historical and symbolical, that is, both immediate and prophetic.
We see the magi. How many there were we are not told. The magi were officials employed by Gentile kings. They could not have made this embassy without the endorsement of the authorities they worked for. Their role in government was a combination of astrologer, philosopher, and political adviser. They studied the stars and planets because the stars and planets manifested what the Epistle to the Ephesians calls “the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places,” that is, the cosmological powers that their bosses would always want to have the endorsement of.
They saw a new star at its rising. Low in the horizon, like a planet. Much ink has been wasted on trying to identify which planet this was or what sort of celestial phenomenon—as if to substantiate the gospel. No doubt Matthew understood it as an angel who took a form that would communicate as needed. God was being generous in revelation, offering a form of revelation that went beyond the scriptures but then led the magi to the scriptures. God was offering an invitation and a sign. The sign was that the Messiah of Israel was for the Gentiles too, and the nations were invited to come to the light. St. Matthew wants you to see that the prophecy of Isaiah was being fulfilled at long last.
We see King Herod and his own wise men. Because they’re Jews, the scribes study the scriptures instead of the stars. And what they read there is bad news for Herod and for the whole city that depends on him, because Herod is not of the dynasty of David, and thus Biblically illegitimate. So they who had the scriptures are troubled by the very thing that makes the pagans glad. St. Matthew wants you to see that the people of God can be the enemy of God.
But we can also be God’s friends. The story is for us not to condemn us but to invite us and to encourage us. We can be the people of God who respond to the search of the magi with honest joy and welcome. We do that by sharing what we know of the wisdom of God. In Ephesians, St. Paul gives the people of God a mission statement: “that through the church, the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.”
"The wisdom of God in its rich variety." This is not fundamentalism. Neither is it getting the rulers to pass laws in our favor. And notice there’s no mention of the conversion of the magi. Conversion is not the goal of witness. Conversion is God’s business. Our church’s business is simply to share, to witness, and to welcome.
Getting back to the story, we don’t see Joseph, nor do we see much of Mary and the baby. St. Matthew wants us to see the three gifts. Why these particular gifts? Were they useful to the little family? They were poor, so imagine. The gold would pay for their flight to Egypt, and for a house, and for Joseph to set up shop. And as they fled through the desert, illegal immigrants avoiding places with water where the agents would be waiting, the myrrh served Mary for ointment on their dry skin. And the frankincense would give comfort to their fearful and lonely prayers.
The later tradition has explored the symbolism of the gifts, and we get that in our hymns. Gold for a king, frankincense for a priest, myrrh for a prophet, and the child will be all three. Now gold for kings and incense for priests seem obvious, but why is myrrh for prophecy? Myrrh is one of the spices used for embalming, and St. Mark reports that the women brought myrrh to Jesus’ burial. And if Jesus was killed because of what he said, of what he prophesied, and if prophets generally have so suffer, then myrrh is the symbol of the child becoming a prophet.
What St. Matthew wants you to see in these three gifts are three symbols, three physical prophecies, that together show you not only the identity of Jesus but also what the nature of his kingdom will be. Not a typical kingdom, but a kingdom tempered by sacrifice and the truth about the poor and the weak. You can see in them the Sermon on the Mount, you can see them as symbols of the Beatitudes, and the healings of the sick, and even of the cross and the tomb and the resurrection. The three gifts are physical prophecies of the witness and wisdom of the one they were given to.
But these gifts are also symbols for you and your identity. Stay with me here as I depart from the familiar tradition to get more Biblical. The tradition makes myrrh stand for grief and gloom. But in the Bible itself, myrrh is more often associated with love and joy and celebration. And sex, I might add. Myrrh is a joyful spice more often than it’s a mournful spice, and its bitterness only sharpens its pungence. Both myrrh and frankincense could be added to perfumes, but while frankincense was typically burnt, myrrh was typically mixed into creams and ointments and lotions. It was for the skin. Frankincense was for breathing but myrrh was for feeling. Frankincense was for your prayers and myrrh was for your flesh. In the Song of Solomon it’s regarded as erotic. If frankincense is what lifted you up to heaven, myrrh is what brought you down to feel your body.
Myrrh is for the body, for the skin, for the flesh. It heals the flesh and attracts you to your flesh. And that’s okay, because this infant Jesus was “the Word made flesh.” Frankincense is for your breath. It attracts you to your soul. It leads you to prayer. And that’s good, because we Homo sapiens are the animals that pray. And gold is for your arm. Gold is wealth and wealth is power. Gold means you can have what you want and you can do what you want. Gold is for your intention and your will, and it calls to your heart, which is good and also why it is dangerous.
All three gifts are precious. All three of them speak to your desires.
The desire of your skin, your flesh, your gut, your groin. For feeling, for pleasure, for holding and taking, for loving and being loved.
And the desire of your breath, of your soul and your mind, your hopes and your dreams, your aspirations, your prayers and your desire for transcendence.
And the desire of your strength, your will, what you want to have and want to do, your plans and your intentions. What you want to achieve, your contribution to the world, what difference you want to make in the world, and what you want to be known for.
All these desires are precious to you, they move you, they motivate you, they empower you, your desire to be in the world and to rise up in the world.
These desires energize your love. And yet, because of our sin, they get in the way of love. That’s from the corruption of desire, and not from the fault of desire in itself. Your desires are part of you, you need them, you cannot exist without your desires. The question is what governs them. What are your desires in service to, where are they leading you? And whom do your desires belong to?
The take home today is simple: submit your desires to the rule of this Messiah, and your desires will have their place. The process of Christian conversion is converting your desires into gifts. Not just the desires of your soul and your heart but even the desires of your flesh. Your desires are God’s gift to you, spiritual gifts, and if you treat your desires as gifts from God, with guidance from God for the use of them, you can keep your desires.
This king needs nothing from you but your faith. This kingdom taxes you only in the currency of love. If you convert your desires according the love of God and the love of your neighbor, then your desires will have their rightful place within his government. And then your desires will lead you to what those magi experienced, overwhelming joy.
Overwhelming joy! This is what you were meant for, this is the purpose of all your journey and all your burdens, to offer this gift, and the chance to make this gift gives you overwhelming joy.
Copyright © 2019, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.