By Chris Saxton
Today in the Anglican tradition we celebrate the Epiphany: The day when the light of Christ was revealed to the Gentiles. Three wise men from the east minded the light and followed His star. And by its light worshiped Him and gave Him gifts. What gifts can we offer the Christ Child? As the old hymn by Christina Rossetti asks:
"What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a Shepherd I would bring a Lamb.
If I were a wise man I would do my part.
Yet what I can I give him, give him my heart…"
So, here we are in the short dark days of the winter and, in its even colder long nights. Here in the bleak midwinter of our lives, when the ground is hard as iron, comes a great light. A light to guide us. A light to warm and thaw our souls. A light that allows us to see others and to see ourselves.
"Arise, Shine. For your light has come, and the glory of the lord has risen upon you…Nations shall come to your light and Kings to the brightness of your dawn." - Isaiah 60: 1,3
And nations came. Wise men from the East were drawn to a humble place. Bearing gifts fit for a King they approach, not to a Palace but to a mean dwelling place. To a King attended not by nobles and courtiers but by shepherds and farm animals. Lying not in an ornate cradle as any king, but in a manger. And still they came, drawn by light, they came to witness and worship the light of the world come down for us.
When the magi followed this light to Bethlehem and the place wherein the child lay, they "rejoiced with exceeding great joy" as the King James Version describes it. And, when they saw Mary and the Child, they "fell down and worshiped him." " Fell down and worshiped him." I love the language of the King James Version sometimes. I know that the Translators were not working with the best or earliest Greek texts, but sometimes they get it so right…
"Fell down and worshiped him." Is this the call to us? Is this what the story is teaching us? How do we worship him today? What gifts do we offer the Christ Child? We know the gifts the magi gave to Him. And it is a magical story that like many good stories has grown in the retelling. By the 8th century, these wise men, these magi, had in our imaginations become Kings. And have developed back-stories and names. Balthazar, the youngest mage, bears frankincense and represents Africa. Caspar, middle-aged, bears gold and represents Asia. And, Melchior, the oldest, bears myrrh, and represents Europe.
"We three Kings of Orient are.
Bearing gifts we traverse afar,
Westward leading, still proceeding…"
I am sure we all remember the carol. And we remember the gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. This has become a part of the fabric of our Christmas story and we slip into its familiar rhythms without thinking about all the implications these gifts represent.
Gold…so worldly….so beautiful and malleable. A precious gift from Caspar. This is surely a gift fit for a king. A costly metal that shines like the sun is an appropriate gift for the Son of God…
We cannot help but remember how precious a gift money is to any young family. Money is always scarce with a new child in the house and I can't help but feel that Joseph was already mentally spending it on necessities as it was being presented.
Frankincense from Balthazar is the next gift. This of the three is perhaps the most appropriate. This perfume was often used to anoint newborns. It was also used as incense for consecrating a person to God’s service. It will be used in my college chapel this evening in the ordination of my friend and classmate Michael. It is a rare and expensive element. And its use by burning it to the Glory of God is well documented. The words of Psalm 141, "Let our prayers be set forth in thy sight as the incense…" are familiar and that incense would have been frankincense.
"Myrrh is mine its bitter perfume…" The third gift. Myrrh was used as an embalming ointment. A fairly grim gift for a newborn…a bit like giving a burial plot as a christening present. I can't help but feel that there must have been a rather uncomfortable silence after this gift was given. (Rolling of the eyes…"There is old uncle Melchior putting his foot in it again").
But, we can see the whole of the Gospels within this story. Jesus is consecrated in service to God and to us with the frankincense. His royalty can be seen with the gold. His death on a cross is clearly foreshadowed by the gift of myrrh. These gifts are said to represent virtue, prayer, and suffering. And, His coming again in Glory is seen in the star, the light that lightens us all.
What are the gifts we have to offer? Can we offer anything that can compare to those that the magi gave him? More important, can we offer Him any thing that can compare to gift He so freely offers us. This unreasonable and unmerited gift of Grace.
I am reminded of a story told by the actor David Niven about his early days in Hollywood. Christmas was always fraught for a young actor with limited funds and he used to take presents that were given to him by more successful actors and re-gift them to others. This did lead to some imbalances. He recalled how he gave the actress Marion Davies a lovely pair of gloves and she gave him a car.
Is this not how it is with our gifts to him? We get a car and we give Him a pair of gloves! Yes, we offer our treasure. Yes, we offer our talents. And yes, we offer our time. Well a bit, not too much. I mean we do go to church, that’s our time isn’t it? We volunteer at "Out of the Cold" programmes, that our time isn’t it? We visit house bound friends and relatives this festive season, That's our time isn’t it? We do give our time to Christ…
I have been told that the Quakers, the Society of Friends, have an expression: "Mind the Light." For them I think, this means look for the light of God, which shines in each of us. We give so little time to Him and to the Him in others compared to what we receive. We are so rushed in our modern world. Really, we have little enough time for ourselves, for others, and for Jesus. And this is where we go wrong. This is our gift to the Christ child…our time and attention. We stop, and gift ourselves to others. Give the real gift of time and awareness to others. This is the greatest gift we can give. We can mind the light. We can stop and abide with it. We can follow the light, as did the magi. The magi had to travel so far to gaze upon the face of Christ, but we can look in the eyes of all those around us to see the light of Him, in them.
Mind the Light. And this also means, mind the Light in us. We must also stop, pause, pray, and recognize the face of Christ in ourselves…the divine in us. This is the gift we must also give. Pause, pray, and be mindful of His presence. Make the gift of prayerful and attentive living, recognizing the Light that is all about, and within us. This is how we can offer our gifts. Like the magi we can "fall down and worship Him." But unlike the magi we may remain with Him for our whole lives. We may abide with Him, as He abides with us.
My book of daily meditations today points out that the magi, for all their wisdom, overlooked the one gift that the child would have genuinely loved to have: the gift of themselves and of their love.
Not our treasure, not even our talents. But, instead, we are asked to gift our time and our attention. We are asked to give our love, to follow that light. I pray we all rejoice with exceeding great joy this day of The Epiphany. Let us offer to Him the gift of ourselves and of our love. Let us see His light in the eyes of all around us...today and everyday.
I pray we all, always, Mind the Light.
Chris Saxton is in his final as an year MDiv student at Trinity College, Canada's oldest centre for theological study in the Anglican Church of Canada. Like the college he is liberal and catholic in his views, and also rather old coming to Divinity after a long career as a sommelier, and a wine educator. You can follow him on Twitter at @ckwsaxton