The Surprising Gift of Bethlehem
“Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”
Whenever I read this line, I’m a little embarrassed to say, my first thought is: I sure wish someone would show up at my house with a treasure chest!
It sounds so magical, right out of a fairy tale. I can just imagine the heavy metal latch being pried open, the old hinges creaking as the lid is lifted. Inside: a luxurious velvet lining, cradles the gleaming, fragrant treasures:
gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Those, those were Jesus’ Christmas gifts.
So, what did you get for Christmas this year?
This was my first Christmas in years with gifts to unwrap waiting under a tree. You see, adults in my family just don’t really do wrapped gifts. Gift cards, checks, and mostly just the refrain: “we’re all too old for gifts anymore.” You simply age-out of gifts in my family. No fuss, no muss. Pass the bean dip. Yet, even as a child, gift-giving often seemed to be difficult for those who loved me. I think I must have seemed inscrutable to them. Too difficult to buy for, since I never fit neatly into the conventional gender and age based categories of consumer desire. I just wasn’t the sort of boy who wanted the latest heavily advertised piece of plastic.
So I got a lot of gift cards for bookstores. Which mostly made me quite happy. As long as transportation to said bookstores was forthcoming, and my time in said bookstores not too rushed.
And yet, I always had lingering questions about why the adults in my life couldn’t quite imagine their way into finding wrappable, touchable gifts for me. I always wanted a pile on Christmas, like my sister and cousins, rather than a neat stack of envelopes, plus socks and a sweater. But I always smiled, and said a polite thank you, all the while feeling a sadness I could never quite explain to myself.
Now, just to be clear and save face: I wasn’t a particularly materialistic child, nor an ungrateful one. Rather, my desire for tangible, physical gifts came, I think, from a deep desire to be known and understood, and a desire to feel myself worthy of the effort of knowing and understanding.
Because gifts help us to see ourselves, through the eyes of another.
Gifts show us what others observe about our personalities, how others comprehend our values and interests, the ways in which others read us and make sense of our uniqueness. Gifts are a mirror, or sorts.
And so, not to be given gifts, in a season full of gift-giving, can make one feel unintelligible, inscrutable, and quite unpleasantly enigmatic.
So for me, to receive a feast of wrapped gifts this year, after so long without them, was something a revelation. They were simple gifts that showed me I was seen and known and loved. Not by their grandeur, but by their understanding.
Gifts, of course, are always more than the sum of their parts. Because even the simplest of gifts can provocatively remind us of our giftedness, by revealing what others see in us. And this remembering, this return to the self, can be the greatest gift of all.
What a gift to see ourselves from beyond the confines of our own imaginations! But also, what a terror. What a profound terror.
I imagine it was a bit like this for Mary and Joseph, when the Wise Men showed up with their treasure chest full of pricey gifts.
This can’t be. For us? Really? You must be kidding! Are you sure you’ve got the right address?
The gifts the Wise Men carried with them weren’t just expensive. They were also deeply symbolic. Symbolic of Jesus’ identity and destiny. A destiny that surely would not have been comforting news to parents of a beloved newborn child. Because even though they knew that Jesus was a gift from God, I don’t think Mary and Joseph had yet comprehended all that was in store for them.
The gifts bestowed were these: gold, representing kingship; frankincense, representing priesthood; and myrrh, prefiguring death.
The angel Gabriel had told Mary, way back at the beginning: “You will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
The angel Gabriel hadn’t said anything, though, about how unusual his kingship would be, about all the trouble he’d get in, and about how young he would end up dying.
Maybe Mary and Joseph were still imagining, even as they sat around the manger in Bethlehem, that Jesus would be the kind of savior that everyone had hoped for and expected: mighty and powerful, rescuing Israel from the hands of its enemies, through military force. They could not yet imagine, that Jesus would save in a very different way. That Jesus would save—by dying.
It’s still hard for us to understand, today. We want to wait for Lent to talk about death. And yet, the Cross is always before us.
So we say things like: Jesus died for our sins.
But that’s not really quite it. It’s more something like: Jesus died to disarm the power of death.
Because then, just as now, death was the ultimate way of silencing someone, the ultimate way of shutting down
someone who imagined a different world, a better world. Death was a primary strategy for keeping the peace.
Choose a scapegoat and put him or her to death. Redemptive violence. The Gospel of humankind.
Because, in his death and resurrection, Jesus revealed that death cannot silence love. That love cannot ultimately be killed. That love always rises – again and again and again, just as it is reborn every year at Bethlehem.
And this truth is a gift. Because it bestows the gift of freedom—the gift of not having to be afraid.
Love always wins. “Fear not. I am with you always, even until the end of the age.”
And yet, freedom is also a terrible gift to inflict upon humans, revealing to us our true and full capacity to become.
Indeed: freedom means that we can and should venture forth from our webs of safety and comfort, in pursuit of far grander and more noble aspirations. Freedom means that we can and should take much larger risks, for the sake of truth, beauty, and goodness. Freedom means learning to co-exist with the anxiety provoked by possibility.
Freedom is a terrible and wonderful gift.A gift that reminds us of who we really are: finite beings shot through
with the glory of the infinite. Creatures made by God for love. A love that endlessly heals and renews the world.
A love that endlessly welcomes us. Welcomes us to join the dance of life. To dance with joyful abandon. To risk something big for something good. To live as if death has no power. The gift of Bethlehem: to live as if death has no power.
May it be so.