Let me begin by asking two questions. First, how many “wise men” or Magi visited the Baby Jesus? And second, why were the gifts that they brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh?
We tend to think that there were three because three gifts were given. But in most translations of Matthew’s Gospel, there is no mention of how many came. In Eastern tradition, the number is set at 12. And, in the manner of the time, there is no mention if there were any women or children in the entourage.
Who were the Magi? Again, we have no records to tell us who they were, and it is only in legend that three of the Magi are named.
And why were the gifts given gold, frankincense, and myrrh? Some suggest that the gold was used to finance the family’s escape from Herod into Egypt and the frankincense and myrrh represented the preparation of Jesus’ body when he died.
But Herod’s wrath that would lead to Joseph, Mary, and the Baby Jesus fleeing to Egypt did not occur until after the Magi left. And no matter how wise the Magi would have been, I don’t think they would have given materials used for the preparation of a body for burial as a birthday gift. In addition, because of their shelf life, I don’t think that the frankincense and myrrh would have lasted for thirty-some years.
It was convenient for Matthew to write his Gospel with those events in mind because he was writing some seventy years after the birth of Jesus. But many traditions, just like myths, have an element of truth in them.
Gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh were gifts present to a newborn king, whom the Magi had sought out. And after the Magi had left, Joseph could have sold the frankincense and myrrh to fund the trip to Egypt and the gold would have probably provided enough funds to allow them to settle in while Joseph found work until it was safe for the family to return to Nazareth. (In modern day terms, the Magi started a “GoFundMe’ account for the family.)
In giving Jesus their gifts, they ensured that we would have a future. I am sure that someone will point out that if the Magi had not been there, God would have seen to it that someone was there. But it was the Magi who saw the signs of Jesus’ birth and it was the Magi that sought out the newborn baby. It was their gifts that enabled the future to be what it became.
As we look into the mists of tomorrow, what future do we see? What we can see does not bode well.
The issues we face today are more than those that arise from our lack of concern for the environment. The pandemic has exposed our lack of concern for those with whom we share this planet. And it is evident that the lives of everyone on this planet are tied to the condition of this world.
We are reminded that as descendants of Adam and Eve, we have inherited the task of caring for God’s Creation. And quite honestly, it would seem we haven’t done a good job in that regard.
In 1974, the writer Ursula Le Guin wrote,
My world, my Earth is a ruin. A planet spoiled by the human species. We multiplied and fought and gobbled until there was nothing left, and then we died. We controlled neither appetite nor violence; we did not adapt. We destroyed ourselves. But we destroyed the world first.Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed (1974) (from Verse & Voice, 9/17/21)
We have seen the consequences of not caring for this world. What was the Hudson River like some twenty years ago? What was the quality of air in New York City? Even today, we are still dealing with the consequences of our thoughts that we can bury our waste or throw it into the rivers or oceans.
And we do not need the myriad reports telling us that climate change is real, for all we must do is reflect on the changes we have seen in the past few years.
Despite the claims of some, climate change is real and the result of what we, the inhabitants of this planet, have done.
Human-induced climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe.Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (August 2021)
The scientific consensus on climate change is genuine, credible, and robust. It is no wonder that those who have ideological and pecuniary motives for denying the existence of anthropogenic climate change are eager to deny the existence, extent, and legitimacy of the scientific consensus, and that these denials threaten the integrity of public science education. Likewise, it is no wonder that the integrity of public science education both demands and benefits from a vigorous assertion, explanation, and defense of the scientific consensus on climate change.Glenn Branch, Deputy Director, National Center for Science Education, Inc. in “Teaching Climate Change by Leveraging Scientific Consensus to Dispel Social Controversy”, California Journal of Science Education (https://journal.cascience.org)
What are we doing to alleviate the conditions that lead to poverty and injustice? Do we find ways to put into practice the tasks that Jesus laid before the people that day some 2000 years ago in the Nazareth synagogue? (Luke 4: 18)
I do not know what gifts you received for Christmas, but I do know what gifts you received when you opened your heart, soul, and mind to Christ. Some received the gift of teaching; others received the gift of prophesy. Some will use their gifts to heal others or find ways to encourage others. Some will use their gifts to help others through counseling and understanding. Each person will find a way to use the gifts that they received when they accepted the Presence of the Lord in our lives.
We stand at the crossroads of time. One path leads to a future of destruction and despair; the other path leads to a future of hope, renewal, and promise. How we use our gifts will decide what path we take.
Borrowing a thought from fifty years ago and with acknowledgement to Reinhold Niebuhr (I first posted this on Facebook on 18 August 2019),
Are we so deaf that we cannot hear the cries of the people, no matter who they are?
Are we so blind that we cannot see the damage we are doing to this planet, our home?
Are we so dumb that we will never learn that what we do changes the future, in ways we cannot understand?
Today, I pray that we will open our ears and hear the cries of the people. I pray that we will respond.
Today, I pray that we will open our eyes and see new ways, new roads to the future.
Today, I pray that we will open our minds and let the power of the Holy Spirit empower us to use our gifts of mind and heart to make sure that we can walk the new roads to the future.