At Christmas we often ask people what they would like to receive as gifts so that we can get them something they actually want. Perhaps, when you were a child trying to figure out what to get for, say, your grandparents, your mom or dad said the best gift would be something you made yourself: a drawing, or something from your school ceramics class, or ash trays—you remember ash trays?—or some little papier mache blob that was supposed to be a portrait of Grandma. And Grandma very kindly says, “Oh sweetie, this is lovely—tell me about it.” Which is her tactful way of saying, “I have no idea what this is.”
And you say, “It’s you, Grandma.” And you point to an extra big blob and say, “See? Here’s your nose.”
“Ahhh,” says Grandma, “Oh, honey, it’s very nice.” And maybe she quietly puts it away somewhere, or maybe she even puts it on display. Because what she knows is how much love there is behind this gift—her love for you, and your love for her. It doesn’t have to be the perfect gift. It’s about the love in that relationship.
I once made a hanging wall vase in a ceramics class and wrote in careful cursive “Ta-da!” across the top. I painted the whole thing blue, and it got fired in a kiln. I was so proud to have made this wall vase for my mom for Christmas, and I pictured her putting little flowers in it and hanging it up on the wall. When she opened it, she pulled me aside and said, “Is this supposed to be for your father? Does this say, ‘To Dad’?”
“No, no, it says, ‘Ta-da,’ like, you know, ‘Ta-daaaa!’” So she thanked me for it and tried to use it, but of course I had forgotten to drill a little hole in it so that you could actually hang it on a wall. And it had a rounded bottom, so it didn’t stand on its own. Best of intentions, right? But my mom, kind person that she is, probably stored it away someplace—we probably still have it.
I have carried into adulthood this idea that homemade gifts are somehow more meaningful or more sincere or more brownie points, or something. But even as an adult, I make a shirt for someone and the sleeves are too short, or I knit socks and the heels are too small. One recipient of such socks kindly insisted that she had extra-large heels. She did not have extra-large heels—I just messed up the sock pattern.
For those of us who know better than to make our presents, we may start writing up gift lists in the fall, scanning the ads to see if the perfect gifts suggest themselves. And when I say perfect, I mean the gift that will make up for all the dysfunction, all the fighting, all the lack of income, all the times you didn’t call or write, all the frustrations of the past year. And this year has certainly had its challenges. But the perfect gift will bring peace and joy. It will make everything right, and you will all live happily ever after. Of course, if you only find the less-than-perfect gift, none of that will happen. No pressure.
So you ask your loved ones what they would like. And you scan the ads to see if you can come up with something they didn’t even know they wanted. Something that will bring joy. Something that will fix everything, fill whatever holes there are in our lives and in our souls.
The marketeers see you coming. They want you to believe that their products will be the perfect gifts. Here’s what I saw in an ad for pull-out shelves: “More access. More space. More joy.” Ah, is that how you find it? Through pull-out shelves? I must admit I’ve looked at these ads for years and thought how cool it would be to have such pull-out shelves all through my kitchen and pantry, but I didn’t realize they would bring me joy. It’s the miracle of consumerism: all needs met, all joy realized by buying stuff.
We trace this tradition of gift-giving to the magi bringing gifts for the Christ Child. Imagine, for a moment, that you are Mary, and these foreigners show up at your home with their gifts for your baby. He’s too young to know what these things are—like most little ones, he’s probably more interested in playing with the box they came in. But you know what these things are. Gold, which suggests that your baby is royalty, a king. Nice, okay. Frankincense, for his role as priest. Lovely. And myrrh … to anoint his body when he is martyred. Hmm. Well, two out of three is pretty good. What was this supposed wise person thinking to bring myrrh for this baby’s body?
But these magi go on to tell you how they were overwhelmed with joy to see the star stop over your house, to know they have found the Christ Child. Overwhelmed with joy to find your baby. You, as his mother, knows that he’s the greatest baby ever born, but many mothers feel that way. To have strangers show up and pay homage to a baby as the next king and priest and martyr—that catches your attention.
These gifts of the magi are signifiers to us, the readers, of what this child will be. But really, the greatest gift in this story is the Christ himself. He is the gift to the magi, the gift they sought that changes everything. When we’re looking for the gift that will make up for dysfunctional relationships, heal all wounds, fill all the wounds in our psyches, help us to live happily ever after—or at least to be overwhelmed with joy—come join the magi on this journey to the Christ. Pay homage. Give your gifts. Be overwhelmed with joy.
Of course, not everyone who hears of the Christ Child’s birth is happy about it. Herod greets the news with fear, and when Herod is frightened, then all Jerusalem is frightened, too, because they know he’s an egotistical, irrational, paranoid, narcissistic, tyrant who might do anything to lash out. We can respond like Herod—these days with guns, throwing our power around, oppressing the less powerful in our midst, murdering those who make us uncomfortable, even if what they have in their hand is not a gun but a cell phone. When we respond with fear, the world becomes an extra fearful place. We build walls of fear around us to keep out “those people” whom we perceive as threats.
We can choose fear and oppression, brute power and hate. Or we can choose to be overwhelmed with love and joy. Which one sounds good to you? The magi in this story make bold choices. They see this star that points to something great and new that they don’t understand. Without any guarantee of success, without knowing what exactly they will find, they leave behind everything they are doing, everything they have known, and set out to seek this Christ, this new king. The journey takes them out of their own country, away from their families and the people of their own religion. No doubt they have many adventures along the way. They are committed to their quest.
And it changes them. Who knew that, after all the grit and grime of being on the road those many miles, after meeting King Herod, after finding this little baby in a simple home, they would be overwhelmed with joy? We read throughout the Bible of a punishing God who will hold us to account on the Day of Judgment, or the Creator God who calls the world into being, or the God who appears on the mountaintop to hand out commandments. Here is the Divine as infant, loving and cute, vulnerable as all get out, poor, maybe even a little colicky and in need of a fresh diaper. Here is the Divine incarnate as love in our midst. What better gift is there than that?
And the ones who seek out this gift are overwhelmed—not with guilt, or rules, or shame—but with joy. So many of us have had church experiences where we are told how bad we are, how much we fall short, how God is sending us straight to hell. This is different. This experience is something we can go on a pilgrimage to find, something to which we offer our very best gifts, whatever we have. Our whole selves. This experience of the Divine changes us. We do not go home by the road of fear and oppression. We go home by another road. Which reminds me of the poem by Robert Frost:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
(Robert Frost, “The Road not Taken,” 1916, www.robertfrost.org/the-road-not-taken.jsp. This poem is in the public domain.)
The magi take the road less traveled by, and that makes all the difference. In a photos earlier in this service you saw the magi surrounded by “caution” tape, and that seems apt. This trip is not for everyone. It is for those bold enough to risk the journey, to seek the Christ Child, and to be changed by the experience.
Take that road. Bring your very best gifts, whether they are homemade or not, whether they are perfect or not—whether the clay is too lumpy, the sleeves too short, the heels too narrow, the myrrh just not quite appropriate. Offer your gifts anyway. Pay homage with your whole being to this Divine presence in your life. Be overwhelmed with joy. Realize that you are the one receiving the greatest gift. And let that experience change the road you travel from this point on. Amen.