The Challenge of Gifting
The Solemnity of the Epiphany. Fr Samuel Burke reminds us that Christ saves kings and shepherds alike. (Our sermon for the Second Sunday of Christmas can be found here.)
In the run up to Christmas, you may have faced the challenge of what gifts to buy for family and friends. One often hears the lament: ‘What do you buy someone who seems to have everything?’ This ‘first-world problem’ is innocent enough on one level but on deeper reflection is rather troubling. Encouragement to buy things for ourselves and others comes on many levels. Advertising seeks to persuade us to want more and more, then discounts make such desires seem urgent, and any economist will tell you that consumer spending is vital to the health of the economy. But what have we to show for all this materialism? Judging from the newspapers: financial ruin, climatic catastrophe and endless hordes of ‘junk’. Wordsworth observed in the early nineteenth century ‘Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers’, but could he have foreseen the depths into which we would fall?
Or consider the subtly different and altogether rarer challenge that reflects a much better state of affairs: ‘what do you buy someone who seems to need nothing?’ You may be privileged to know one of those wonderful people who take little or no pleasure in the things that money can buy. They’re wonderfully detached from such superficiality. Often, their satisfaction comes from simpler more wholesome joys and are concerned with presence not presents. They live out Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s advice ‘to love people and use things, rather than to love things and use people’.
Let’s call this dilemma ‘the challenge of gifting’. It might appear to be a very twenty-first century problem, but the ultimate example was surely faced by the Magi in the first century. What gift does one bring the King of the Universe? Of course, in the Gospel, the wise men refer to the Christ child by the lesser title of ‘King of the Jews’ to Herod’s thinly-veiled horror. And yet it is clear that they regarded him as someone far greater. After all, His arrival was heralded by the star, as long foretold, and in pursuit of that star they had travelled from the East.
Though don’t know much about these mysterious figures, some wonderful traditions have evolved. In the early Church, Epiphany was second only to the Easter vigil as the time to celebrate the sacrament of baptism. Holy water from those baptisms was also then used to bless the dwellings of the faithful, and it became customary to write over the doorposts of blessed homes ‘C+M+B’ meaning ‘Christ bless this house (Christus mansionem benedicat).’ Since the three kings were also remembered at the same time, it seems that someone decided to give them names, and to use CMB as their initials – Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. And the names stuck possibly because in the sixth century the Emperor Justinian commissioned mosaics in the church of Saint Apollonare in Classe depicting three wise men with these names beneath them.
Rich though such details are, they are not essential. After all, St. Matthew gives the wise men no names, and that is perhaps telling. What he does tell us — as every child knows — is that the wise men responded to the challenging of gifting by bringing gold, frankincense and myrrh. In the First Reading Isaiah anticipated two of the gifts: gold, fit for a king, and frankincense, for the worship of God. Myrrh, an aromatic resin which was used in preparing the dead for burial, is mentioned by Isaiah a few chapters earlier (Is. 53) when he speaks about the Suffering Servant. This gift is thus a more ominous portent that the same Messiah who fulfilled all those prophecies about the coming of a glorious new divine king also fulfilled the prophecies about a Suffering Servant.
Taken together, the three gifts reveal both who this child is and what he is destined to do. We might describe them as token gifts in the best sense: they betoken or symbolise something more than their immediate use; they point us to a deeper future significance beyond any immediate utility.
You see, the Epiphany is not about the wise men whose names we don’t know for sure, nor is it even about their gifts which Jesus certainly didn’t need even if they are richly symbolic. No, the Epiphany is really about Jesus, whose name we do know and which means ‘God saves’. Jesus saves Kings as well as Shepherds, the wise and the simple, both righteous and sinners; yes, even you and me. That’s His incomparable gift to us. And Christina Rosetti memorably suggested the only fitting response:
What can I give him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would give a lamb;
If I were a wise man
I would do my part;
But what I can I give him
Give him my heart.
Image: detail of a mediaeval wall painting from the tomb of Bishop Rodrigo Díaz (d.1339) in Salamanca’s Old Cathedral, photographed by Fr Lawrence Lew OP.