Probably my least favorite Christmas carol is We Three Kings. It’s such a dreary tune. If it shows up when I’m listening to Christmas music on my iPod, I hit the next button. But I can’t entirely avoid listening to the carol because we sing it every single year on the second Sunday after Christmas, somewhere in the neighborhood of January 6 – Epiphany Sunday. And inevitably, the choir and congregation sing it like a funeral dirge (sort of how we all sing Happy Birthday). But I sing along. For one thing, it’s the only carol for which I can sing harmony (a feat that is undoubtedly deeply appreciated by the person standing next to me).
Whenever I think about the three kings (who likely weren’t kings at all, but were more likely to have been scientists), I am always stopped dead in my tracks by the whole gold, frankincense and myrrh thing. The homilist always patiently explains the symbolism of the three gifts. I just always think that Mary, who was undoubtedly a gracious recipient on Baby Jesus’ behalf, probably inwardly rolled her eyes and thought, “Really, couldn’t they have just brought us some diapers?”
The significance of the so-called three kings is that they were foreigners. Perhaps Babylonians. But probably not Jewish. The point St. Matthew (the only Gospel-writer who talks about the Magi) was making, or at least I think so, is that Jesus was born not just for the Jews, but for everyone. It was an important enough event to be recognized by Jews and non-Jews alike.
I always find that interesting. Imagine you are Jewish and you and your ancestors have been treated like dirt for literally hundreds of years. The only thing that got you through it was that the Torah told you that someday a savior would come and take care of things. Make everything right. In fact, Isaiah said, “Rise up in splendor, JERUSALEM.” He didn’t say “Rise up in splendor, Every Tom, Dick, and Harry.”
So it’s no surprise that in St. Matthew’s account, he said that when King Herod heard about this baby being born, “he was greatly troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.”
But it seems significant to me that these three wise men came bearing gifts. We are all familiar with gift giving. In fact, we have thought about little else in the past few months, what with Christmas and all. We all spent astounding amounts of money on buying each other this and that. I would assume most of the gift exchanging was done with love and a generosity of spirit. We give gifts to show how much we care about others. The Magi brought gifts to show how much they cared that Christ the Savior is born.
I think it’s important to remind myself that gifts don’t necessarily have to be something on which I spend money. I can give the gift of time – visiting someone in the hospital or who lives alone, give a mom and dad a date night by babysitting their children, invite a lonely friend to dinner.
Or if all else fails, there’s always gold, frankincense and myrrh. Myrrh?