At about 7:30 p.m., I’ll be preaching this homily here at First Unitarian in New Bedford. I’ve set this blog entry to appear at the same time — it’s not quite live streamed audio, but if you’re stuck at home you’ll be able to start reading this just about when the congregation in New Bedford starts hearing it.
As usual, this is a reading text, and no doubt I will ad lib and otherwise diverge from what is printed below. Please excuse any typos, as I don’t proofread reading texts of my sermons particularly well.
And merry Christmas to you and yours!
Christmas Eve Homily
I don’t know if you ever noticed, but there are two quite different stories about the birth of Jesus. On the one hand, the story in the book of Luke [Luke 2.1-21] tells us about how there was no room at the inn, and the manger, the shepherds, and the angels. The story in the book of Matthew [Matthew 1.18-21, Matthew 2.1-12], on the other hand, says nothing about a manger or a stable, and in fact calls the place where Jesus was born a “house.” But it’s Matthew who tells us about the magi, whatever “magi” might be. There are at least three other complete books that purport to tell the story of Jesus — the books of Mark, John, and Thomas — but Mark and Thomas start with Jesus as an adult, and John gives us a short and mysterious paragraph about word and God and light.
The fact of the matter is that we know precious little about the birth and early life of Jesus. It would be slightly easier for us if we said that the Bible is the literal and incontrovertible word of God: then we’d know for certain that there were angels who spoke to shepherds, and a long journey to Bethlehem, and magi from the East (whatever “magi” might be). Of course, if the Bible were the literal and incontrovertible word of God, we could ignore the contradictions and inconsistencies that occur between the different stories about birth and life of Jesus.
Since we do not take the Bible literally and incontrovertibly, at Christmas time we find ourselves in the realm of myth and enchantment; I would say, we find ourselves in the realm of poetry. A poem can be just as true as a mathematical equation, or just as true as a scientifically proven natural law; but it is true in a different way; not literally true, but true in its allusions and connections and resonances.
This year, I have been thinking about the magi, those mysterious visitors from the East. (By the way, nowhere does it say that there were only three of them.) Magi comes from the ancient Greek word “magoi,” which means astrologer or wise men. I wonder if they were actually all men, or if we just assume that they were? I wonder, if they were astrologers, did they try to predict the future life of the new baby they came to visit? –and how accurate were their predictions? I wonder where they came from in the East? –from Persia, from Baghdad, from India? I wonder what religion they followed –Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, paganism? I wonder, but there is simply no way to know for sure.
But the poetic truth of that moment when the magi finally arrive:– the star that they have been following stand directly over the house where the newborn baby lies, watched over by his mother and father — the poetry, for me, lies in this passage:
The magi “were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”
We should all kneel down to pay homage when we see a new-born baby. Any baby is a miracle: a new life that has come into being, a new bit of humanity to be loved and cherished, and to offer love in return. Every time a baby is born, the human stock of love is increased by the love contained in that tiny body. What could be more miraculous? We can offer no other response than to be overwhelmed with joy.
And then the magi open up their treasure chests, and offer gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Why did they give those three things? They gave gold because the crown of the king of Israel was fashioned from gold; and frankincense and myrrh were used in the oils for anointing kings. These astrologers seem to be predicting that Jesus would be a new king of Israel. So there is a very specific, technical meaning for the gifts the magi brought.
As with any good poetry, we can find layers of meaning. For someone living in the land of Judea in the first century Roman Empire, gold and frankincense and myrrh might have very specific meanings relating to the longing for a king, a leader, to deliver the land of Israel from Roman oppression. For us today, living in a post-Christian, globalized world, those old meanings have only a faint resonance; but we can resonate with the deeper levels of meaning in the giving of gifts.
We can understand that the magi gave gifts to that baby, because that baby represented new life and love. We can understand that we give gifts today for the same deep reason. When you or I give a gift to someone else, we are first of all acknowledging that person’s essential humanity; and although we might not express it that way, we are also extending a little bit of love to that person.
If you exchange gifts tomorrow, I hope you will think of this poetic meaning of Christmas gift-giving. To give a gift to another person is a metaphor for extending a little bit of love to that person; and so symbolically, poetically, to exchange gifts is to add to the store of the world’s love. And it isn’t necessary to give an actual physical object, you know; you can give the gift of a kind word, or a hug, or a smile, and it does the same thing.
Let me put this another way. When Jesus grew up, he taught that the most important thing in the world is to love your neighbor as yourself. This is a truth that Jesus got from his Jewish heritage, and passed on to the wider world. This is the poetic truth that is embodied in the simple act of giving gifts: to love and value other people as you would be loved and valued by them.