Sunday, 6 January 2019

The subversive gifts

What is in a gift? Today, we celebrate the coming of the wise men / astrologers / kings into the life of a young baby who would know nothing of the event but marvel at the stories told in the family home of the visitation. I am sure he would have marvelled at the concept of gold for the family (where is it mum?), the fragrance of frankincense being burnt in the home and being told it cane from the wise men and at family funerals the expensive myrrh being burnt for the dead or even used to help preserve granny (Matt 2.11). We are told today that the gifts represent things that are associated with the Christ; kingship, priesthood and power over life/death. I believe that if we allow ourselves to be lulled by these simple meanings we actually miss some of the deeper points that are being made by the writer. These are points that in today's world allow us to take on a new understanding about the presence of Christ in our lives in face of a society whose beliefs are at odds with the Christian ethos.

Gold is always associated with kingship. It's very essence and beauty is something that Queens, Emperors and other rulers lavishly display to show their authority. Yet, the very presence of gold amongst the wealthy and powerful should send us signals on the darker significance that gold retains. The power that is on display is power that is of the self. It is power that overrides others and demeans those with less. It is an authority that if allowed, or not, de-legitimises the others feelings, presence and self-hood. It proclaims the wealth and greatness of the individual and in some, if not all, circumstances it proclaims the right to what ever the owner wishes. So what does this tell us about the gift that is given? From what we know of Jesus the Christ's life the allure of gold was not high on his agenda. Indeed the Gospels record his rejection of such power during his forty days in the desert. Perhaps as a result of the gift given to him he was able to see beyond its allure to the greed that was displayed by those around him for such power. Perhaps, when we see the gift of gold we need to remind ourselves that the Christ's riches are not found in gold but in love and friendship that is the foundation of community.

The gifts from the wise call us to re-evaluate our thinking

Frankincense is associated intimately with the priesthood. Even today when we have services with incense a part of the church incense is frankincense. It's scent would have been redolent through out the temple during Passover and most ceremonies. It was indicative of sweet prayers ascending to God. It is mentioned in numerous places in the Bible and is seen as a symbol of the divine name (Mal. 1.11). It is a high quality resinous substance from Arabia and Somalia, which has a balsamic-spicy and lemony smell with undertones of pine. The association with ritual and spiritual things is part and parcel of our understanding of Christ the High Priest. Yet, the use of ritual and religion to manipulate has been well highlighted in recent years. It speaks of personal gain and hypocrisy rather than purity and love. Throughout history there are incidents where it is the cleric or spiritual person who is at the root of the evil in society. We can see figures like Rasputin, Jones (Jonestown massacre) and modern priests who have abused spiritual wealth and power in one form or another. The Gospel account is quite clear in Christ's rejection of the hypocrisy of the religious leaders, who hid behind the fragrance of incense. This rejection may well be a keen insight into the hidden depths of those who care for power and self rather than for the spiritual realities of God's presence. The presence of God brings joy and love not wailing and the feeling of rejection as a result of man made laws that boost the image of the priest. It is in quietness that God is found and the expression of God's love is as ubiquitous as the fragrance of incense when the other is the centre of our attention.

Myrrh is representative of death. It was used as part of the funerary rites and in the embalming of bodies. It was extremely expensive at times worth more than gold. Myrrh is an earthy smell with bitter undertones. It is considered as an associate of death as it was used in the embalming process and is likely to be the resin used on Christ's body following the crucifixion. A foretaste then of death at Christ's birth, in some respects a completion of a circle. We have both a fascination and fear of death, one of the reasons for our elaborate rituals around death and mortality. However, myrrh has many other properties including a healing function. It was well used in the ancient East and Hildegard of Bingen used it for medical purposes. This is life rather than death but then life and death are entwined. Christ would have known both and showed no fear of the latter as death is needed for new life to come into being. Neither should we fear our mortality for it is a part of substantive life. Christ brings us to new life not to death as he rejects the need for stasis and invites us to joyousness in new things as our world changes around us but retains God's love and presence in every breath we breathe.

1 comment:

Glyn Marillier said...

It was refreshing to read of Jesus as "the Christ" in this piece, Maruti; emphasising, as you do, that "Christ" is a title, not a name. Thanks, also for your reminder that the gifts have meanings for our instruction beyond the wonderment of shepherds astonished beyond all dreams of avarice: it's not their worldly extravagance but their symbolic significance that should astonish us and give us pause. There are warnings in those gifts. They're as important as as the carpenter's son's rejection of the worldly powers they could impart to anyone else possessed of such wealth.Thank you.