A reflection on the Gospel of Matthew (2:1-12) for the Feast of Epiphany...
A friend of a friend had a groupon for a party bus that expired the end of last year. She decided to use it for field trip for her school kids. So she loaded the bus up with 1st and 2nd graders and took off around the city to do random acts of kindness. The kids sang Christmas carols at the nursing home. They took cookies to firefighters at the local firehouse. They passed out quarters at the laundromat and left more quarters on top of the bubble gum machines at the grocery store. They bought someone's food at McDonald's.
The bus driver refused a tip at the end of the afternoon, saying "you've reminded me that there's kindness in the world. This is the best drive I've ever done." No doubt this was a transformational experience for everyone involved, most of all the children.
Three wise ones called the Magi took off one night to follow a star. They believed this star was leading them to a king, a holy child. They brought with them gifts for this holy child king – frankincense, myrrh, and gold.
Do you know why they brought frankincense, gold, and myrrh?
These were standard gifts to honor a king or deity in the ancient world: gold as a precious metal, frankincense as perfume or incense, and myrrh as anointing oil.
Frankincense is a milky white resin extracted from a plant species that thrives in the arid, cool areas of the Arabian Peninsula, East Africa and India. The trees grow to a height of 16 feet and have a papery bark.
Myrrh is a reddish resin that comes from a plant species native to northeast Africa and the adjacent areas of the Arabian Peninsula. The tree has spiny branches and grows to a modest height of 9 feet.
People in East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula have produced frankincense and myrrh for some 5,000 years. These aromatic resins were the region's most important commodity, with a trade network that reached across Africa, Asia and Europe.
Frankincense and myrrh were desired for personal, religious and medicinal use. In a time before daily bathing, people would use the sweet smoke from the resins to make themselves smell better. Egyptian women mixed the ash of frankincense into their eye shadow. These substances were also widely used in religious ceremonies and burials.
Frankincense and myrrh also had medicinal uses. Both resins were recommended for the treatment of wounds. They were also used to cure hemlock poisoning, leprosy, worms, snakebites, diarrhea, plague, scurvy and even baldness! Some think frankincense was used to treat arthritis.
The high demand for frankincense and myrrh created a booming trade in the Middle East lasting about six hundred years, until about the 4th century.
Frankincense and Myrrh were widely used at the time of Jesus’ birth and would have been considered practical gifts with many uses. The expensive resins were symbolic as well. Frankincense, which was often burned, symbolized prayer rising to the heavens like smoke, while myrrh, which was often used for burials, symbolized death. Accordingly, a mixture of wine and myrrh would be offered to Jesus during his crucifixion.[i]
Giving gold to the baby Jesus is an indication of his royalty and kingship.
So, does it make a difference to us whether the gifts given to Jesus in the story from Matthew were intended to be practical gifts for health and wellbeing or gifts of honor and prestige befitting a king?
Having just passed through the Christmas seasons what does it mean to you to give gifts? What about random gifts given to strangers like the kids who spent the day doing acts of kindness?
It’s curious to me that on Facebook there are two movements in play for these early days of 2013. One movement encourages us to be attentive to the ordinary daily things that bring us joy, for which we are grateful. And, whenever we experience something that brings us joy and gratitude we are to write it down on a slip of paper and put it in a jar. Then at the end of 2013 we are to read each slip of paper and remember all the good things that happened to us over the year.
The second movement is individuals who are paying forward random acts of gifting. To this people post a status update that says:
“For the 2013 Creative Pay-It-Forward: The first five people to comment on this status will receive from me, sometime in the next calendar year, a gift -perhaps a book, or baked goods, jewelry....something homemade - a surprise! There will likely be no warning and it will happen whenever the mood strikes me. The catch? Those five people must make the same offer in their FB status.”
Both of these ideas, along with the Gospel reading, have me thinking about the act of giving and what it means to be generous.
Next week we will send a delegation of four people to Liberia. The fact that we are doing this is startling to me. I can hardly believe it, having never before been part of a congregation and Vestry who were capable of doing such a thing. I imagine it is equally startling to many of you as well. I hope it is startling in a good way. Good in that the purpose of this trip is to consider if and how we can partner with an Episcopal Church in Monrovia to build a church school. Good that the delegation is going over in order to listen and learn about the people and the culture of Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Monrovia. Listen and learn so they can report back to the Vestry so that the Vestry can more fully consider this partnership.
As you may know, education of children, especially girls, is key to the economic growth and stability of any country, but particularly a developing country. In Liberia there are three types of schools: public, private schools owned by individuals, and private church schools. Private church schools offer the best education including scholarships for those who cannot afford the tuition. The Episcopal Diocese of Liberia has its own school system which this school will be part of.
We are able to fund this trip and perhaps a financial contribution toward the building of the school because of a generous donation given to the church in a bequest from a parishioner who died in 2008.
From a generous gift given to this parish comes the potential for us to make a real impact on a community and a difference in the world. In the meantime this delegation is going on a journey. Like the Magi who set off to bring gifts to an unknown king and found instead the humble Christ-child, so to may we find the living presence of God’s transforming love. Like gifts of frankincense, gold and myrrh, this gift just might prove to be good for our health and wellbeing and a gift fit for a king.