"Strange Gifts For a Baby"
Monday, January 6, is designated on the Christian calendar as the Day of the Epiphany of the Lord. It's a feast day signifying the ending of the Christmas season, emphasized in some Christian circles more than others for sure, but laden with historical meaning for all of us. It has actually been an occasion of celebration by Christians longer than Christmas has been. It originally was a day set apart to focus on the birth stories, the idea of God appearing in the flesh in Jesus and of Jesus’ baptism. In our day it has become more a time of celebrating and contemplating the meaning of the wise men bringing gifts to the Christ child.
Now, there are twelve days between Christmas Day and Epiphany. For a variety of reasons these twelve days have gained a notoriety of their own and have even earned for themselves a very distinct and quite creative descriptive name - The Twelve Days of Christmas. The Twelve Days of Christmas are probably some of the most misunderstood days of the church year. The origin of The Twelve Days of Christmas is a bit too complicated for a sermon (google it and have some historical fun!). For now, we'll just note that it has to do with differences in calendar, church traditions and a variety of cultural influences. Some cultures give gifts on the day of Epiphany, like most of us do on Christmas Day. Other cultures give gifts on each of the days between Christmas and Epiphany.
The popular and traditional song The Twelve Days of Christmas was born out of this tradition of giving a gift a day. It’s believed by some that the song was written during the 16th century religious wars in England as a way to secretly teach the basics of the Christian faith to children. Although there continues to be some debate about whether this explanation is historically accurate or simply another “urban myth,” what those who hold to this explanation claim is that each of the daily gifts in the song symbolizes something important about our faith.
Very quickly: it is suggested that the “true love” mentioned in the song is a reference to God – the “me” is a reference to everyone who is a Christian – “The partridge in a pear tree” is a reference to Jesus Christ on the cross – “two turtle doves” are interpreted to be a reference to the two testaments, the old and new – “three French hens” are believed to be the three theological virtues of faith, hope and love – the intention of the “four calling birds” are to be a reference to the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – “five golden rings” a reference to the first five books of the Old Testament, the Pentateuch or Books of Law: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy – “six geese a-laying” is meant to call to mind the six days of creation that confesses God as Creator and Sustainer – “seven swans a-swimming” is believed to be used to remind us that there are seven main gifts of the Holy Spirit: prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, giving, leading, compassion – “eight maids a-milking” is believed to be a reference to the eight Beatitudes – the intent of the “nine ladies dancing” is to remind us that there are nine fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control – “ten Lord’s a-leaping” is believed to remind us that there are ten commandments – “eleven pipers piping” is believed to be a hidden reminder that there were eleven faithful disciples – and lastly, “twelve drummers drumming” is perceived to be a reference to the fact that there are twelve points in the doctrine of the Apostles’ Creed. (1)
Now, with those explanations of The Twelve Days of Christmas, both the time designated as such and the song, let me pose a question. If the song isn’t a fun way to learn something and is instead really simply about a bunch of gifts given by someone’s true love, what kind of person is this “true love?” I mean, what kind of person would give such a bunch of frivolous things to someone they love? - A partridge in a pear tree? - Two turtle doves? - Three French hens? Pretty strange gifts if you ask me. I’m just thankful that my true love hasn’t ever given me any of them!
I love O. Henry's The Gift of the Magi. The irony in the story helps to highlight the attitude that is behind authentic gift giving. The gifts Della and Jim gave each other were only strange and inappropriate because of the stupendous sacrifice the other made in order that they would be able to provide what they believed would be a treasured gift by the other. There’s no doubt that these two were each others “true love.” And it was the sacrificial nature of their gifts that is the proof of it. Their gifts to each other were useful and they would have really been appreciated if the other had not sacrificed something precious to them in order to obtain the gifts they gave. Worthless gifts, strange gifts in the final analysis but not because of any lack of trying or lack of thought or lack of planning or lack of love.
We’re dealing with gift-giving because the Gospel reading designated for the start of the Epiphany season concerns some wise men going to visit the new born Jesus bearing gifts. Now, I have to admit to you that I have always found the gifts they gave a bit strange for a baby – gold, frankincense and myrrh? What’s up with those gifts? – for a baby? They are almost as peculiar as the ones given by the true love character in The Twelve Days of Christmas song. A literal reading of the text should cause people to wonder how wise those guys really were.
Now, here’s another one of those good times to be reminded of the why and how the Bible was written. It’s important to remember that the Bible was written to tell a religious story, to help we readers better understand something’s theological or religious meaning or significance. The purpose of the Bible being written wasn’t necessarily to record history – it wasn’t written to record things as happening on this day, in this way – the facts. It was written to make memorable something about God or Jesus or the church. It was written to help us remember.
While a star may not have literally moved through the sky to guide some wise men to Bethlehem, something stirred within some people to cause some of them to leave the comfort of their homeland and set out to search for a baby. The account of the star in the story calls us to pay attention to the story – it helps us recognize that something significant is happening here.
Legends abound about the wise men. Early in the eastern tradition it was believed that there were as many as twelve wise men. A later legend reported that the wise men were kings. Another one named them and described how they looked and which gift they brought.
Contrary to the attitude of some of us Christians, referencing something as a legend or a myths does not make what they're highlighting false. Understanding a Bible story as a myth or a legend isn't dangerous to the faith – legends and myths do not negate the truth the Bible is trying to communicate. Rather, their role is to enhance the Bible story, to enable the Bible story’s truth to be better able to be heard and understood. It’s not important whether three or twelve wise men traveled to Bethlehem, whether they stopped off to have a visit with Herod or not, whether their actual gifts were gold, frankincense and myrrh or something else. Historical facts are not what is important here. The message trying to be communicated is what is. And the strange gifts for a baby are used in the story to call attention to some things the early Christian community deemed pretty important about Jesus.
Gold is regarded as the king of metals and thus it is understood to be a fit gift for a king. As far as the early church was concerned, Jesus was born to be King. To be sure, just as he was not born in a palace like other kings, he was not going to rule like them either. His Kingdom was going to be in the hearts and the minds of people rather than a portion of land - his power was going to be motivated out of love rather than might - he was going to rule from a cross, sacrificially, not a throne, politically. The gift of gold in the story is to remind us that Jesus was born to be king and is king of our lives. (2)
Frankincense was used by priests in the temple during worship and during the sacrificing services. It smelled sweet and thus masked the stench of the burning animals. The function of a priest is to open the way to God for people – they are bridge-builders between us and God. The gift of frankincense in the story is to remind us that Jesus is our high priest – that he opens the way for us to God. (3)
Myrrh was used to embalm persons in Jesus’ day. Jesus came into the world to live with us and in the end to die for us. The gift of myrrh in the story is to remind us that Jesus’ role in the great scheme of salvation is to die for us. (4)
Gold for a king, frankincense for a priest, myrrh for one who is to die – these were the gifts of the wise men. And impractical as they first appear, symbolically they add meaning for those who read the story with the eyes, the hearts and the minds of faith. Strange gifts for a baby perhaps, but not for our Lord and Savior.
Happy New Year! May your year be full of new epiphanies of God's presence in you and all those you encounter!
1 Dennis Bratcher, Christian Resource Institute, 2001.
2 William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible: The Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 1, (The Westminster Press: Philadelphia, 1958) p. 23.