Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. — Matthew 2:11
A few years ago I went on retreat at a convent, and, because the guest dining room was being renovated, I was invited to take my meals with the nuns. This was a very traditional community, all black habits and plainsong. For years, the nuns had operated schools, but most of them were older now, and their main ministry was hosting people on retreat. The meals that the nuns were served were among the oddest I have ever eaten: a gathering of opposites. The main dishes were brutally simple: oatmeal, baked fish, bean soup — the food of ascetics. But at the end of the serving table was a little tray with all the recent gifts to the community: exotic jams of many colors, preserved figs, little French cheeses, even a chocolate layer cake.
It’s easy to understand how this worked: an old student would come back to visit her former teacher, and she wanted to bring a little something. But what in the world do you give a nun? Well, something to brighten the common table, a little delight you had enjoyed and wanted to share. And because these nuns were much loved, and probably also because they had a reputation for austerity, lavish, expensive foods arrived to grace every meal.
This sort of thing might have distressed a certain kind of mother superior. These women have vowed to turn their back on the lives of the world, after all. And if someone wanted to make a gift, well a nice check to repair the furnace would be a much more efficient choice, or else a stipend to spruce up the diet rather more systematically. You could buy three roasting chickens, after all, for the cost of one of those little cheeses.
But of course, it doesn’t work that way with gifts. The gifts we bring out of love, the ones that express our true joy, they often have a kind of whimsy about them. It’s a smile we really hope they will bring, not a sober calculation.
Perhaps this is part of the reason why those wise men brought such manifestly impractical gifts to the infant Christ: gold, frankincense, and myrrh; exotic gifts, rare, of precious things to be treasured and savored. Some of them might well have been converted into cash to finance that overnight flight into Egypt. But even so, I’d like to think that a few of them were set aside by the Blessed Virgin for her little boy as a reminder of that wonderful day and of the earnest kindness of those strange Eastern visitors. You don’t receive gifts like that every day.
Gold, frankincense, and myrrh—there is a bit of the fulfillment of prophecy in them. Recall Isaiah’s words from generations before: “they shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord” (Isa. 60:6) The tradition has attached symbolic meanings to them, gold for a king, frankincense for the true God, and myrrh, the spice of burial that proclaims a saving death. The hymns of Epiphany delight in telling this story.
But I think there’s a bit more than that: these are among the rarest of things, fitting presents for one who is truly unique. That passage from Isaiah is describing what it would be like when God came to reign in Jerusalem at the end of time, and each nation would bring its own distinctive gift to lay at his feet in tribute. Not suitcases of greenbacks, but the rarest and finest gifts each land could offer. My favorite Epiphany hymn gives us a sense of this:
Say, shall we yield Him, in costly devotion,
Odors of Edom and offerings divine?
Gems of the mountain and pearls of the ocean,
Myrrh from the forest, or gold from the mine?
I’d like to think that the wise men tried to choose the very finest, that they knew first-rate frankincense when they saw it, and chose out the very best grains to fill the little box that they would go and lay at the feet of the world’s true King. It was no ordinary gold they brought, but nuggets sought from distant hills.
Because what, pray tell, can you give to God? What could God ever need? It all belongs to him, as he reminded the Israelites more than once when they aimed to bribe his favor with a few extra calves on the altar of the temple at Jerusalem. “I don’t need your gifts,” He told them. “What I desire is your hearts, your lives willingly offered, your readiness to do My will.”
But of course, we are physical people, and so it makes sense to us to give something tangible as well, a sign of our deeper, unseen intention. And that all comes out just a bit more clearly in something sweet and splendid.
I have to remind myself of this regularly when I do my planning, and pore over the church’s accounts. Because, like the Holy Family, the church has bills to pay as well. And people will ask me from time to time if it might not be just the thing to have a new set of vestments or some flowers for the gardens or some obscure silver implement to use in the liturgy. And on the practical, budget-balancing side of my mind, I think: “Well, what we really need is money for fuel oil and health insurance and repainting the windowsills.” But sometimes people need to give something else, for their own growth and joy. That desire to make a church a splendid place, a jewel-box, it can be a testimony to deep love for God. “If they love him enough to want to make it beautiful,” I tell myself, “well, I expect he won’t leave us wanting for the oil bill.”
We need to give, and we should aim to give wisely. In the Church, we should manage our funds with care, and plan for the future. There is a sensible and sober side to this that comes out of an awareness that gifts are signs of sacrifice, and must be treated with respect. But dare I say that true Christian giving probably shouldn’t take itself quite so seriously, that there should be a little bit of reckless splendor somewhere in it. Because bringing frankincense to a baby, a chocolate layer cake to a nun or a beautiful candlestick to a Church, says something deep and powerful about this God of ours, who knows no measure and showers his blessings and comes to us in the weakness and purity of a laughing child.